The Girls Next Door
By Peter Landesman (NYT)
The New York Times Magazine, 25 January 2004
The house at 12121/ 2 West Front Street in Plainfield, N.J., is a
conventional mid-century home with slate-gray siding, white trim and
Victorian lines. When I stood in front of it on a breezy day in October, I
could hear the cries of children from the playground of an elementary
school around the corner. American flags fluttered from porches and
windows. The neighborhood is a leafy, middle-class Anytown. The house is
set back off the street, near two convenience stores and a gift shop.
the door of Superior Supermarket was pasted a sign issued by the
Plainfield police: ''Safe neighborhoods save lives.'' The store's manager,
who refused to tell me his name, said he never noticed anything unusual
about the house, and never heard anything.
But David Miranda, the young
man behind the counter of Westside Convenience, told me he saw girls from
the house roughly once a week.
Cars drove up to the house all day; nice cars, all kinds of cars. Dozens
of men came and went.
''But no one here knew what was really going on,''
And no one ever asked.
On a tip, the Plainfield police raided the house in February 2002,
expecting to find illegal aliens working an underground brothel. What the
police found were four girls between the ages of 14 and 17. They were all
Mexican nationals without documentation. But they weren't prostitutes;
they were sex slaves.
The distinction is important: these girls weren't
working for profit or a paycheck. They were captives to the traffickers
and keepers who controlled their every move.
The police found a squalid, land-based equivalent of a 19th-century
slave ship, with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and
a stash of penicillin, ''morning after'' pills and misoprostol, an
anti-ulcer medication that can induce abortion. The girls were pale,
exhausted and malnourished.
It turned out that 1212 1/2 West Front Street was one of what
law-enforcement officials say are dozens of active stash houses and
apartments in the New York metropolitan area -- mirroring hundreds more in
other major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago -- where
under-age girls and young women from dozens of countries are trafficked
and held captive. Most of them -- whether they started out in Eastern
Europe or Latin America -- are taken to the United States through Mexico.
Some of them have been baited by promises of legitimate jobs and a better
life in America; many have been abducted; others have been bought from or
abandoned by their impoverished families.
Because of the porousness of the U.S.-Mexico border and the criminal
networks that traverse it, the towns and cities along that border have
become the main staging area in an illicit and barbaric industry, whose
''products'' are women and girls. On both sides of the border, they are
rented out for sex for as little as 15 minutes at a time, dozens of times
a day. Sometimes they are sold outright to other traffickers and sex
rings, victims and experts say. These sex slaves earn no money, there is
nothing voluntary about what they do and if they try to escape they are
often beaten and sometimes killed.
In fact, the United States has become a major importer of sex slaves.
Last year, the C.I.A. estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 people are
trafficked annually into the United States. The government has not studied
how many of these are victims of sex traffickers, but Kevin Bales,
president of Free the Slaves, America's largest anti-slavery organization,
says that the number is at least 10,000 a year.
John Miller, the State
Department's director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in
''That figure could be low. What we know is that the
number is huge.''
Bales estimates that there are 30,000 to 50,000 sex
slaves in captivity in the United States at any given time.
a senior State Department adviser on trafficking, told me,
finding victims in the United States because we're not looking for them.''
In Eastern European capitals like Kiev and Moscow, dozens of
sex-trafficking rings advertise nanny positions in the United States in
local newspapers; others claim to be scouting for models and actresses.
Some of these
young women are actually tricked into paying their own travel expenses --
typically around $3,000 -- as a down payment on what they expect to be
bright, prosperous futures, only to find themselves kept prisoner in
Mexico before being moved to the United States and sold into sexual
In October, I met Nicole, a young Russian woman who had been trafficked
into Mexico by a different network.
'I wanted to get out of Moscow, and
they told me the Mexican border was like a freeway,'' said Nicole, who is
Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of
Rhode Island and an expert on sex trafficking, says that prostitution
barely existed 12 years ago in the Soviet Union.
But in the first years
after the collapse of Soviet Communism, poverty in the former Soviet
states soared. Young women -- many of them college-educated and married --
became easy believers in Hollywood-generated images of swaying palm trees
The girls' first contacts are usually with what appear to be legitimate
Oblivious and full of hope, the girls get on planes to Europe and then on
Every day, flights from Paris, London and Amsterdam arrive at Mexico
City's international airport carrying groups of these girls, sometimes as
many as seven at a time, according to two Mexico City immigration officers
I spoke with (and who asked to remain anonymous).
One of them told me that
officials at the airport -- who cooperate with Mexico's federal preventive
police (P.F.P.) -- work with the traffickers and
''direct airlines to park
at certain gates. Officials go to the aircraft. They know the seat
numbers. While passengers come off, they take the girls to an office,
where officials will 'process' them.''
But Mexico is not merely a way station en route to the U.S. for
third-country traffickers, like the Eastern European rings. It is also a
vast source of even younger and more cheaply acquired girls for sexual
servitude in the United States.
