HER NAME IS MONICA, and she’s 17 years old. She fires a Parliament cigarette to life and stares straight into the teeth of a hard question. With a smile on her face—one translucent with the easy confidence of candor—she inhales deeply and drops ashes into an improvised tray.
“I did it voluntarily,” she says in a relaxed tone. “I couldn’t go home, and I needed money. This guy I had a relationship with told me, ‘Try it once; it’s easy cash.’ And it was . . . for a while.”
Twenty miles south, in her National City office, Marisa Ugarte is vexed. She lights a Pall Mall and inhales vigorously, as if the nicotine hitting her veins might do something to restore her flagging hold on sanity. Ugarte knows the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department has detained a dozen undocumented laborers, and she’s determined to the point of tears to intercept them before they’re deported to Mexico.
The mere fact she’s in the law enforcement loop is a victory of sorts. Just two years ago, an intervention by her organization, the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC), would have been unthinkable. But good fortune is the last thing on Ugarte’s mind as to get somebody on the phone—anybody with the authority to keep those men in Los Angeles overnight.
She’s been told those 12 Mexican men aren’t typical undocumented immigrants—they’re victims. They’d come north with promises of green, but instead fell into the black market—becoming fresh statistics in one of the world’s top-grossing illicit industries: human trafficking. Trapped in a strange country, with no English skills and laboring under the knowledge they are inherently illegal, the men landed in the middle of one of the modern world’s great absurdities—white slavery—ensnared in a forced-labor scenario from which they can’t escape. Though their cases may seem worlds removed from Monica’s, those 12 Mexican men are, according to U.S. law, victims of the same enterprise—human trafficking: forced or exploited sex or labor. And Ugarte knows that if those men are deported to Mexico, the chances of prosecuting their exploiters are minimal. It’s a situation the U.S. government says has mushroomed around the world in the past two decades. The State Department estimates 800,000 people are forcibly and illegally transported across international borders every year.
A few streets away from Ugarte’s office, Kathi Hardy approaches a young girl on National City Boulevard—“The Track,” as it’s known in prostitution circles—a fashion runway of sorts for young, mostly manipulated girls turning tricks for sailors from the nearby Naval Station San Diego. The girl is young and impressionable, much like Monica—whom Hardy tried to save almost two years ago.
Hardy is a squat woman with glasses, a simple haircut and a fleeting but contagious smile. She drives a pickup truck and works two jobs. Money’s usually tight for the proud single mother (her 19-year-old son is her pride and joy), but she’s achieved one of life’s prized intangibles: She has a genuine mission in life. For years, her organization, Freedom From Exploitation, has been saving young girls from the same hard streets that sucked her into prostitution 30 years ago.
The girl wears a short skirt and spike heels—and Hardy knows she is working the street. She wants to talk to the girl, but she has to do so carefully. The girl almost certainly has a pimp, who will beat her if he finds out she’s talking to anybody in the social services sector. Hardy estimates 75 percent of the girls on the street are victims of abusive home situations or have grown up with some type of prostitution in the family. She figures about half those girls are nursing serious drug addictions.
In that regard, Monica is an anomaly. She comes from a good family and has never had a drug habit. The man who dragged her into “the game,” however, was able to play on other insecurities with uncanny success.
“The pimps, traffickers—whatever you want to call them—are the smartest people,” Monica says in a voice that evokes the innocence of a little girls’ sleepover. “A known thing between pimps is [that] any man can control a woman’s body—the key is to control her mind. They can manipulate anybody. They hold interviews with girls and can basically pick and choose which ones they want to keep and which ones they think would be a good fit for their team. They promise these girls love and futures. I’ve met so many girls who were in love with their pimps. Fortunately, it only took me about a month to realize this is crap—a mind game. But by then, it was too late to leave.”
Monica found out the hard way she’d bought a one-way ticket into the “easy money”—money that wasn’t so easy and of which she saw little. She was transported in a van from state to state on an underground route used by pimps across the country. During that time, she was constantly in the watchful custody of her pimp, who beat her and fed her sparingly. (She says she lost 40 pounds in two months.)
“A lot of girls start in the beginning wanting to do it,” Monica says, “thinking this is going to make them money and [provide] a future with this man. Then they realize they’re getting beat—and this is kinda something they have to do. A lot of them don’t want to leave, because they don’t know any different. They think getting beat is a sign of love. A lot of girls don’t realize they’re victims; they just think this is a lifestyle.
