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A story both sordid and unbelievable

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.
/ Source: NBC News

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.

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.