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Mexico/USA: Prostitution horror for young women

Publish Date: 02 Apr 2005

Source: New York Daily News
By Nicole Bode, Daily News Staff Writer

Prostitution horror for young women

News investigation into the plight of young women forced into horror of prostitution

Hundreds of young women stand with their backs pressed up against a graffiti-covered concrete wall on a side street in Tijuana. Leering men swarm around the girls, some as young as 8, as a chill wind blows across their exposed skin, bound tightly inside leather bustiers, miniskirts and schoolgirl uniforms.

Before the night is over, the girls of "Zona Rosa" - a notorious red-light district just a few blocks from the main tourist drag in this Mexican border town - will make as much as $250 each by selling sex.

It's cold-blooded sexual slavery - forced prostitution that began when they were kidnapped from their small towns in Mexico and Central America and smuggled through a dangerous corridor that leads into the United States.

After they work their apprenticeships in Tijuana, many of the girls end up as sexual servants in New York's illegal brothels.

"I've been in this business for 30 years - it's much more prevalent now than it was then," said federal agent Martin Ficke, who oversees the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New York division.

"They are coming from everywhere," Ficke said. "[They] are brought to the U.S. under false pretenses and they are forced to work as prostitutes against their will."

As many as 17,500 sex slaves are smuggled into the United States each year, according to the latest federal statistics.

One out of every three people trafficked into New York is forced into prostitution, according to Safe Horizon, a Manhattan-based human rights organization.

The depraved exploitation will be spotlighted by this week's Brooklyn Federal Court case against the Carreto family, a group of extended relatives from Mexico.

Preying upon uneducated and impressionable girls from poor towns throughout Mexico, the family allegedly kidnapped, raped and beat its victims into submission. The family made hundreds of thousands of dollars, while its sex slaves, who toiled inside ordinary-looking homes in Queens, earned next to nothing, authorities charge.

At the heart of the shadowy sex-trafficking industry lies Zona Rosa, law enforcement sources told the Daily News.

"Tijuana is a good crossing point because it's a prostitution zone," said Marisa Ugarte, executive director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, an anti-trafficking group based in San Diego. "It's easy to get from Tijuana into Arizona, California, Texas, to New York. It's simple."

The border town, a short drive from San Diego, also provides a daily flood of sex-hungry tourists and a police department that looks the other way.

During a recent trip to Zona Rosa, The News found dozens of cops standing by as hundreds of girls sold sex to strangers.

The girls' burly pimps kept a watchful eye, never moving more than a few feet away. Nearby, street hustlers solicited customers, many of them American men, telling them to move inside dank bars and seedy, second-story motels. They promised "naked massage." Many johns were eager to oblige, forking over a going rate of $20 to $60 for a half-hour session of forced sexual favors.

Premium prices were charged for "bareback," or unprotected sex. But the highest prices were charged for the youngest girls - or "cherries" - who are prized for their fresh appearance and their supposed lack of sexually transmitted diseases.

"There is a perception that the younger the child, the safer you are going to be and the less disease-ridden you are going to be," Ugarte said. "It's another myth because by the time they have a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old, by this time maybe she has already had 50 to 60 men." The girls are forbidden from keeping the money they make from sex and are prohibited from contacting their families or talking to other women.

Violence against them is frequent and severe.

The pimps beat the girls with coat hangers, cables, beer bottles and belts. Many of them are forced to have abortions when they become pregnant and others are given crystal meth and cocaine so they become addicts.

The pimps also threaten to hurt the girls' loved ones.

"They say, 'We'll kill your family.' If they have babies, they say, 'We'll kill your babies,'" said Deputy Sheriff Rick Castro of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

The sex rings are well-organized and many pimps work with relatives - just as the Carretos allegedly did to smuggle girls to Queens.

Each ring uses its own route from Tijuana into the United States.

Some drive girls across the border flashing counterfeit documents in California. Other sex slaves are slipped across the border on foot and then shuttled by van to brothels through a network of covert safehouses.

Still other pimps promise to smuggle the impressionable girls into the United States, telling them they can get jobs as nannies, cooks and maids - making enough money to support their families back home.

These traffickers charge the girls as much as $7,500 in illicit crossing fees - but once they get to the United States, the girls are raped and forced into prostitution. By the time the girls realize they have been kidnapped, it's too late for them to escape.

"They start going, 'Why aren't we free to leave? ... Why are there men blocking the exit?'" Castro said.

A ring of traffickers busted last year forced 50 girls to have sex with 300 to 500 men a day in a field of reeds just north of San Diego. The girls were given a piece of carpet or a towel to lay on, and an egg timer to keep track of their 10-minute sessions. Each man paid $20 for his window of time.

The ring catered to day laborers, and advertised through word of mouth.

In New York, the sex slaves' clientele includes illegal immigrants who work long hours to send money back to their families and use what little money they have left to buy illicit pleasure. President Bush's administration has moved aggressively to combat human trafficking, and Bush has mentioned the problem in many major speeches.

Despite the growing awareness, anti-trafficking advocates face a daunting task.

The victimized girls are reluctant to go to authorities because they feel a crippling sense of shame. Most also are living here illegally and don't trust law enforcement because authorities in their hometowns either profit from the sex-slave trade or do nothing to prevent it.

"A lot of people think prostitution is voluntary, and maybe for some women it is," Castro said. "But when you're talking about children or people who were brought in under false pretenses, that's not voluntary. That's something completely different."

Seductive lure of bogus ads

Mexican sex traffickers deceive countless young women into becoming prostitutes by placing bogus ads in local papers. Here's a look at one of the ads, translated from Spanish:

If you are between 18 and 24 years old, like to dance, are a size 3 to 7 ... are pretty and want to get between $6,000 and $20,000, pay attention. We're offering:

A round-trip plane ticket.
A work visa to Canada.
Transportation from the hotel to the clubs.
Advice on the law.
Contract for six weeks' work.
Training if you have no experience.

Help put end to nightmare

If you know someone who is a victim of human trafficking or want to help combat the international problem, here are some private and government agencies that can help:

Safe Horizon
(800) 621-HOPE

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(866) DHS-2ICE

Covenant House
(800) 999-9999 New York Association for New Americans
(888) 242-5838

Asociación Tepeyac of New York
(212) 633-7108

Latin American Integration Center
(718) 565-8500

New Immigrant Community Empowerment
(718) 205-8796

Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project
(646) 602-5617

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