Bulgarian prostitute death exposes ruthless Albanian pimps
PARIS – On Nov. 22, 1999, the corpse of a young woman was found on an industrial site. The woman, a 19 year-old Bulgarian prostitute, had been stabbed more than 20 times. The French media dedicated several articles on the murder and called the victim by its real name: Ginka.
At the time, the French police only investigated the murder and, once the murderer was sentenced, closed the case without ever investigating the criminal network that exploited Ginka. A French journalist and a ditto movie director did. Their 20 year-long quest took them from France to Belgium, Germany, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and, finally, Albania.
In Western Europe, girls like Ginka are disdainfully called “Eastern Girls”. Around 1995, girls from Eastern Europe invaded the avenues of the capitals and major cities of Western Europe. Like Ginka, these girls were born in Communism and raised in its aftermath.
Up until then, in Paris, as in most other cities, street prostitution used to be limited to very specific areas at very specific times of the day. Yet, the East European criminal networks revolutionised the scene: they put their girls on traffic arteries. The girls worked in shifts. While some girls were on display, others waited their turn around the corner. They wore wigs and changed clothes in between tricks in order to give clients the impression that a multitude of girls was available. But most all, their bottom-rock prices undercut local competitors.
Right after the Fall of Communism, the average purchasing power in Germany was 8 times higher than in neighbouring and former-Communist Czech Republic. Overnight, the E-55 road from Dresden to Prague became the world’s largest open-air brothel. Western men looked for poor East European girls who were deprived of healthcare, social security,… The networks soon realised that real business was not selling white flesh at local rates in Zlotys or Korunas, but at West-European rates in Pound Sterling, Deutsch Mark or French francs.
SOFIA – In December, around midnight, more than a dozen girls are working on a busy ring road. Apparently, they enjoy talking to foreigners which they can charge the same tariff as locals, but in Euros. One speaks Italian. She says she used to work in Bari and for a while in France. Another one has been working in Hamburg and speaks German. A third one speaks English. She once worked in Cyprus and loved it. Now she lives in the most deprived part of Fakulteta, Europe’s largest slum. All three girls are fluent in their second language. On an online forum, West European punters complain that there are no top-notch girls in Eastern Europe because they are all working in Western Europe.
The criminal networks operate like genuine multinationals. They shift their girls from one country to another. In 2015, a French police investigation revealed that pimps in Bucharest traded stretches of pavement in the north of France.
When in 2012 the Spanish police arrested a Romanian pimp nicknamed “cabeza de cerdo” (pig’s head), they discovered he had forced 2.000 girls to work for him.
Ginka was buried in a mass grave in the outskirts of Paris. Two years later, the Scelles foundation, a Paris-based organisation that fights sexual exploitation, assumed the cost for the parents to visit the grave and to repatriate Ginka’s remains.
The French journalist visited Ginka’s family. He got hold of Ginka’s diary and learned Ginka had a lover: an Albanian man called Armando.
He took her to a hotel in Italy –taking a girl to a hotel on the Italian coast is common practice among Albanian pimps. In Italy, for about a week, the couple had lived something like a honeymoon. This was life the Western way. Gone would be the post-Communist drabness. Armando promised Ginka heaven; life would be like this. Only, he had a problem with the police. She would have to earn the money to make their dream come true. Armando sent her first to Germany and then to Belgium.
BRUSSELS – Ginka worked in a bar on rue d’Aerschot, a street along the railway tracks that counts 57 neon-lit bars. At the time, Albanian clans ran the scene. Still today most of the girls are from Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest Member State. Prostitution is like any other industry: production takes place where labour and resources are cheap; consumption, where the purchasing power is high.
Ginka’s diary reveals that, both in Brussels and in Paris, there was always an older, more experienced girl with her. Ginka did not realise, however, that this Albanian girl was to control her every movement.
SEINE SAINT-DENIS – On a cold February afternoon, just before dawn, a girl is wandering on a square of a deprived neighbourhood in the outskirts of Paris. She is short, has a pale skin and blond hair. She wears black jeans and ditto ski boots and a white winter jacket. Grim-faced and wearing a woollen hat, she looks like a bad-tempered gnome. On a bench sits a young man. Between his feet stand a small bottle of vodka and a can of Red Bull. As he is scrolling through pictures on his smartphone, he now and then shouts something in Rumanian at the girl. Mostly after she has approached a man and the man refused her proposal.
Then a tall African man approaches her. They leave the square. Barely seven minutes later, the girl reappears. She walks over to the young man. He tells her to go to a shop and buy a telephone card.
Like a trained dog, the girl walks to the shop. Meanwhile, two men arrive at the square. The pimp joins them. While they are talking, the young man simulates a fight he got into.
Because of its scale and visibility and the exploitation and the violence that came along with the trafficking, European countries changed their views on prostitution. It became a debate between abolitionists versus libertines. Whereas the so-called Swedish model punishes the client, the German model legalises prostitution. In April 2016, France adopted the Swedish model.