“There’s nobody out there telling them, ‘You’re being exploited. What’s wrong with you? Get your head right. You don’t belong out here. You could do anything with your life.’ And the people who try. . . I was approached by Kathi Hardy before I realized what was happening to me, and I was like, ‘Get away from me. I don’t want your help.’
“Then, when you do want it, you have to find a person you can trust. Because a lot of the police officers, unfortunately, I hate to say, are looking for a career collar—they just want to get into vice. They tell you, ‘Hey, talk to me. Tell me what you know, and we’ll make all your charges go away.’ Luckily for me, I found one police officer who [tried to help] me the whole time I was out on the streets. And he’s the one who saved my life.”
SHERIFF’S DEPUTY Rick Castro stands 6-foot-3, and his height might be the only telltale sign—among dark, brown features and a broad, handsome Latin face—that the Los Angeles native is pure gringo. Fifteen years ago, law enforcement brought him to Temecula and the San Diego Sheriff ’s Department. Ten years ago, he took part in a major bust that changed his life. Fresh into a post with the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving Unit, one of Castro’s first projects was to shut down 25 North County brothels—all within a 1-mile radius.
“At that time,” he says, “I didn’t know anything about human trafficking. I was looking for pimping, pandering, solicitation of prostitution. I interviewed every one of those girls, because I was one of the only Spanish speakers. But they wouldn’t talk to me. I knew something was wrong; I’d never seen anything like it. I had other investigators next to me during the interviews, and they didn’t know what was going on either.
“It wasn’t until they were all deported and I shut down all the houses [that] one day I started thinking back on all the interviews I did. And all of a sudden, the term ‘white slavery’ slipped into my head. So I made calls, asking around, and people told me, ‘That ended 150 years ago, Deputy; that doesn’t exist anymore.’ Lo and behold, [I found] white slavery was a federal term connected to the old slave trade. I contacted [different] police departments on the West Coast and asked if they were investigating any cases of white slavery, and they were like, ‘No way.’ But that’s what I saw [even though] I didn’t recognize it at the time.
“Every single one of [those girls] was Hispanic and undocumented—the majority were minors—but they all came up with the same story, as if they were reading off a script. They all came up as 18, all with the same date of birth. [But] you look at them, they were 14-, 15-year-old girls. Then I remembered hearing from informants that a lot of these girls were brought in under false promises. A lot of them were being threatened to prostitute themselves. I’m like, ‘God, you know, that sounds like slavery.’ Nobody knew what I was talking about, so I called the U.S. Attorney’s office, and they told me there was new legislation on the way.”
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (VTVPA) was signed into law under President Bill Clinton. It marks a watershed in U.S. legislation and a bright spot in the history of the country—a rare example of a superpower taking the reins in the international fight against an illicit industry. Until that turn-of-the-century legislation was passed, and a subsequent report-card system for all countries was initiated, the growing industry of human trafficking went underprosecuted and underreported—white slavery, by default, was quasi-legal.
VTVPA was an international wake-up call. Not only did the world’s de facto supercop acknowledge human trafficking as a legitimate and pernicious target of law enforcement, it gave police the tools to prosecute traffickers and established funding for a wide array of support services. Deputy Castro was instrumental in facilitating the U.S. Department of Justice grant (nearly half a million dollars over three years) that led to the creation of San Diego’s Human Trafficking Task Force —a coalition of local, state and federal agencies aimed at combating forced and coerced sex and labor.
There are five other trafficking task forces in California, 42 across the United States. Because of his early work and training in the field, Castro is in high demand. He spends the majority of the year in other cities, educating law enforcement—training officers in what to look for and how to use VTVPA to get convictions.
AS WITH MUCH organized crime, human trafficking isn’t rocket science—a person or small group with connections, a little bit of knowledge and the will to subvert legal and ethical imperatives can accomplish a lot. Once a girl is in a foreign country and stripped of her documentation (not hard to do, if she’s effectively duped into thinking her exploiters are her benefactors), she’s easy game—especially if she doesn’t speak the language.
The procedure, as documented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a bevy of human rights groups, begins with locking the girl in a house or an apartment. These “safe” houses (or indoctrination centers) usually have a guard posted at the door. Food is generally withheld, and the girl—now scared and realizing she’s in trouble—may be beaten or raped. A buyer arrives to inspect the available girls and maybe try them out in bed.
For the girl who resists, a series of savage beatings and merciless rapes is in order. It rarely takes more than one or two rounds to break her. The girl is kept under supervision for a few days, and before long —under the pressures of Stockholm syndrome and a litany of other psychological factors (not the least of which is the likelihood the girl will be servicing the local police as they frequent the brothels for freebies)—she’ll soon be completely indoctrinated. Broken. It also helps to threaten to murder her family back home, or take lurid video of her during sex with several men, threatening to send it back to her hometown if she escapes.
