When immigration agents raided the nondescript house in a quiet Atlanta neighborhood, the officers found slave quarters: 6-by-8 cold, uninsulated closets where young women were expected to have sex with 30 or 40 different men every night. The girls were beaten regularly. They could not leave the premises or make contact with anyone without permission.
And then the agents, searching amidst filth, used condoms and stained mattresses, found the notebooks.
Their covers bore Disney pictures -- Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella -- emblems of shattered dreams and a brutal loss of innocence.
A reporter’s first question: Who did this?
“As a woman, he is your first love, your first boyfriend, you want to make your life with this person who is going to treat you well,” said Fernanda.
That “first love” lured her across the border and into a life of slavery, she said.
Fernanda (like other victims in this article, this is not her real name) was one of 10 girls and women who testified against Amador Cortes-Mesa, a 36-year-old Mexican who was sentenced March 24 in Atlanta to 40 years in federal prison for sex trafficking and human smuggling offenses, among other violent charges. Four of the victims were juveniles. The youngest was 14.
“He told me he was going to marry me, he told me he was going to bring me to the States so I could work at a restaurant or take care of kids,” added Fernanda. “But that never happened.”
“Mr. Cortes-Mesa began in Mexico with dating the girls, telling them he was going to be their boyfriend. In many cases he was their first boyfriend. They never had a sexual experience before him,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge, who successfully prosecuted the case against Cortes-Mesa and several relatives.
“One victim testified she didn’t even know what prostitution was until he told her about it,” added Coppedge. “It is taking someone’s civil rights away from them, it is modern-day slavery.”
Cristina, 29, was 24 when she was also courted by Cortes-Mesa with promises of marriage and a better life in the United States. Instead she was forced into prostitution and subjected to beatings when she displeased him.
“I have scars on my arms and legs, the scars don’t hurt but they will never go away,” said Cristina, who comes from a rural part of Mexico where her family subsists by picking corn and beans. “My head injuries, they still hurt, and I feel it when it’s hot and when it’s cold.”
Days — and years — in hell
“I would be the kind of person that would cower – I wouldn’t even answer when someone talked to me,” recalled Cristina.
The women were shuttled among brothels to avoid detection. They were never left alone.
“I could never talk to my mother alone,” Elena, another victim, said in court. “He (Cortes-Mesa) would beat me in the stomach if I said anything to my mother.”
“He would put the condoms in my purse, and count how many men I had to have sex with, 25, 35, or 40.”
The woman added that Cortes-Mesa never seemed to work. He spent the day playing cards with his relatives.
Cortes-Mesa did not limit himself to young women of “marrying age.” One of the more sordid aspects of human trafficking is the vast number of children who are in the sex trafficking brothels.
“I lost the most important years of my life,” Caterina recalled bitterly, saying she was 15 when Cortes-Mesa ensnared her.
A few years later, the young woman is still grappling with the trauma of her enslavement. “I don’t trust no one. I don’t believe anymore. My personality is not the same,” she said at Cortes-Mesa’s sentencing.
“They’ve created this well-oiled machine that’s doing this and churning women and children through this kind of assembly line,” said Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, a nonprofit created to combat trafficking and aid the victims.
Survivors caution others
The women interviewed after the Cortes-Mesa sentencing said they were not bitter, nor did they want vengeance. “When I saw him in court, I did not think of doing anything with my own hands,” said Cristina.
Instead, the women focused on cautioning others, especially immigrants, on avoiding the “trap” of lies used by human traffickers.
“I would tell people in Mexico and also here in the United States to be very careful and not to let their kids go with anyone because so many people want to hurt you,” said Cristina. “If they say they can help them come to the United States, don’t trust them.”
Fernanda echoed that message, saying, “I would recommend to girls, don’t go with a guy from the first instance because you don’t really know them, and these men just want to exploit women, they want women to work for them.”
Surviving slavery, moving on
With the help of local human rights groups and the federal agencies that rescued them, Cortes-Mesa’s victims are moving on. One woman now works in the hospitality industry, the other in a food processing plant.
And they are grateful for the little things. “I can talk to my family whenever I want,” says one victim.
Angelica, another woman rescued from Cortes-Mesa’s brothel, said, “I had it really tough, but it’s better late than never, to start with a better life, with different jobs, to study God willing, and well, to go on with life.
“Just because he did all these things doesn’t mean I am not going to better myself – I have to better myself.”
“When it all ends I might go back with my family,” said Cristina. “Like I said to the judge in court, I actually have been waiting to see what was going to happen. I was just waiting to make sure justice was done.”
After Cortes-Mesa’s sentencing, the women hugged the ICE agents and prosecutors and left the courtroom, heading for something better and leaving behind what prosecutors called “the unimaginable.”