MARTA AND LUISA had always fantasized about leaving their small town in northern Mexico to become dancers in a big city.
As the teenage sisters sat in the bed of a rusted pickup truck speeding toward the U.S. border, they thought their dreams would soon become reality. After sunset, the truck screeched to an abrupt stop. A middle-aged man with a skeleton tattoo on his arm hopped out of the driver’s seat, gritted his yellow teeth, and mumbled, “Vamos.” The time had come to complete the journey by foot.
Marta and Luisa walked closely behind the man and his two associates for hours along the desert paths they believed led to a brighter future. When they crossed the border into Arizona at about midnight, the tattooed man forcefully grabbed 16-year-old Marta and separated her from her older sister.
He explained that although he previously offered to help the girls cross the border for a small fee, the transportation cost had risen. Now Marta would have to work to pay off her debt. Alone.
Cecilia Hilton Gomez, director of Hispanic outreach programs for Free for Life International, describes the way that many human traffickers prey on vulnerable girls hoping to emigrate to the United States from Mexico and other parts of Central America. Since girls like Marta often have little education, lack formal paperwork, and have no knowledge of English, they become prime targets for traffickers looking to profit by selling women to brothel owners in the U.S.
“This is an epidemic, and it’s increasing,” Gomez states. “A lot of people think slavery has been gone for years, but it’s one of the largest criminal enterprises that exists now, and it’s right here in America.”
A soft-spoken, slender Argentine woman, Gomez spends her days passionately advocating against these crimes while assisting exploited Latinas in the path to recovery. As a nonprofit organization, Free for Life International seeks to rescue and restore victims of human trafficking by monitoring border stations, providing shelter, offering counseling, and giving scholarships to young women who escape forced prostitution.
Since the organization began in 2005, about 294 girls have been rescued and 25 safe houses have been opened in Nepal, Nicaragua, and different parts of the U.S. Gomez explains, however, that human trafficking in North America is a complex crime with no easy answers.
Drug cartels in Mexico complicate the issue because of their expansive networks, which include gangs in Central America, pimps in the U.S., and traffickers known as “coyotes” who sneak undocumented immigrants across the border. All of these individuals can play a role in transforming average teenagers, adults, and even children into modern slaves. “In some ways, human trafficking is more sustainable than drug trafficking because a drug can only be sold once. But a person can be sold again and again,” Gomez states.
Governmental corruption presents another challenge in the fight for freedom. Because gangs such as the violent Zetas drug cartel in northern Mexico can afford to bribe authorities, many officials turn a blind eye to these crimes.
The U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report states, “government officials [in Mexico] tolerate and are sometimes complicit in trafficking, undermining anti-trafficking efforts.” Local police and immigration officers reportedly receive financial and sexual bribes to destroy victims’ documents or to discourage those victims from reporting their abuses.
Although federal and state courts in Mexico only convicted 14 traffickers in 2011, the TIP report estimates thousands of women and children cross the U.S.-Mexico border for forced labor or sex slavery every year. Traffickers take these victims to states as far as Tennessee, New York, Washington, and Florida, says Yvonne Williams, executive director of the Trafficking in America Task Force.
Williams indicates that, more often than not, these victims work in public places such as massage parlors, spas, and hotels. Although their jobs appear legitimate on the surface, their employers forcefully prostitute them to clients, often with little or no pay. “These victims appear to be living normal lives, but nothing is further from the truth,” Williams explains. “This type of slavery is in our neighborhoods and communities. It’s hidden right under our noses.”
Williams has ridden along with many law enforcement officials in Texas investigating these crimes. She recalls receiving a tip that a strip club in Houston held trafficking victims. When she went with police to question the owners, they found multiple Latinas who could not speak English and had no documentation working as prostitutes. “Legally, these women are like ghosts because they have no proof of identity,” she states.
While most human trafficking experts talk about immigrants as victims, Williams says a new phenomenon has begun where members of the violent MS-13 gang cross into the U.S. from Mexico and strategize with a vast network of members to enslave American girls.
These gang members will go to malls, schools, and other social places to target vulnerable girls, often from immigrant families. Typically, if a girl has low self-esteem or family problems, the traffickers will compliment her and offer psychological and physical safety to gain her trust. The traffickers might also offer favors such as drugs, money, or protection, but what seem like kind gestures quickly become forms of coercion to force the girls into prostitution.
Gomez has investigated this same phenomenon. She recently encountered a case where a father in Tennessee convinced his adolescent son to seduce girls at a local high school. Once the girls began to fall in love, the son would agree to meet them in a private location, and the father would go instead and force them to have sex with customers. “Traffickers know all the right things to say,” Gomez explains. “They will say, ‘I love you. I think you’re pretty. I can get you whatever you want,’” and this is how they deceive the girls.
Increasingly, no place should be understood as being off limits to these crimes. Gomez describes how a girl in a Free for Life safe house first became entangled with traffickers while attending English classes at a local church. A gang member recognized her as a vulnerable immigrant, approached her to ask her out, and within days she was living a nightmare. However, Americans should not blame undocumented immigrants for these crimes, Gomez says, because the industry is fueled by the national demand for prostitution and forced labor.
YET WITH THE right knowledge and tools, average people can prevent these crimes. Gomez stresses the importance of recognizing and reporting suspicious activity in a timely manner. She says if many men and women come and go from an apartment building at strange hours of the night, this should be reported to local police.
Polaris Project, a Washington D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization, provides a list of warning signs to identify trafficking victims. These include physical bruises, anxiety and paranoia, lack of identification, inability to travel, poor physical health, few possessions, and inconsistencies in personal stories. The organization recommends calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888 to report situations with these red flags.
Gomez admits a long road lies ahead for the freedom fight in North America. She describes how Marta, the 16-year-old Mexican girl trafficked across the U.S. border, wound up in a Free for Life recovery home in Nashville, Tenn., after years of exploitation. Although she received counseling and medical treatment, Marta unexpectedly left one day without informing anyone. Gomez believes that because of a distorted love Marta had for one of her traffickers, she may have returned to her previous lifestyle.
Despite these losses, Gomez has seen countless success stories. She remembers picking up another 16-year-old girl for the first time at a police station in Tennessee. The girl’s matted black hair draped over her malnourished body, and although she was breathing, life seemed to have left her. Gomez brought her to a Free for Life shelter where she began counseling sessions to recover from the three-month nightmare she had endured after crossing the U.S. border. A year later, the girl’s dreams returned to her, and Free for Life gave her a scholarship to attend dance school. She now teaches salsa, ballet, and hip-hop lessons to young girls while also giving them wisdom to stay safe and study hard.
“We help girls to become their own person again and follow their dreams,” Gomez says. “That’s why I do what I do.”
Curt Devine uses multimedia storytelling to give voice to the voiceless. He is currently pursuing a master’s in international media at American University and working as a freelance writer.