Cover Story

No Sale

A worldwide "slave trade" in women and children meets its match in computer-age abolitionists

Issue: "The new slave trade," March 25, 2000

in Washington - In public, Inez and Maria favor fitted overcoats, flouncing head scarves, and dark sunglasses. They look like middle-aged heiresses. Away from scrutiny and out of disguise, they appear more as they are: lovely young women, both 21, who know how to use makeup and to wear high heels. A few nervous habits-Inez cracks her knuckles, Maria taps her toe, they both avoid eye contact-are all that indicates a three-year ordeal has not ended for them. These women (Inez and Maria are not their real names) were brought to the United States from Mexico as part of an elaborate prostitution ring in south Florida. Promised good-paying jobs in restaurants and help with immigration papers, the pair instead found themselves sold repeatedly for sex once they arrived in the United States. They were confined inside a hot trailer, while an armed guard outside sold "tickets"-condoms-for $25 apiece. The women testify to working six days a week, 12 hours a day, and serving at least 30 clients a day. Beaten if they refused to perform, they handed over the empty condom wrappers at the end of each day. Each represented partial payment of a "smuggling fee" the prostitution ringleader, Rogerio Cadena, told them they must work to pay off. The women, usually working four to a trailer, were moved frequently to other trailers in south Florida, so that they never became accustomed to the other women or their surroundings. Inez and Maria, who speak no English, say they were never certain of their whereabouts during months and months of forced prostitution. The occupation of Inez and Maria is ancient-see the Old Testament stories of Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar and Jericho's spy-sheltering Rahab-but it is also part of a growing, new trend. The trafficking of women and young girls for prostitution is on the rise worldwide, say law enforcement officials and other experts. Like drug trafficking, it is aided and abetted by consumer demand from prosperous Western countries. Permissive attitudes toward sex, the growing availability of pornography, and a trend toward legalized prostitution make it harder for law enforcers to discover who is in it against her will. Estimates used by the U.S. government indicate between 800,000 and 1 million women and children are sexually trafficked (moved to another country and forced into prostitution) worldwide each year; 50,000 of them are brought to the United States. Unlike drug trafficking, forced prostitution is a seemingly endless source of revenue for successful trafficker-pimps: Illegal drugs can be sold just once, but some illegal aliens are sold for sex over and over. Pimps profit by "women and children moved to where they are foreigners, where they are away from all that is familiar, and where they do not speak the language," said Laura Lederer, director of the Protection Project, who sees parallels to the African slave trade: Victims "are moved long distances against their will, basically sold, and held by violence and force, to make money for someone else." Incredible as the story of Inez and Maria may sound, it has been documented in U.S. district court. The case was successfully prosecuted, beginning in 1998, after FBI and immigration agents raided several brothel sites run by Mr. Cadena and other members of his family. Altogether, the Cadena family smuggled from Mexico 17 women, some as young as 14, to work as prostitutes. Six of the traffickers, including Mr. Cadena, are now in federal custody. Five others are fugitives, suspected of fleeing to Mexico. For that reason Inez and Maria mask their identities, fearing for their own safety and for the safety of their families in Mexico (both have younger sisters). Inez and Maria, along with the others, were held in a federal detention facility for a year after the raids, awaiting deportation. Virginia Coto, attorney for Inez and Maria, secured their release to a local shelter under a material witness complaint. Ms. Coto told WORLD that the women were held five months by federal authorities without gynecological exams or other medical care, but were ultimately cared for and given jobs by community organizations and local nonprofits. The case led to the creation of a Justice Department task force to crack down on the exploitation of illegal immigrants. "This was the first case of its kind," Ms. Coto said, "and it became a model for the Department of Justice on how to deal with victims of sexual trafficking." While the two women await the resolution of their immigration status, they are learning to testify about what has happened to them. "This is a documented case," Dr. Lederer said. She noted that "many of these women are too sick or too traumatized to tell their story, especially more than once." Investigators are finding other ways of getting at the truth, however. The International Justice Mission has infiltrated brothels in India and other parts of Asia, using criminal investigators and surveillance technology to document the conditions of trafficked women. IJM relies on tip-offs from Christian ministries and humanitarian organizations in some cases, and eventually brings in local law enforcement, where possible. Doctors, teachers, missionaries, and aid workers for these groups are often the first to discover that women and children are being held in forced prostitution, according to IJM president Gary Haugen. Dr. Lederer, who began tracking prostitution rings and trafficking while she was still in law school 20 years ago, is consumed by these kinds of cases. The scribe of a thousand sordid tales like those of Maria and Inez, she has pieced together a library of evidence on human trafficking. Using everything from police arrest records and court cases to advertisements for sex tours and brothels from all over the world, she is constructing a roadmap on sexual trafficking. She and a small team of researchers sift newspaper