Video: Women lured to, then enslaved in America

  1. Closed captioning of: Women lured to, then enslaved in America

    >>> now to what investigators say is a growing problem in neighborhoods across america, women lured to the united states from latin america by the promise of jobs and a better life , only to be forced into sex work . you might be surprised to find something like that could happen where you live. nbc 's richard lui reports.

    >> reporter: from the outside, this house looks like any other in the neighborhood. but inside, prosecutors say that women and children were forced to have sex up to 40 times a day after being lure to the u.s. by am dore cortez meza, the convicted ringleader of one of the largest international sex trafficking cases ever prosecuted here. authorities say these victims were held as slaves in nearby houses. the windows boarded. there was no way out. the women we spoke with asked us not to use their real names or show their faces.

    >> translator: he beat me with a broomstick and with a closet bar. it's just not right what he did. he promised he would marry me.

    >> reporter: that's one way authorities say cortez mesa would trick his victims, at least ten in this case and there may be more. authorities don't know if they are connect bud nbc news has found reports of similar types of brothels in at least 25 states.

    >> hello, national human trafficking resource center.

    >> reporter: are anti-trafficking group polar ries calls this phenomenon latino residential brothels.

    >> the whole network spans all across the country really and it's snag i don't think many people realize.

    >> the johns are coming here. were in the cortez mesa case, authority says dozens of johns would arrive at the house every night. how much money are we talking about here?

    >> it would range between 25 and $35 per john.

    >> reporter: prosecutors say just one victim could earn the cortez mesa ring hundreds of thousands of dollars a year women wouldn't get a cent. even if you knew it was happening inside of here, you couldn't just show up. you needed a personal invitation to get through that door. you had to be latino or referred to get in. the invitation, phony business cards passed out at this shopping center . often these brothels are hard to find. even the neighbors didn't know what cortez mesa's group was doing. you any idea what was happening across the street?

    >> not a clue. not a clue.

    >> reporter: cortez mesa was recently sentenced in federal court , the charges included child sex trafficking and human smuggling .

    >> he is an animal. he is an animal that will now spend the next 40 years in jail for what he did to these women and others.

    >> reporter: women and children enslaved in america at a house next door or right down the street. richard lui , nbc news, cartersville, georgia.

Image: Richard Lui
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/26/2011 8:45:57 PM ET 2011-03-27T00:45:57

Over the past four months, NBC News Investigations has explored a world many of us thought was extinct. Women, even girls, brought here under false pretense and held as slaves, stripped of their dignity, rights and liberty. The trail took us to brothels set up in the plainest houses or apartments, hiding the abuse of people in ways few have seen. It has been a story where the more we learned, the more we realized what we didn’t know. In our editorial meetings, it was common for my editor to simply stare at me and say he did not believe what I was saying.

What’s in a name?
The  nonprofit Polaris Project has been studying various aspects of human trafficking for nine years. Its workers have seen it all. But when this latest version of the brothel surfaced, Polaris Project Executive Director Bradley Myles said it surprised even him. It also inspired him to research and codify the phenomenon—and to put a name to it.

His findings led him to coin a new term, “Latino Residential Brothels” or “LRBs,” to describe the brothels set up in average residential neighborhoods and catering specifically to Hispanic men, where women and girls are forced to have sex up to 50 times a day.  There’s no general term yet for these brothels because the phenomenon is still relatively new to law enforcement. Just giving it a name helps to bring together efforts to fight it, says Myles. “We need to build more resources and more momentum to really go after it on that national scale,” he said.

Whatever the name, police on the street know what they’re looking at when they find apartments set up for this business: small rooms, makeshift wooden walls defining the cells where women are kept, the sacks of condoms indicating the extreme number of times women and children are forced to have sex. They’re looking at a “business model” that is spreading across the nation: forced labor, untaxed cash flow, and millions of dollars in revenue.

Depite that, I’ve found very little wide reaching understanding or awareness of this phenomenon among law enforcement officers. Maybe it’s a communications issue, or perhaps it’s because budgets are being cut and many departments don’t have the resources to focus on the problem – if they even detect it.

It Can’t Be True
Authorities are often shocked when they find out what is going on in these brothels. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge told me she surprised herself when she swore during her closing statement because she was so upset.  Judge Richard Story in the case called the scheme “outrageous” conduct and said he was scared what acts the perpetrators had performed that he didn’t know about.  

I’ve reported on human trafficking in several countries over the past five years, spoken on the subject and volunteered with anti-trafficking organizations to try to understand modern slavery.  But when I heard about these brothels, I was shocked. It is the kind of story that, anytime you tell someone about it, they are amazed by the depravity, what one human can do to another.

Given how little has been written about these networks or done to stamp them out, you might assume they are new. But they aren’t.  We have found reports going back almost a quarter century and covering at least half the country.

Connecting the Dots
One question that keeps coming up: Who’s running this, if anyone? If this is organized crime, how organized is it?  There is evidence it exists in regions, such as the Atlanta hub, or the New Jersey/New York hub.  But are these brothels run by regional kingpins?  And are there major, established distribution systems that run from the Mexico-U.S. border to Canada, similar to the four or five known drug trafficking lanes? There are similarities.  For example, authorities found that a brothel in Boston used marbles as tokens for sex, just as one in Atlanta did. But while those practices are similar, the evidence doesn’t make clear if the same guiding hand is behind those and other operations.

