Shadowy multibillion-dollar industry far more widespread than expected
When FBI and immigration agents arrested a 28-year-old Guatemalan woman three months ago in Los Angeles, they announced that they had shut down one of the most elaborate sex trafficking rings in the country. It was also the family business.
The woman, Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez, was the sixth member of her family to be rounded up in the two-year multi-agency investigation. Vasquez, five of her relatives and three other Guatemalan nationals were charged with 50 counts, alleging that they lured at least a dozen young women — including five minors as young as 13 years old — to the United States with promises of good jobs, only to put them to work as prostitutes. All remain in custody as investigators attempt to unravel the complex case.
Vasquez — quickly dubbed the “L.A. Madam” — attracted attention because she had been featured on the fugitive-hunting television program “America’s Most Wanted.” But it was one of only a few such cases to be spotlighted by national media, contributing to the false impression that cases of immigrant sex trafficking are isolated incidents, law enforcement officials and advocates for immigrants say.
The reality is that human trafficking goes on in nearly every American city and town, said Lisette Arsuaga, director of development for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, a human rights organization in Los Angeles.
“Human trafficking is well hidden,” Arsuaga said. “I consider it a huge problem.”
Her assessment is shared by authorities in Bexar County, Texas, where the Sheriff’s Office has formed a task force with Shared Hope International, an anti-slavery organization founded by former Rep. Linda Smith, D-Wash. Bexar County is considered a crossroads of the cross-border Mexican sex slave trade because two Interstate highways that crisscross the state intersect there, some 150 miles from the Mexican border.
“I could go to a truck stop in South Texas right now and get on a CB radio and ask for some sweet stuff, and someone’s going to come out and offer something to sell,” Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Burchell said.
A $9.5 billion-a-year industry
Federal officials agree that the trafficking of human beings as sex slaves is far more prevalent than is popularly understood. While saying it is difficult to pinpoint the scope of the industry, given its shadowy nature, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials estimated that it likely generates more than $9.5 billion a year.
Last year alone, the FBI opened more than 225 human trafficking investigations in the United States. Figures for 2008 are not yet available, but in a coordinated nationwide sweep in July, federal, state and local authorities made more than 640 arrests and rescued 47 children in just three days.
In congressional testimony this year, FBI Director Robert Mueller called sex trafficking “a significant and persistent problem in the U.S. and around the world.”
Most cases involve “international persons trafficked to the United States from other countries,” who are generally less aware of their rights, probably do not speak English and are frightened to go to the authorities, he said. “Victims are often lured with false promises of good jobs and better lives and are then forced to work in the sex industry.”
While an increasing number of young men and boys are being forced into the commercial sex industry, more than 80 percent of victims are women and girls, the State Department estimated this year. Of those, 70 percent are forced into prostitution, stripping, pornography or mail-order marriage.
That allegedly was the case with the L.A. Madam.
Prosecutors said in court documents that the Vasquez ring sold Guatemalan women and girls to one another like slaves for several years. Ring members also would try to keep them in line by taking them to witch doctors who threatened to put curses on them and their families if they ran away, the prosecution said.
In one incident, three of the defendants repeatedly kicked and hit one of the victims to punish her for trying to escape, the documents allege.
“These young women were enticed into coming to this country by promises of the American dream, only to arrive and discover that what awaited was a nightmare,” said Robert Schoch, an ICE special agent.