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Sex trafficking victims speak out against trade

February 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Young women lured into an international sex trafficking ring five years ago are just now speaking out about their ordeal.They are speaking out to raise awareness about human slavery and trafficking, which ranks just behind drugs and weapons in worldwide crime.

They are revealing their lives as sex slaves as a warning to others.

They appear as shadows on a wall, still too fearful to speak on camera to tell their story of a life as sex slaves.

Most of their traffickers started like them: poor girls in Guatemala, many working as prostitutes themselves. And then they had an idea.

This extended Vasquez-Valenzuela family lured at least 10 girls, some as young as 14, to be smuggled into the United States, thinking they would be waitresses, housekeepers.

But once in the U.S., their debt bondage never ended. So they learned about condoms and sex, and how to entertain men. Day and night, every day.

They spoke through an interpreter.

"They forced us to get up really early to find clients," said one woman. "We worked day and night. They forced us to keep going and threatened us. It's a way of life I don't wish on anyone."

The traffickers used violence and witchcraft, using locks of hair to terrorize the uneducated girls.

When asked if she ever tried to run away, one woman answered: "From the moment I came here and they started to force me, I knew I had to get out, I had to escape."

The woman admitted that she was forced to be with as many as 20 men.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was part of the prosecution team.

"It's definitely second to the drug trade, and right now, for ICE, it's one of our top law-enforcement priorities," said ICE Assistant Special Agent In Charge Tracy Cormier.

Cormier showed an alley behind an apartment where the girls would live and work, where few would guess what went on behind closed doors.

It went on in a number of quiet and unremarkable apartments throughout the city.

And there was strict accounting in this sex trade. A girl could earn the slave ring a quarter-million dollars. Yet stuffed animals topped an armoire used to block the girls' bedroom door. Windows were drilled permanently shut. Doors had no doorknobs in these prisons.

"I just kept thinking about the threats," said one of the women. "Traffickers would tell me that if I didn't do what I was told they would kill my family back home. I kept thinking about my brothers and and my sisters who had no idea what I was doing here."

Yet the girls came from such poverty in Guatemala, their traffickers must have reasoned they were having a better life as sex slaves.

"If the victims do come forward and report this to law enforcement, they will not be deported, their stories will be heard law enforcement will prosecute the traffickers," said Cormier.

One of the drivers who took the girls and their clients to the apartments finally alerted authorities. And a year ago, a federal jury found the ringleaders guilty. They were sentenced last summer: Gladys Valenzuela, 40 years in prison; her sister Mirna, 30-years; Mirna's husband, Gabriel Mendez, 35 years; and 30 years for both Maria De Los Angeles Vicente and Maribel Vasquez.

The girls know there is an unknown number of others like them.

"I would tell those who are going through this to speak out and report them to the authorities," said one. "We couldn't do that."

They say if victims can't come forward, someone who knows their plight should.

For more information about the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), visit www.castla.org