Another way to look at these loose confederations of brothels and stash houses is as franchises.  Fast food chains have a common product and common method of selling that product, but each franchise has a different owner.  Yet consistently they are able to provide a similar experience.  These brothels are able to do the same.  In franchise systems there is somebody at the top, but the extent to which there is a central office for these sex operations is not known.

Is this just a family affair?  We were told that Amador Cortes Meza, who was sentenced March 24, 2011, for charges related to running such a brothel, may have learned the business from his father, because his father and grandfather also ran brothels like this. Detectives told me that Yolanda Aparicio in Maryland ran her own brothels and had her mother handle the money, while her brother and sister ran several of their own brothels. Her husband would drive up to a New York stash house to get new sex slaves periodically, they said.

It’s possible these owners and pimps are just entrepreneurial; responding to demand and using tools already in use. One slave handler talks to others, learns their methods and starts his business — basically learning by word of mouth. In the Cortes Meza case, for example, ringleader Amador worked with an acquaintance, Edison Wagner Rosa Tort, who ran his own brothel, to get girls and connections for his operation. 

One other theory says this is just criminal opportunism, that brothel bosses, seeing the tough laws and sizable government resources mustered to fight drug trafficking, are simply  picking an easier business model. Trafficked girls are “products” that generate cash flow over an extended period, whereas drugs are just a one-time transaction.  Experts say these Latino brothels are also harder for law enforcement to spot, and harder to prosecute – given the closed-network keeps them within a community.

  1. Enslaved in America
    1. The sex slaves next door
    2. A story both sordid and unbelievable
    3. Victims of the 'unimaginable' speak out
    4. Follow the sex slave supply chain
    5. Breaking the Latino brothel code
    6. Latino residential brothels spread nationally
    7. Complete coverage: Enslaved in America

In the U.S., many may find it hard to believe that this is happening here — in our neighborhoods — nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and a generation after the civil rights movement. But it is. It’s part of a global human trafficking industry that the  Polaris Project estimates is worth over $30 billion a year and enslaves more than 12 million people. 

If that estimate is accurate, there are more slaves now than at any other time in the history of the world.  Given U.S. history, it is tough to hear survivors of such brothels in the U.S. like “Angelica,” a victim of Cortes Meza, tell me that all she wants is to feel “libre”— or free. 

© 2013  Reprints

Explainer: Breaking the Latino brothel code

  • Here are the 10 steps common to most Latino residential brothels, according to sex trafficking and law enforcement experts. (Images: Montgomery County, MD Police Department and Department of Homeland Security Immigrations and Customs Enforcement

  • 1. Direct marketing

    Brothels ensure a steady stream of customers by advertising aggressively at bus stops, parks and other high traffic pedestrian areas.

  • 2. A nod and a wink

    After identifying qualified customers (typically Spanish-speaking males), advertisers pass out "tarjetas" — business cards with ads in Spanish for phony products and services like men's cologne or house-call manicures.  "Johns" know the ads are for sex.  "Squares" likely never give the cards a second thought.

  • 3. Reading between the lines

    Some "tarjetas" will have codes - like wings indicating a brothel that delivers.  Sometimes a call has to be placed to get the location of a brothel; other times the address is right on the card.

  • 4. Now delivering

    If delivery is an option, trusted car services are sometimes involved, with drivers taking a fee.  Sometimes employees of the brothel drive girls around. Busy brothels keep long lists of available drivers, who share the profits with the brothel owners.

  • 5. The door man

    When a "john" visits a brothel, a "door man" will ask probing questions: "Where are you from?"  "Where do you live?" "Where did you hear about us?" If the story and the accent check out, the customer he can gain entrance to the closed-network brothel.

  • 6. The sale

    Inside the brothel — usually a normal house or apartment — available girls or waiting "johns" sit on couches in a sparse living room. When a "john's" turn comes he goes to a man called a  "ticketero" and hands him money — usually $30 for 15 minutes.

  • 7. The token

    The "ticketero" gives the "john" a token (a playing card, a marble, a poker chip or a glass bead).  Girls keep the tokens to keep track of how many "johns" they see at the brothel.  Even though they keep a count, many girls are not paid.

  • 8. The selection

    Depending on the brothel, a "john" can select a girl. Often there are as few as two girls servicing as many as 50 men each in a night, so there are not always options. Ledgers are used to keep track of visits.

  • 9. Behind the curtain

    "Johns" follow girls to a room.  Often large rooms are divided up by nothing more than hanging sheets.  There is rarely anything other than a sparse bed, and products like sanitizer, lubricant, condoms and paper towels within.

  • 10. The sex act

    The "john" gives the girl the token, and the 15 minutes begin — sometimes with the turn of an egg timer.

Map: Latino residential brothels spread nationally

Data from law enforcement, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center's hot line (1-888-373-7888) and news reports indicate that "Latino Residential Brothels" — a term coined by the anti-trafficking group Polaris Project — have been uncovered in at least 25 states and Washington, D.C. This map shows call volumes to the national hot line from 2007 to 2010 and identifies states where NBC News has found evidence of brothels since 1989. Roll your cursor over states for details from cases that have surfaced there.