In the United States: Hiding in Plain Sight
A week after Montserrat was taken across the border, she said, she and half a dozen other girls were loaded into a windowless van. "Alejandro dropped off girls at gas stations as we drove, wherever there were minimarkets," Montserrat told me. At each drop-off there was somebody waiting. Sometimes a girl would be escorted to the bathroom, never to return to the van. They drove twenty-four hours a day. "As the girls were leaving, being let out the back, all of them fourteen or fifteen years old, I felt confident," Montser-rat said. We were talking in Mexico City, where she has been since she escaped from her trafficker four years ago. She's now nineteen, and shy with her body but direct with her gaze, which is flat and unemotional. "I didn't know the real reason they were disappearing," she said. "They were going to a better life."
Eventually, only Montserrat and one other girl remained. Outside, the air had turned frigid, and there was snow on the ground. It was night when the van stopped at a gas station. A man was waiting. Montserrat's friend hopped out the back, gleeful. "She said goodbye, I'll see you tomorrow," Montserrat recalled. "I never saw her again."
After leaving the gas station, Alejandro drove Montserrat to an apartment. A couple of weeks later he took her to a Dollarstore. "He bought me makeup," Montserrat told me. "He chose a short dress and a halter top, both black. I asked him why the clothes. He said it was for a party the owner of the apartment was having. He bought me underwear. Then I started to worry." When they arrived at the apartment, Alejandro left, saying he was coming back. But another man appeared at the door. "The man said he'd already paid and I had to do whatever he said," Montserrat said. "When he said he already paid, I knew why I was there. I was crushed."
Montserrat said that she didn't leave that apartment for the next three months; then for nine months after that, Alejandro regularly took her in and out of the apartment for appointments with various johns.
Sex trafficking is one of the few human rights violations that rely on exposure: victims have to be available, displayed, delivered, and returned. Girls were shuttled in open cars between the Plain-field, New Jersey, stash house and other locations in northern New
Jersey like Elizabeth and Union City. Suri told her mother that she was being driven in a black town car-just one of hundreds of black town cars traversing New York City at any time-from her stash house in Queens to places where she was forced to have sex. A Russian ring drove women between various Brooklyn apartments and strip clubs in New Jersey. Andrea named trading hubs at highway rest stops in Deming, New Mexico; Kingman, Arizona; Boulder City, Nevada; and Glendale, California. Glendale, Andrea said, was a fork in the road; from there, vehicles went either north to San Jose or south toward San Diego. The traffickers drugged them for travel, she said. "When they fed you, you started falling asleep."
In the past several months, I have visited a number of addresses where trafficked girls and young women have reportedly ended up: besides the house in Plainfield, New Jersey, there is a row house on Fifty-first Avenue in the Corona section of Queens, which has been identified to Mexican federal preventive police by escaped trafficking victims. There is the apartment at Barrington Plaza in the tony Westwood section of Los Angeles, one place that some of the Komisaruk/Mezheritsky ring's trafficking victims ended up, according to Daniel Saunders, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the ring. And there's a house on Massachusetts Avenue in Vista, California, a San Diego suburb, which was pointed out to me by a San Diego sheriff. These places all have at least one thing in common: they are camouflaged by their normal, middle-class surroundings.
"This is not narco-traffic secrecy," says Sharon B. Cohn, director of anti-trafficking operations for the International Justice Mission. "These are not people kidnapped and held for ransom, but women and children sold every single day. If they're hidden, their keepers don't make money."
IJM's president, Gary Haugen, says: "It's the easiest kind of crime in the world to spot. Men look for it all day, every day."
But border agents and local policemen usually don't know trafficking when they see it. The operating assumption among American police departments is that women who sell their bodies do so by choice, and undocumented foreign women who sell their bodies are not only prostitutes (that is, voluntary sex workers) but also trespassers on U.S. soil. No Department of Justice attorney or police vice squad officer I spoke with in Los Angeles-one of the country's busiest thoroughfares for forced sex traffic-considers sex trafficking in the U.S. a serious problem, or a priority. A teenage girl arrested on Sunset Strip for solicitation, or a group of Russian sex workers arrested in a brothel raid in the San Fernando Valley, are automatically heaped onto a pile of workaday vice arrests.
The United States now offers five thousand visas a year to trafficking victims to allow them to apply for residency. And there's faint hope among sex-trafficking experts that the Bush administration's recent proposal on Mexican immigration, if enacted, could have some positive effect on sex traffic into the United States, by sheltering potential witnesses. "If illegal immigrants who have information about victims have a chance at legal status in this country, they might feel secure enough to come forward," says John Miller of the State Department. But ambiguities still dominate on the front lines-the borders and the streets of urban America- where sex trafficking will always look a lot like prostitution.
"It's not a particularly complicated thing," says Sharon Cohn of International Justice Mission. "Sex trafficking gets thrown into issues of intimacy and vice, but it's a major crime. It's purely profit and pleasure, and greed and lust, and it's right under homicide."