Fighting Sex Slavery across Texas

Texas Civil Rights Project News
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SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Inside The Slave Trade

KRGV.com

Reported by: Alex Trevino

MISSION – One woman was sold on an auction block. Another became an involuntary servant in the land of the free.

"Human slavery, we have it. It is in our neighborhood but a lot of people don’t want to see it," says Jaime Ortiz, a coordinator for the South Texas Civil Rights Project.

"Slavery is still here in our neighborhood in the Rio Grande Valley."

During CHANNEL 5 NEWS’ investigation into the slave trade, we met a woman in Reynosa who had escaped her life as a sex slave the night before we spoke to her. We’ll call her "Carlita."

The Honduran native says her captivity began the moment she arrived by boat in Veracruz, Mexico. Her smuggler sold her to a madam and the nightmare began.

"Carlita" tells us she ended up in a nearby brothel. Forty-five days later, she was lined up again for auction in Reynosa. She was allegedly one of half a dozen women up for sale.

She gestured at house and explains a man bought her there for $1,000.

"Carlita" says she was held captive in a home for three months. She tells us her imprisonment took place in a conventional inner Mexican city home.

Her captors would allegedly rape her and other slaves repeatedly. "Carlita" tells us screaming and yelling only made it worse. She learned to be quiet and turn the pain inward.

Eventually, she asked a trusted friend for help and escaped.

"Carlita" tells us her buyer wanted a child. But his long-term plans were to add "Carlita" into "the pipeline." It’s the dangerous underground sex slave trade in American cities.

It starts in Houston.

FBI Agent Maritza Conde-Vazquez says Latin women like "Carlita" become cantineras.

They’re forced to work in dirty saloons found among a cluster of cantinas. The businesses cater to Central Americans and are often owned by people from those countries.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS found such a spot along Clinton Drive near the busy Port of Houston.

One store front had a single blinking sign that read "Open."

We learned customers could get more than a full-body rubdown for $150. The worker there was a girl who didn’t speak English. But she made the suggestion sex was for sale.

We’re told young Asian woman often find themselves working in massage parlors and nail salons. They’re popular stage fronts for sex trafficking.

>From Houston, slaves are taken to Atlanta and moved up the East Coast. From Washington, D.C., the pipeline continues to New York. Some women are eventually trafficked west to San Francisco.

Conde-Vazquez says the only reason traffickers force women into prostitution is to make money.

"It’s a very profitable business, when you come to think about it," explains the FBI agent. "It’s a human being. And it’s basically a person who can provide you endless services as long as that person is alive and in fair condition. It’s going to provide you services for the life of that person."

The FBI tells us victims rarely come forward and traffickers are difficult to catch.

However, the first human trafficking case criminally prosecuted in Texas happened in the Rio Grande Valley.

Maria Batres needed money to save her three children from a life of poverty in Guatemala. She had hopes of coming to the U.S. and working to earn honest money.

Instead, Batres became a victim of the labor slave trade.

"Traffickers are smart. They purposely recruit vulnerable people," explains Erica Schommer, a lawyer with Texas Rural Legal Aid in Weslaco. "That desire to work hard and do work that nobody wants to do is exploited into the point where they essentially become slaves."

Batres says she was forced to serve her captors and put it countless unpaid hours at the Papasito’s Adult Day Care in Mission.

Batres tells us she and a friend worked 20 to 22 hours a day. She adds sometimes they were denied food and water.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS pulled the original case file at the South Texas Civil Rights Project office in San Juan. The agency’s coordinator says, "Owners claim they had to get reimbursed for how much it cost them to bring them over."

Batres describes nightmares she still has of dances at the Alamo Flea Market.

She says the people who held her against her will would force her to court elderly men. Batres became a recruiter for the adult day care center her captors owned. It was her job to get the men to enroll.

She claims she was forced to kiss and romance drunken old men. She was threatened with physical abuse or a call to immigration if she failed.

"It’s a vicious cycle," says Conde-Vasquez. "Once you get in, it is very difficult to get out, because the trafficker is constantly abusing you emotionally, sometimes physically."

She recalled the physical abuse and sexual assault she endured, while locked in her "master’s" house. She called her captors cold-blooded and cruel.

A 2×4 was allegedly a favorite weapon for beating. She adds her captors would slap her in the face to see her cry.

Batres says she and a fellow victim met a young man and his sister at the adult day care center. The two offered to help the women.

Batres then climbed out of a window in her room during the night, as her captors watched television in the living room. Her ride to freedom was waiting just down the road.

The couple accused of holding Batres against her will were tried in 2007. Neither served any jail time.

Batres and the woman she escaped with are now suing in civil court to get their back wages.

However, even with her freedom, Batres still lives in the shadows. The windows in her home are opened with caution.

She tells us her spirit is still imprisoned and fears her former captors may come after her.

As for "Carlita," she was headed home to Honduras. There’s no word where she is tonight.

Thank You for a Terrific 2009 Bill of Rights Dinner

Congratuations to our heroes:
Emcee Michael Tigar

Keynote Speaker
Maria Hinojosa
Molly Ivins "Give ‘Em Hell" Award
Award-winning journalist, author and host of NPR’s Latino USA

Helga Dill
Henry B. González Civil Rights Award
Leadership in Prisoners’ Rights, Texas CURE

Chuck Herring
Ray Gill Award
Champion for the poor through his efforts to expand legal services

King & Spalding LLP
(Sammy Davis, Truman Fenton,
Tom Gutting & Rebecca Horwitz)
Pro Bono Champion Awards

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