Fighting Crime by Raiding Brothels

It was Friday afternoon, and Tel Aviv's Old Central Bus Station was a hive of activity. Storekeepers haggled with clients; day laborers and foreign workers headed home to their apartments, in what is considered Tel Aviv's toughest neighborhood, passing drug addicts and convicts.

Not far from the stores, at the bus terminal of the old station, Yiftach region detectives sat in their white Skodas, waiting for a signal from their commander. Chief Inspector Asaf Baranes, head of the region's detective department, was waiting for word from the detectives posing as brothel customers, who were poised to knock at exactly 12 doors at exactly the same time, in an attempt to catch the prostitutes and their clients in the act.

As the doors opened, Baranes called in the waiting detectives, who raided the escort services, accompanied by border police and special patrol units. The latter arrested the women and their pimps on suspicion of engaging in prostitution, and closed down seven brothels.

The police coordinated the raid with a few goals in mind: They believe the brothel customers are directly connected to the robberies, break-ins and thefts in the area. Yiftach region police who have spent several months on the case say that dozens of East Jerusalem residents have been responsible for most of the robberies, home break-ins and car thefts in South Tel Aviv, and that these men view the old bus station brothels as necessary stops before and after their crimes. Thus, beyond shutting the brothels, the police hope the raid will have a broader effect on crime throughout the region.

In one of the holes that serves as a brothel, we found Alexandra, who emigrated a few years ago from the Commonwealth of Independent States. A few months prior, we had met her in court, after she was arrested on suspicion of robbing a foreign worker. Not a trace of her beauty remains. She is haggard, with protruding veins; her teeth ruined by drug use. She stood beside her bed in the miserable, fetid cubicle and watched as the detectives turned everything upside down, looking for drugs.

"Masrawa, the landlord we know only too well, gives them 10 packets of heroin," says Baranes. "Nine they have to sell and the other they use themselves. He controls them undisputed, keeping himself out of trouble, just sitting across from the place and notifying them if he sees us coming."

Superintendent Assi Tzur, the region's intelligence officer, believes this operation will lower the area's crime rate as a whole.

"We have no doubt that our closing the brothels and our pressure will fundamentally change crime throughout the area - robberies of foreign workers, car thefts and house break-ins," says Tzur.

Last Thursday Moshe Adari, commander of the Yiftach region, demonstrated the zero tolerance policy in his region. While on the way to his office, he heard that some policemen were chasing a car thief connected to an East Jerusalem gang, and joined his men. Adari relates that the thief was driving erratically, endangering passersby. Adari pulled out his pistol, shot the car's tire and stopped the thief.

Baranes has difficulty concealing his criticism of the "judges' leniency toward property offenders," as a police source put it. In the past month they have shut down 22 brothels, and last weekend they arrested 20 people in connection to their operation. Baranes is troubled by the possibility that in another few weeks he will meet those suspects again, back on the street.

"We are trying to improve the quality of life of people here," he says. "We cannot make any economic changes, but we can protect against property felons and physical attacks against passersby and residents."