archives in obscure locales for reports of brothel raids or arrests. Documentation is key. "Every note has a footnote," Dr. Lederer observed. Over time patterns begin to appear. Pimps move women from less developed nations to more developed ones. Men looking to buy sex will travel, most often, from Western Europe or the United States to Asia or the Caribbean. The constant that underlies this evil: Involuntary labor always comes the cheapest. Working from an office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Washington, D.C., where an overflow of maps, charts, and file folders mixes with her daughter's crayon artwork, Dr. Lederer feels she is finally seeing fruit from her labor. She has a growing collection of color-keyed maps showing "male sex tourist routes." Detailed maps show the origins, for example, of women who are trafficked into Saudi Arabia. She has testified before congressional committees twice, and will do so again on April 4. This month the Kennedy School will release in bound form the "Human Rights Report on Commercial Sexual Trafficking," a country-by-country index of current laws and records on trafficking. From Andorra to Zimbabwe, it is more comprehensive than anything currently available on the subject, but still a work in progress. By fall, it should be fully revised and also on CD-ROM. Eventually, its contents will be posted on the Web, where it may be used interactively, in the same manner as other criminal databases. For Dr. Lederer, the work is not merely academic. Two days after an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal quoted her by name, she received a threatening letter at her office. She and others who investigate the particulars of the international sex trade are personally at risk, with break-ins to their offices and other forms of harassment not uncommon. The notoriety comes just as the Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking is gaining ground. Meant to raise public awareness, the initiative's 29 members include left and right, faith-based and feminist groups (see sidebar on next page). Like most of the American public, many of them have warmed only slowly to the idea of a campaign against sexual trafficking. It is not a topic that beckons supporters to a fundraising barbecue. Dr. Lederer, who received her first support from feminist organizations, has watched their interest wane as Christian organizations have climbed aboard. "I have my ideas about what the women's movement should be," she said. "It should be about improving the lives and quality of life for women, men, and children. But the movement has lost the way somewhere along the way. Having faith-based groups come in with a fresh perspective and a biblical mandate has made a big difference." Dr. Lederer said she is not dismayed to work within that tension: "Women's groups don't understand that the partnership on this issue has strengthened them, because they would not be getting attention internationally otherwise. But it makes some in the women's groups uncomfortable, mostly because it is an election year." The groups are pushing past their discomfort, however, pressing successfully for congressional hearings, lobbying the Clinton administration and international agencies, and energizing their own constituencies. At its annual convention earlier this month, organizers within the National Association of Evangelicals launched a "key campaign" with the goal of collecting 1 million keys, symbolizing the nearly 1 million people estimated to be forced into prostitution each year. Who could be opposed to opposing sexual trafficking? Hardly anyone outright, but plenty of factions are stepping forward to take shots at possible legislation. An internal memo circulated last year within the State Department called for a "Democratic alternative" to a House bill then being drafted by Republican Rep. Chris Smith, the author of the current House measure. The memo complained of possible sanctions or other penalties, calling instead for a "multifaceted" approach to trafficking, with emphasis on "prevention, protection, and enforcement." That bland language took on more substance in January, when a White House interagency panel led by Hillary Clinton gave support to the so-called "Netherlands definition" on prostitution and trafficking. It cites only "forced" prostitution as exploitative, rather than all forms of trafficking. The difference is significant, according to legal experts. "Forced prostitution" implies that prostitution otherwise can be a legitimate form of labor. This opens a loophole for traffickers when it comes to actual prosecution, according to former federal prosecutor James Flores, who heads up the National Law Center for Children and Families. At a January meeting in Vienna, called to debate UN protocols for transnational crime, the Clinton definition aligned the United States with the Netherlands and other EU countries. In many of these countries prostitution is legal, even regulated like other industries (in Great Britain, prostitutes can form their own unions) and considered legitimate threads in the economic web of the community. Their preference for the narrower definition of trafficking can be seen as a cynical move to keep the prostitution business intact. The position put the United States at odds with most developing countries: They face the biggest trafficking problem and want to define it more broadly. Led by Argentina, these countries would penalize anyone who trafficks a woman or child for the purposes of prostitution, whether she consents or not. Initiative groups (including the feminist Equality NOW) fear that compromise legislation, and administration language in overseas documents, will appear to do something about sexual trafficking, but in reality will make no measurable progress against the problem. Inez and Maria could be seen not as women who were grossly wronged, but as wage-earners with a grievance against the management.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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