Depending on the girl’s looks, she might fetch anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 on the international market—not a bad turnaround for a product that cost a trafficker no more than a payoff to the front company in the girl’s home country, her airfare and some incidentals like food and clothing. A clever trafficker will convince the girl—who’s working under the false expectations of a paying job and a bright future—to pay her own airfare and expenses.
“There are so many ways of doing it,” says Richard Danziger, head of countertrafficking for the IOM. “But if you look at the definition of trafficking, in the protocol it’s violence, the threat of violence, deception or coercion. There may be no physical violence at all. Nigerian women [for example] trafficked to Europe—almost all of them—don’t have to be locked away, because they go through this sort of magic ritual in Nigeria, something they obviously believe in, and they’re told that if they run away, something terrible will happen to them or their family. And that psychological bond is as strong as locking a door. In other cases, in Europe, we find that some of these victims are borderline disabled . . . the traffickers look for vulnerabilities.”
The IOM is the principal intergovernmental organization in the migration field —a United Nations–like institution funded by 118 governments around the world (the United States is one of its leading benefactors). It was born in 1951 out of the chaos and displacement in Western Europe following World War II. Currently headquartered in Geneva, the organization is charged with monitoring and regulating—to the extent possible—the international movement of people.
The U.S.-Mexico border “is clearly a smuggling hot spot,” Danziger says. “A large number of those Mexicans, Central Americans—whoever is coming across the border—are going to be exploited in some way. How many end up in an actual slave-like situation becomes harder to say. Of the individuals that have participated in our program in the States, I think some three-quarters were trafficked for forced labor or domestic servitude, about one-quarter for sexual exploitation.”
Rohida Khan, anti-trafficking director for the Western Division of the Salvation Army, says that Southern California is an ideal thoroughfare for traffickers. Coastal boat traffic, proximity to the international border with Mexico and a significant Latino population (which provides an effective cover to obscure the existence of victims) are all draws in the trafficking industry. Khan points out that in addition to sex and manual labor exploitation, more than 82,300 domestic workers (household labor) have been identified by California’s Employment Development Department as underpaid and exploited—and that the actual number of exploited workers is likely far higher, as EDD numbers are based on those employers who pay unemployment insurance.
One of the greatest challenges for Deputy Castro in law enforcement and Marisa Ugarte in social services is to intercept those trafficking victims before they are deported. When they cross back into their home countries, they disappear—as does any chance of hanging a conviction on their traffickers. That’s why Ugarte wanted so fervently to intercept those dozen Mexican nationals who had been put to work for little or no money in a California produce field, and why Castro was so disappointed that he couldn’t illicit the cooperation to testify from any of the young girls who (he later realized) had been forced into prostitution by a binational organized-crime family.
THOSE INTIMATELY INVOLVED in combating human trafficking recognize several phenomena, born over the past two decades, that have contributed significantly to the trend. Two of the chief culprits are globalization and the Internet. The former has led to an explosion of crossborder commerce and transportation—which facilitates billions and billions of dollars of commerce every year and has engendered a labyrinthine system of trade that provides perfect cover for illicit traffic. The Internet, in shrinking the world, has also contributed significantly to the industry of global sex tourism. It’s reshaped the world of pornography vis-à-vis the tenets of societal taboo, and it’s become a prowling ground for sexual predators of all stripes.
The official collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was another international watershed—and is underrepresented in its relation to human trafficking. The same death knell that announced the end of poorly conceived Soviet communism played a battle hymn for the fledgling new world of global capitalism; the West had won, and its economic model—aggressive and uninhibited neocapitalism—was to become the lingua franca of world commerce. And nowhere have the tenets of unbridled capitalism become so pronounced as in Russia and the former Soviet states.
The Russian mafia has flourished there since 1991 and is widely believed to be the country’s veridical power. That is no accident. While most perceptions of organized crime focus on brutality and lawlessness, its fundamental realities are simple: While it eschews conventional law and operates instead by its own informal set of rules and agreements, it is manifestly beholden to the conventions of capitalist commerce. It operates purely and strictly according to the soulless, abstract tenets of supply and demand—a model with no moral imperative —and it guards profit with a tenacious zeal.
