When FBI and immigration agents arrested a 28-year-old Guatemalan woman three months ago in Los Angeles, they announced that they had shut down one of the most elaborate sex trafficking rings in the country. It was also the family business.
The woman, Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez, was the sixth member of her family to be rounded up in the two-year multi-agency investigation. Vasquez, five of her relatives and three other Guatemalan nationals were charged with 50 counts, alleging that they lured at least a dozen young women — including five minors as young as 13 years old — to the United States with promises of good jobs, only to put them to work as prostitutes. All remain in custody as investigators attempt to unravel the complex case.
Vasquez — quickly dubbed the “L.A. Madam” — attracted attention because she had been featured on the fugitive-hunting television program “America’s Most Wanted.” But it was one of only a few such cases to be spotlighted by national media, contributing to the false impression that cases of immigrant sex trafficking are isolated incidents, law enforcement officials and advocates for immigrants say.
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.
“I could go to a truck stop in South Texas right now and get on a CB radio and ask for some sweet stuff, and someone’s going to come out and offer something to sell,” Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Burchell said.
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.
In congressional testimony this year, FBI Director Robert Mueller called sex trafficking “a significant and persistent problem in the U.S. and around the world.”
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.
Prosecutors said in court documents that the Vasquez ring 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.
In one incident, three of the defendants repeatedly kicked and hit one of the victims to punish her for trying to escape, the documents allege.
“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. There, the women were forced to work from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week performing “sexual services on male patrons in exchange for money.”
Occasionally, one of the women would be sent to a nearby apartment to provide “extended sexual services,” prosecutors said. Otherwise, they lived in the massage parlors, monitored 24 hours a day by surveillance cameras.
The case made it clear that “human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery that reaches from the other side of the globe to the suburban Midwest,” U.S. Attorney John F. Wood said.
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.
Investigators alleged that the woman, 22, was tortured, stabbed and cut with an ice pick to ensure her obedience. They said the men also threatened to kill her family in Mexico and her sister in Atlanta if she did not follow their orders.
“The account given by this woman is very, very disturbing,” said Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Nashville police.
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.
Valencia agreed to the guilty plea after her attorney, John S. Wallenstein, told her she could go to prison for life if she were convicted on all counts.
“I said the jurors are going to want to jump out of the jury box and tear you to pieces,” Wallenstein was quoted as saying.
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.
“We have cases come up all the time, but no one really knows about it because Hispanic illegal immigrants fear being deported,” said Sara Sherman, an anti-slavery activist with Free For Life Ministries in Nashville.
Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Bickford, coordinator of the Human Trafficking Task Force in Multnomah County, Ore., said “The girls need help,” but he said they are “so difficult to deal with that we don’t have anyone trained to deal with them.”
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.”
Federal authorities said that because the victims of sex slavery are captive and cannot come forward, they need more help from the public.
The Justice Department maintains a human trafficking hotline at 1-888-428-7581, but there is a great deal of work left to do, said Carmen Pitre, executive director of the Task Force on Family Violence, an agency that supports victims of trafficking in Milwaukee.
“We’ve come to learn that cases of trafficking are all around us in plain sight,” Pitre said. “Today, you can buy a human being for $200 in any major city in the world.”