In 1997, at the age of 18, Maria was trafficked from Mexico into sex slavery in the US. She was transported into Texas, then to a trailer in Florida. Up to four young women worked in the same trailer, each of them having sex with up to 35 men a day, for 12 hours a day. They were constantly guarded, and beaten and raped by their bosses. After Maria had been enslaved for several months, FBI agents, along with agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and local law offices, raided the brothel. Some of her captors were tried, others escaped and returned to Mexico. Maria now observes that she is “in fear for my life more than ever.”
The US Department of Justice estimates that of the 14,500 and 17,500 foreign-born individuals trafficked into the US annually, some 80 percent are female, and 70 percent of these women end up as sex slaves. Feeder countries include Albania, the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico (many from the central region of Tlaxcala, a haven for modern-day slave traders), Nigeria, and Ukraine. Often the women are forced to work to pay off the debts imposed by their smugglers—debts ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 per person. They might perform 4000 acts of sexual intercourse each year to meet their quota, at $10 to $25 per act.
My name is Maria. I am in disguise today because I am in fear that my captors would recognize me and thus place my life and that of my family’s in danger. My story begins in May of 1997 in Veracruz, Mexico. I was approached in Mexico by an acquaintance about some jobs in the United States. She told me that there were jobs available in restaurant or bars. I was working as a domestic helper in Mexico and had a job at a general retail store. This seemed like a great opportunity for me to earn more money for my daughter and family. I accepted the job and soon was brought by a coyote to Texas.
Once over the border, I was kept at a safe house. Then, I was transported to Florida. Once in Florida, Abel Cadena, one of the ring leaders, told me I would be working at a brothel as a prostitute. I told him he was mistaken and that I was going to be working in a restaurant not a brothel. He then ordered me to work in a brothel. He said I owed him a smuggling debt of approximately $2200 and the sooner I paid it off the sooner I could leave. I was 18 years old and had never been far from home and had no money or way to get home.
Next, I was given tight clothes to wear and was told what I must do. There would be armed men selling tickets to customers in the trailer. Tickets were condoms. Each ticket would be sold for $22 to $25 each. The client would then point at the girl he wanted and the girl would take him to one of the bedrooms. At the end of the night, I turned in the condom wrappers. Each wrapper represented a supposed deduction to my smuggling fee. We tried to keep our own records, but the Bosses would destroy them. We were never sure what we owed.
There were up to four girls kept at each brothel. We were constantly guarded and abused. If anyone refused to be with a customer, we were beaten. If we adamantly refused, the Bosses would show us a lesson by raping us brutally. They told us if we refused, again it would be even worse the next time. We were transported every 15 days to another trailer in a nearby city. This was to give the customers a variety of girls and so we never knew where we were in case we tried to escape. I could not believe this was happening to me.
We worked six days a week and 12-hour days. We mostly had to serve 32-35 clients a day. Weekends were worse. Our bodies were utterly sore and swollen. The bosses did not care. We worked no matter what. This included during menstruation. Clients would become enraged if they found out. The Bosses instructed us to place a piece of clothing over the lamps to darken the room. This, however, did not protect us from client beatings. Also, at the end of the night our work did not end. It was now the Bosses’ turn with us. If anyone became pregnant we were forced to have abortions. The cost of the abortion would then be added to our smuggling debt.
The Bosses carried weapons. They scared me. The brothels were often in isolated areas. I never knew where I was. It was all so strange to me. We were not allowed to go outside of the brothels. I knew if I tried to escape I would not get far because everything was so unfamiliar. The Bosses told me that if I escaped, INS would catch me, beat me and tie me up. This frightened me. I did know of one girl who escaped. The Bosses searched for her and said they were going to get the money she owed them from their family. They said they would get their money one way or another.
I know of another girl that escaped and was hunted down. The Bosses found her and beat her severely. The Bosses would show the girl that they meant business by beating and raping her brutally. All I could do is stand there and watch. I was too afraid to try to escape. I also did not want my family put in danger.
I was enslaved for several months, other women were enslaved for up to a year. Our enslavement finally ended when the INS, FBI, and local law enforcement raided the brothels and rescued us. We weren’t sure what was happening on the day of the raids. Our captors had told us over and over never to tell the police of our conditions. They told us that if we told we would find ourselves in prison for the rest of our lives. They told us that the INS would rape us and kill us. But we learned to trust the INS and FBI and assisted them in the prosecution of our enslavers. Unfortunately, this was difficult. After the INS and FBI freed us from the brothels we were put in a detention center for many months. Our captors were correct. We thought we would be imprisoned for the rest of our lives. Later, our attorneys were able to get us released to a women’s domestic violence center where we received comprehensive medical attention, including gynecological exams, and mental health counseling.
Thanks to the United States government some of our captors were brought to justice and were sent to prison. Unfortunately, not all. Some of them are living in Mexico in our hometown of Veracruz. They have threatened some of our families. They have even threatened to bring our younger sisters to the United States and force them to work in brothels as well. I would never ever have done this work. No one I know would have done this work. I am speaking out today because I never want this to happen to anyone else. However, in order to accomplish this goal women like me need your help. We need the law to protect us from this horror. We need the immigration law to provide victims of this horror with permanent legal residence. We came to the United States to find a better future, not to be prostitutes. If anyone thinks that providing protection to trafficking survivors by affording them permanent residency status is a magnet for other immigrants like myself; they are wrong. No woman or child would want to be a sex slave and endure the evil that I have gone through. I am in fear for my life more than ever. I helped put these evil men in jail. Please help me. Please help us. Please do not let this happen to anyone else. Thank you.
Narrative as told to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, session on Trafficking of Women and Children, April 4, 2000.