So it should come as little surprise that the dichotomous explosions of globalization and organized crime bolstered an age-old international market: trafficking in humans. By the time the United States finally abolished slavery, 144 years ago, owning a human being was a pricy proposition. In Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, author Kevin Bales writes, “By 1850, an average field laborer sold for $1,000 to $1,800. This was three to six times the average yearly wage of an American worker at the time, perhaps equivalent to around $50,000 to $100,000 today. Despite their high cost, slaves generated, on average, profits of only about 5 percent each year.”
Compare that with an unpaid, imprisoned domestic laborer (Orange County prosecuted its first-ever case of domestic-labor trafficking this year). Or a field worker who’s paid $20 a day against the $3,000 interest-bearing note a trafficker might charge for bringing him across the border. Or a 14-year-old Mexican girl in North County who’s bought for $500 to $800 and might bring in several thousand dollars a day, six to seven days a week, for her trafficker.
Or compare it to the case of Monica: a bright and cheery American girl who ended up being shuttled around the country to turn tricks in the back seats of cars and in motel rooms for, in her words, $100 for a half-blow job/half-sex tryst, or $200 to $300 for two hours and whatever a john demanded. Monica estimates she earned her pimp $250,000 in the six months she was on the streets—yet apart from the beatings and bad memories, she left those streets with nothing more than a short skirt and the skimpy shirt on her back.
In an increasingly globalized arena of international commerce, with a conglomeration of the world’s wealth and capital in the hands of an increasingly narrow oligarchy of wealthy families and corporations, individual human beings—base units of production—have become cheap. While a slave owner in the cotton-picking South would never have destroyed a slave, a means of production and therefore economic vitality, today’s trafficking victims are throwaways. The idea of ownership has become immaterial in a world of unlimited labor supply: If a field worker or a prostitute becomes debilitated, replacements are cheap and, thanks to established trafficking channels, usually only a phone call away. What’s more, with no explicit terms of ownership, prosecution is improbable and unlikely.
THE INTERNET, in a mere decade and a half, has fundamentally changed some of the ways in which we live. Less than a generation ago, a superpower imploded, and today, globalization is in the process of restructuring the world order. We live in times of lightning change, and throughout history those times have inspired fear and anxiety. A sense of vertigo has set in, exacerbated by the effects of an exploding world population and the diminishing influence of traditional religions—which have historically been (beliefs in the Divine aside) fundamental anchors for reason and moral conviction.
And so, while organized crime maintains its virtual invisibility, we can hang our collective hat on the palpable reality of the 14,000 to 17,000 people a year the State Department says are trafficked into the contiguous United States, or the all-too-visible American prostitution market, now largely in the domain of youth-operated street gangs. Teenage runaways, meanwhile, are filling the short skirts being worn on “the track” of every major U.S. city—and the effects are permanent.
“Once you get out [of prostitution], your family kind of resents you,” Monica says. “They look at you different; they don’t talk to you like they used to. Unfortunately, for the rest of my life, because I have prostitution all over my legal record, I’m gonna have to deal with it. I’m gonna be judged.
“This stuff doesn’t go away, and that’s another thing that keeps these girls in this system. They’re like, ‘What else am I gonna have left? It’s all over my record, I don’t even know how to have a normal job and get money anymore. And I’m gonna get paid $6.75 an hour when I could be making $300?’
“Once you’re in, it’s very, very, very hard to get out. I was a lucky survival story. And the true test for me is when I need rent and I’m a hundred dollars short . . . I know I could just set foot on that street for five minutes and have that hundred dollars. I won’t, just because I’m lucky and I have willpower—I’ve made it from the bottom up. But a lot of these girls end up going back, ’cause the normal life scares them. It’s just too hard.”
Desperation is born of poverty, and desperate circumstances lead to desperate decisions—people put themselves at the mercy of smugglers or turn over their children to give them a shot at a brighter future. And like the victims they’re able to rescue, there are no easy answers for the anti-traffickers of the world—here or abroad.
“[Take] a Moldovan woman who may have left her baby at home, with the grandmother,” Danziger says. “She’s being exploited sexually in wherever, [let’s say] Kosovo, and she’s sending home $200 a month. She may be making, who knows, 10 times, 20 times more than that for her pimp. But the two or three hundred dollars a month she’s sending is a lot more than she would be able to make back home. And so she’s ready to carry on.
“We take a human rights–based approach to fighting trafficking—that’s sort of the major message, the best practice we all advocate for. But the right to earn a living . . . it doesn’t help anybody if you ‘rescue’ that trafficked woman from Kosovo, get her back home, and then her baby dies of hunger. I’m talking in extremes, here, [but] it’s very, very complicated and there’s no easy solution—just longterm work.”