While European traffickers tend to dupe
their victims into boarding one-way flights to Mexico to their own
captivity, Mexican traffickers rely on the charm and brute force of ''Los
Lenones,'' tightly organized associations of pimps, according to Roberto
Caballero, an officer with the P.F.P.
Like the Sicilian Mafia, Los Lenones are based on family hierarchies,
Caballero explained. The father controls the organization and the money,
while the sons and their male cousins hunt, kidnap and entrap victims. The
boys leave school at 12 and are given one or two girls their age to rape
and pimp out to begin their training, which emphasizes the arts of
kidnapping and seduction.
Throughout the rural and suburban towns from
southern Mexico to the U.S. border, along what traffickers call the Via
Lactea, or Milky Way, the agents of Los Lenones troll the bus stations and
factories and school dances where under-age girls gather, work and
They first ply the girls like prospective lovers, buying them
meals and desserts, promising affection and then marriage. Then the men
describe rumors they've heard about America, about the promise of jobs and
schools. Sometimes the girls are easy prey. Most of them already dream of
El Norte. But the theater often ends as soon as the agent has the girl
alone, when he beats her, drugs her or simply forces her into a waiting
Before I left Mexico City for Tenancingo in October, I was
warned by Mexican and U.S. officials that the traffickers there are
protected by the local police, and that the town is designed to discourage
outsiders, with mazelike streets and only two closely watched entrances.
[...] I traveled in a bulletproof
Suburban with well-armed federales and an Immigration and Customs
On the way, we stopped at a gas station, where I met the parents of a
girl from Tenancingo who was reportedly abducted in August 2000. The girl,
Suri, is now 20. Her mother told me that there were witnesses who saw her
being forced into a car on the way home from work at a local factory. No
one called the police. Suri's mother recited the names of daughters of a
number of her friends who have also been taken: ''Minerva, Sylvia,
Carmen,'' she said in a monotone, as if the list went on and on.
Sex-trafficking victims widely believe that if they talk, they or
someone they love will be killed. And their fear is not unfounded, since
the tentacles of the trafficking rings reach back into the girls'
hometowns, and local law enforcement is often complicit in the sex trade.
One officer in the P.F.P.'s anti-trafficking division told me
''Some officials are not only on the organization's payroll, they are
key players in the organization,'' an official at the U.S. Embassy in
Mexico City told me. ''Corruption is the most important reason these
networks are so successful.''
Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission, an
organization based in Arlington, Va., that fights sexual exploitation in
South Asia and Southeast Asia, says:
''Sex trafficking isn't a poverty
issue but a law-enforcement issue. You can only carry out this trade at
significant levels with the cooperation of local law enforcement. In the
developing world the police are not seen as a solution for anything. You
don't run to the police; you run from the police.''
BREAKING THE GIRLS IN
Once the Mexican traffickers abduct or seduce the women and young girls,
it's not other men who first indoctrinate them into sexual slavery but
other women. The victims and officials I spoke to all emphasized this fact
as crucial to the trafficking rings' success.
Traffickers understand that because women can more
easily gain the trust of young girls, they can more easily crush them.
The young women are typically kept in locked-down, gated villas in groups
of 16 to 20. The girls are provided with all-American clothing -- Levi's
and baseball caps. They learn to say, ''U.S. citizen.'' They are also
sexually brutalized. Nicole told me that the day she arrived in Tijuana,
three of her traveling companions were ''tried out'' locally. The
education lasts for days and sometimes weeks.
For the Mexican girls abducted by Los Lenones, the process of breaking
them in often begins on Calle Santo Tomas, a filthy narrow street in La
Merced, a dangerous and raucous ghetto in Mexico City. Santo Tomas has
been a place for low-end prostitution since before Spain's conquest of
Mexico in the 16th century. But beginning in the early 90's, it became an
important training ground for under-age girls and young women on their way
into sexual bondage in the United States.
When I first visited Santo Tomas, in late September, I found 150 young women walking a slow-motion
parabola among 300 or 400 men. [...]
Some of the girls looked as young as 12. Their faces betrayed no emotion.
Many wore pendants of the grim reaper around their necks and made hissing
sounds; this, I was told, was part of a ritual to ward off bad energy.
The men [...] were buyers
and renters with an interest in the youngest and best looking. They nodded
to the girls they wanted and then followed them past a guard in a Yankees
baseball cap through a tin doorway.
Inside, the girls braced the men before a statue of St. Jude, the
patron saint of lost causes, and patted them down for weapons. Then the
girls genuflected to the stone-faced saint and led the men to the back,
grabbing a condom and roll of toilet paper on the way. They pointed to a
block of ice in a tub in lieu of a urinal.
Beyond a blue hallway the air
went sour, like old onions; there were 30 stalls curtained off by blue
fabric, every one in use. Fifteen minutes of straightforward intercourse
with the girl's clothes left on cost 50 pesos, or about $4.50. For $4.50
more, the dress was lifted. For another $4.50, the bra would be taken off.
