Rosa* was about to cross the United States-Mexico border when her coyote, or human smuggler, ordered the 22-year-old to have sex with him and told her that the promise of a job in computers or modeling in New York was a trick to force her into prostitution. Tracy*, 18, a product of the Boston foster care system, had been sold from one pimp to another until she was arrested for prostitution on Long Island; she told her story to investigators and was admitted to a shelter for human trafficking victims.
Rosa is staying in a group home where authorities hope that she will one day get to testify against her traffickers.
Tracy checked herself out of the shelter three days later and hasn’t been seen since.
The two are but a glimpse of the untold number of victims swept up in the global and domestic sex trafficking trade—mostly women under 25, one-third of them minors—who have been forced, coerced or duped into a life of selling sex. Up to 200,000 are reportedly U.S. citizens, in addition to more than 17,000 Hispanic, Asian and Eastern European immigrants, but experts say such statistical estimates are virtually impossible to verify. The approximately $9.5 billion human trafficking trade is among the top three criminal markets worldwide alongside illegal drug and arms dealing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sex trafficking cases are among more than 80 percent of reported human trafficking incidents, DOJ estimates show. The rest are exploited in the equally shadowy and traumatizing world of labor trafficking, such as two Indonesian housekeepers found physically abused and severely underpaid for five years in a 2007 slave case in Muttontown. While the conviction of two multi-millionaire slave masters highlighted the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of those crimes, federal prosecutors similarly lifted the veil on a local sex slave ring, charging three Suffolk County suspects with recruiting women from Latin America to work at LI bars where they were allegedly forced to have sex with patrons for money.
Those two federal trafficking cases are among the first to be tried on LI since investigations into this form of modern-day slavery became possible under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. On the local level, the first sex trafficker to be convicted under a 2007 New York State (NYS) anti-trafficking law aimed at smaller, more localized cases was a Queens man sentenced in January to 25 years in prison. In neighboring Nassau County, however, prosecutors say the state law doesn’t go far enough and needs to be amended in order to be effective. As Tracy’s story illustrates, getting a distressed victim to cooperate is not an easy task, further complicating an inherently complex initiative.
“A lot of people don’t believe that this is going on, [that] it’s only in the movies,” says Detective John Birbiglia of the Nassau County police Narcotics/Vice Squad, who shared the details of four cases, including Tracy’s and Rosa’s, in the hope of raising awareness. This is all he deals with as the Nassau police representative on the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force for Long Island, which teams federal investigators with local authorities and nonprofit service providers. “How many kids are being prostituted out there that we aren’t even aware of?”
Advocates who have been sounding the alarm on this issue agree.
“I think the public isn’t necessarily aware of how exploited the youth is in the sex trade,” says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of Equality Now, a New York City-based international human rights and women’s rights organization.
“When you think about slavery you think of somebody being chained to a radiator,” says Bien-Aimé, whose organization teamed with likeminded advocates to form the New York Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “They don’t need a gun to the head…we’re talking about the exploitation of the most vulnerable people on the planet.”
Still, investigations are usually more focused on cracking down on the supply end of the sex trade, not the demand, although there are the occasional “John stings.” And Johns, as men who seek out prostitutes are colloquially called, can be anyone—even the man who signed the state’s anti-trafficking law, which also toughened penalties for patronizing prostitutes, former NYS Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned two years ago this week amid a prostitution scandal.
“A lot of these guys go to these places once, twice a week,” Birbiglia says from his office in an undisclosed secluded building. One pimp, whom Birbiglia calls “Brazilian Joe,” told him he brings women from Connecticut and New Jersey to hotels and motels on Long Island for one reason alone: “The men in Nassau County have money.”
Brazilian Joe, whom Birbiglia did not identify because his case is still being investigated, will likely be deported thanks to the victims that identified him. But another trafficker will quickly fill the void, he says. It’s just the nature of the beast.
As long as there are those willing to pay for sex, trafficking will continue to fuel the prostitution industry played out in Internet ads, in the back rooms of certain strip clubs and in covert brothels disguised as massage parlors in strip malls across LI.
Now that it’s almost spring, temperatures have warmed up enough for street prostitution to make a comeback, as evidenced by a recent drive-by of women loitering on street corners during the early-morning hours in a western Suffolk County industrial park (the Press is not identifying streets and towns, lest this become a how-to story). There may not be a neon sign advertising it, but the indicators are all there: a half-dozen women in racy, tight clothes on a desolate street offering an inviting smile to passersby.
But this does not mean love is in the air, as is often said about this time of year. There may be some forced flirting, but the business of prostitution is not about warmth. It can often turn violent.