Posted on December 22, 2008

Sex Slavery: Living the American Nightmare

Alex Johnson and Cesar Rodriguez, MSNBC, December 22, 2008


The reality is that human trafficking goes on in nearly every American city and town, said Lisette Arsuaga, director of development for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a human rights organization in Los Angeles.

“Human trafficking is well hidden,” Arsuaga said. “I consider it a huge problem.”

Her assessment is shared by authorities in Bexar County, Texas, where the Sheriff’s Office has formed a task force with Shared Hope International, an anti-slavery organization founded by former Rep. Linda Smith, D-Wash. Bexar County is considered a crossroads of the cross-border Mexican sex slave trade because two Interstate highways that crisscross the state intersect there, some 150 miles from the Mexican border.


A $9.5 billion-a-year industry

Federal officials agree that the trafficking of human beings as sex slaves is far more prevalent than is popularly understood. While saying it is difficult to pinpoint the scope of the industry, given its shadowy nature, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials estimated that it likely generates more than $9.5 billion a year.

Last year alone, the FBI opened more than 225 human trafficking investigations in the United States. Figures for 2008 are not yet available, but in a coordinated nationwide sweep in July, federal, state and local authorities made more than 640 arrests and rescued 47 children in just three days.


Most cases involve “international persons trafficked to the United States from other countries,” who are generally less aware of their rights, probably do not speak English and are frightened to go to the authorities, he said. “Victims are often lured with false promises of good jobs and better lives and are then forced to work in the sex industry.”

While an increasing number of young men and boys are being forced into the commercial sex industry, more than 80 percent of victims are women and girls, the State Department estimated this year. Of those, 70 percent are forced into prostitution, stripping, pornography or mail-order marriage.

That allegedly was the case with the L.A. Madam [Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez] ring.

Prosecutors said in court documents that the Vasquez sold Guatemalan women and girls to one another like slaves for several years. Ring members also would try to keep them in line by taking them to witch doctors who threatened to put curses on them and their families if they ran away, the prosecution said.


“These young women were enticed into coming to this country by promises of the American dream, only to arrive and discover that what awaited was a nightmare,” said Robert Schoch, an ICE special agent.

A modern-day form of slavery

Less publicized cases reveal ordeals just as horrific.

In August, three owners and operators of Asian massage parlors in Johnson County, Kansas, near Kansas City, pleaded guilty to human trafficking of women they recruited from China and forced into prostitution.

Charging documents said the defendants, all Chinese nationals, arranged the women’s travel, meeting them at the Kansas City, Mo., airport and driving them directly to one of two massage parlors they operated in Overland Park. {snip}


Last month, police in Nashville, Tenn., arrested two men and charged them with holding a young Mexican woman as a sex slave, driving her across Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, where she was forced to engage in prostitution with as many as seven men a day, court records said.


Beatings, rapes and forced abortions

In New York, meanwhile, Consuelo Carreto Valencia, a 4-foot-10, 61-year-old grandmother, pleaded guilty in July to smuggling dozens of women from Mexico and violently coercing them to perform sex acts.

Prosecutors said that Valencia was the matriarch of an extensive prostitution ring based in Mexico. The victims were compelled to perform sex acts 12 hours a day and were subjected to beatings, rape and forced abortions, they said.


Cases hard to build

But law enforcement officials say that such successes are relatively rare. Often, victims are too frightened to cooperate with investigators, and when they are willing to help, they often speak little or no English, making it problematic to present cases that commonly rest on one person’s word against that of another.


Catching ringleaders in the act is particularly difficult, said Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Valerie Wurster.

“We don’t find people who are chained to beds,” Wurster said. “What we’re finding is people who are very frightened, who don’t have resources locally, being managed by someone who is telling them things that aren’t very true about the environment that they’re living in.”