Last month, French Parliament evaluated and confirmed its law on prostitution. Nine associations had claimed the law infringed on the rights of the prostitutes, in addition to reducing their income and forcing them to work in more dangerous circumstances and locations. Ironically, just as the abolitionists had used the killing of GInka to justify the law, the associations now used the recent killing of a prostitute, who had been working in an unsecure place, to abolish the law. According to these associations, the law would only reduce street prostitution in favour of other types of prostitution.
Contrary to common belief, most prostitution is invisible -- hotels, apartments, massage saloons, private clubs, bars, and the internet. In Brussels, street and window prostitution make up only20 percent of total prostitution. The French abolitionary “Mouvement du Nid” association estimates 62 percent of prostitution to be organised on the Internet. Of all working girls, streetwalkers are the more deprived. Contrary to upscale escorts, masseuses and students, girls who work the streets lack financial resources, social connections and/or education.
In Seine Saint-Denis, towards midday, a young girl arrives at the café. She is plump, has fair skin and dresses entirely black. An older Roumanian woman I know from an article I wrote on the city’s shantytowns introduced me to the girl, who is also Roumanian. Inside the café, the bar also serves as a hotel desk. The room costs 30 euros. The Arab owner copies the girl’s passport and takes the money. He also rents trailers for the girls to live in.
The behind of the café is a patio where laundry hangs drying. It is a three-story tall building. Mainly single women live here. In 2011, the hotel figured in a police investigation on a Roumanian network that operated from Ireland. I had noticed a sports car with UK license plates in front of the café. The dealership that had sold the car was in Galway.
The room on the second floor has a double bed, a small table, and one chair. An improvised hand basin stands in the corner. Through the room’s single window, I can spot the Roumanian woman waiting on the corner of the main street. The girl sits on the bed and lights a cigarette. She says she is 26 and that she arrived in France three months ago. A fresh scar runs from the corner of her mouth to almost her ear. One night, an Arab man cut her with a knife when she refused him for a client. She usually works at night in the suburbs. “France … la merde,” she says. “La merde. La merde.”
When we leave the café, I explain to the girl that I had already paid the woman and that she should not give her a penny of the money I had given her.
Since France’s 2016 law on prostitution, many cars with French license plates are cruising along Brussels’ rue d’Aerschot. In the cafés that stand in between the neon-lit bars, beefy men with shaven heads are checking their smartphones. Expensive cars with Roumanian or Bulgarian license plates stand parked in the back-alleys. Romanian and Bulgarian networks are overtaking the scene: they use “dames de compagnie,” former prostitutes who pocket the girls’ receipts so that the link with the pimps cannot be proven.
Blue-white ribbons seal nine bars: “Cet établissement est fermé suite à une procédure judiciaire.”
Girls are trafficked from one network to another. As a girl becomes more experienced and moves towards the North of Europe, she becomes more expensive. Whereas on the roads of Campania a girl charges 20 euros for a trick, in Brussels, she can charge 50 euros for a stop-watched 15 minutes.
The rent of a window is more than 200 euros a day. Each bar has at least two windows. There are three shifts a day.
On the door of number 150 sticks a building permit. The property’s owner is Albanian. It turns out he owns a barbershop in the adjacent neighbourhood.
Down the road another permit mentions a Bulgarian. His address houses a small building company -in the EU, builders and prostitutes often share the same country of origin.
The French duo finally tracked down Armando, Ginka’s pimp, in Berat, Albania. At the turn of the century, more than 2.000 women from this little town were working as prostitutes abroad. The duo met Armando on an afternoon in a discotheque. Armando turned out to be a 30-something family man. In Italian, he explained that he is a “businessman” who travels a lot, “mainly to Italy and Germany.” When the journalist informed him that Ginka had a child, the man denied he had known her well: “I was just a one-time client of hers.” The encounter abruptly ends when a young man hands the journalist a mobile phone: the city’s police commander orders the duo to leave town ASAP.
In October 2011, a punter posted a comment on the spot where more than a decade earlier Ginka had been murdered: “It was chilly and some girls weren’t embarrassed to light a fire using the fallen autumn leaves … Coming back a last time, around 2 a.m., there was nobody.” Actually, there was: two Romanian girls had positioned themselves at the high end of the MacDonald Boulevard. One of them -truly shocking- was at the very most 15. Her pink pullover, jeans and sneakers didn’t help. I approached the twosome and inquired about the younger girl’s age. Nineteen, said the elder. Today, the spot no longer is a wasteland. It has become part of the adult theme park Paris is becoming. Girls the age of the former prostitutes now alight at the brand new tramway stop to go horse riding in the adjacent riding school.
The neighbourhood at the other side of Brussels’ railway station is notorious for its street prostitution. In a bar that is owned by Turkish Bulgarians, bartender Diana* has been working in this neighbourhood for almost 20 years, mostly as a prostitute. Last year, she returned for the first time to Bulgaria. Her children, a boy and a girl who are almost adults themselves, did not want to meet her. Nikoleta*, who works the Brussels streets for more than a decade, has lost contact with her child.
Lately, she hooked up with an African man. He wanted to take her to Paris, but it turned out he was married. Recently, a large property developer has set up shop in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood’s gentrification renders working ever more difficult. Nikoleta now intends to go on her own to Paris.
* all names have been changed