For other alleged victims, the trip to the United States alone makes the case for a trafficking investigation, according to Birbiglia.
Louisa*, 24, took a 24-hour bus ride from Honduras to Mexico. There, she joined about 30 other people being smuggled at a halfway house, where the coyotes called her family, demanded they wire $1,000 and threatened her with death. Upon payment, the group was shipped via train to another halfway house, where another 80 people being smuggled boarded. Four times during local stops, everyone got off and ran past the next station, then boarded again on the other side to avoid detection by authorities or other smugglers, Birbiglia surmises.
The group then slept outside two nights, again reminded that if they tried to escape, they would be killed, until they later boarded box trucks. A new group of smugglers led them to the Texas border where another $3,000 was demanded—but not before the women were separated from the men and herded like cattle from compound to compound, where they were strip searched. Some were chained up, beaten with sticks and raped.
Eventually Louisa and a small group climbed on top of an old car to boost them over the border wall into the United States, but the final group of smugglers on the other side was the most violent and threatening, she told investigators. Again the coyotes forced her to strip, model for them and touched her all over. They finally turned her over to a relative for $1,600.
Louisa and the family member then drove across country to her sister’s home on Long Island, where they called police to report what had happened.
For Rosa, the would-be model who was duped, the story is somewhat similar. She and four Mexican transvestites walked from Tijuana for four days across the desert until she reached a house in Los Angeles where her passport and personal documents were confiscated by coyotes, Birbiglia says. She was given a fake ID for her flight to New York City and once she arrived, was put right to work as a prostitute. Several months later, in November 2006, she was arrested on Long Island and deported back to her native Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, but the coyotes kept calling: They demanded her to come back. She still owed them $6,000.
Eventually, Rosa took the same route back to NYC, but by then they told her she owed $12,000 and had to work for them until she paid it off—a form of trafficking known as debt bondage. It was the same routine, traveling from hotel to hotel: New York to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, and back again. Up to nine men every day.
Her traffickers forced her into the realm of Internet prostitution, where online advertisements include a photo, phone number and an intentionally vague description of services offered—a scene that plays out countless times daily nationwide and on LI. With the going rate being about $150 per hour, Rosa would have had to have sex with an estimated 80 men before she would be free, but instead was held for more than a year, because traffickers include the victim’s housing, transportation and daily expenses in the debt.
Arrested on Long Island again in early 2008, Rosa told her story to investigators. Now, she’s in a group home, waiting patiently for justice to be served to her traffickers, praying her family doesn’t get retaliated against as a result.
“She’s looking for a better life for herself, she wants to send money back to her family and kids,” Birbiglia says, noting that another human trafficking task force in the Southwest has since picked up both Rosa and Louisa’s investigations. “The only ones who are making money in all of this are the pimps and the recruiters.”
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
Despite the progress that has been made, when New York State passed its anti-human-trafficking law, one glaring omission was the lack of protections for sex trafficking victims who are under 18. Force, fraud or coercion need not be proven in their cases because they are minors, yet under state law they were still being charged with prostitution.
That’s about to change. On April 1, the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act will go into effect in New York and will for the first time offer boys and girls access to safe houses, emergency medical care and counseling instead of throwing them in jail. For those younger than 16, who would be charged with prostitution as a juvenile in family court, the new law will offer similar services and protections as an alternative to juvenile detention.
Bien-Aimé of Equality Now cites New York’s most infamous former call girl, Ashley Dupré—of Spitzer fame—as an example of how easily a minor can get swept up in the sex trade.
“She was pimped out when she was 17 years old, at a time when she was homeless and she had no choice and she was a runaway. This was a child who was down on her luck, who was lonely and depressed, and of all the guys who came to her rescue, it was her pimp,” Bien-Aimé says, adding that children as young as 12 can be forced into prostitution.
“Was that really a consensual activity? No, it was exploitation,” she says. “I think there are many Ashleys out there. But even the Ashleys are a small percentage of the…devastatingly sad number of women and girls who are in ‘the life,’ as they say, and have no way of exiting.”