Oral sex was $4.50; ''acrobatic positions'' were $1.80 each. Despite the
dozens of people and the various exertions in this room, there were only
the sounds of zippers and shoes. There was no human noise at all.
Most of the girls on Santo Tomas would have sex with 20 to 30 men a
day; they would do this seven days a week usually for weeks but sometimes
for months before they were ''ready'' for the United States. If they
refused, they would be beaten and sometimes killed.
Jonathan M. Winer, deputy assistant secretary of state for
international law enforcement in the Clinton administration, says,
girls are worth a penny or a ruble in their home village, and suddenly
they're worth hundreds and thousands somewhere else.''
CROSSING THE BORDER
In November, I followed by helicopter the 12-foot-high sheet-metal fence
that represents the U.S.-Mexico boundary from Imperial Beach, Calif.,
south of San Diego, 14 miles across the gritty warrens and havoc of
Tijuana into the barren hills of Tecate. The fence drops off abruptly at
Colonia Nido de las Aguilas, a dry riverbed that straddles the border.
Four hundred square miles of bone-dry, barren hills stretch out on the
I hovered over the end of the fence with Lester McDaniel, a
special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. [...]
It is here that
thousands of girls and young women -- most of them Mexican and many of
them straight from Calle Santo Tomas -- are taken every year, mostly
between January and August, the dry season. Coyotes -- or smugglers --
subcontracted exclusively by sex traffickers sometimes trudge the girls up
to the cross and let them pray, then herd them into the hills northward.
A few miles east, we picked up a deeply grooved trail at the fence and
followed it for miles into the hills until it plunged into a deep isolated
ravine called Cottonwood Canyon. A Ukrainian sex-trafficking ring
force-marches young women through here, McDaniel told me. In high heels
and seductive clothing, the young women trek 12 miles to Highway 94, where
panel trucks sit waiting.
One girl who was trafficked back and forth across that border
repeatedly was Andrea.
''Andrea'' is just one name she was given by her
traffickers and clients; she doesn't know her real name. She was born in
the United States and sold or abandoned here -- at about 4 years old, she
says -- by a woman who may have been her mother.
(She is now in her early
to mid-20's; she doesn't know for sure.)
She says that she spent
approximately the next 12 years as the captive of a sex-trafficking ring
that operated on both sides of the Mexican border. Because of the threat
of retribution from her former captors, who are believed to be still at
large, an organization that rescues and counsels trafficking victims and
former prostitutes arranged for me to meet Andrea in October at a secret
location in the United States.
In a series of excruciating conversations, Andrea explained to me how
the trafficking ring that kept her worked, moving young girls (and boys
too) back and forth over the border, selling nights and weekends with them
mostly to American men. She said that the ring imported -- both through
abduction and outright purchase -- toddlers, children and teenagers into
the U.S. from many countries.
[... Quotes from Andrea ...]
Andrea told me she was transported to Juárez dozens of times. During
one visit, when she was about 7 years old, the trafficker took her to the
Radisson Casa Grande Hotel, where there was a john waiting in a room. The
john was an older American man, and he read Bible passages to her before
and after having sex with her.
Andrea described other rooms she remembered
in other hotels in Mexico: the Howard Johnson in León, the Crowne Plaza
in Guadalajara. She remembers most of all the ceiling patterns.
[... Quotes from Andrea ...]
Another trafficking victim I met, a young woman named Montserrat, was
taken to the United States from Veracruz, Mexico, six years ago, at age
13. (Montserrat is her nickname.)
Montserrat's trafficker, who called himself Alejandro,
took her to Sonora, across the Mexican border from Douglas, Ariz., where
she joined a group of a dozen other teenage girls, all with the same dream
of a better life. They were from Chiapas, Guatemala, Oaxaca -- everywhere,
The group was marched 12 hours through the desert, just a few of the
thousands of Mexicans who bolted for America that night along the 2,000
miles of border. Cars were waiting at a fixed spot on the other side.
Alejandro directed her to a Nissan and drove her and a few others to a
house she said she thought was in Phoenix, the home of a white American
''It looked like America,'' she told me. ''I ate chicken. The
family ignored me, watched TV. I thought the worst part was behind me.''
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.
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 24 hours a day.
When they arrived at the apartment, Alejandro left,
saying he was coming back. But another man appeared at the door.
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 Plainfield, N.J., stash house
and other locations in northern New Jersey like Elizabeth and Union City.
Andrea named trading hubs at highway rest stops in
Deming, N.M.; Kingman, Ariz.; Boulder City, Nev.; and Glendale, Calif.
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.
In the past several months, I have visited a number of addresses where
trafficked girls and young women have reportedly ended up: [...]
These places all have at least one thing in common: they are
camouflaged by their normal, middle-class surroundings.
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.
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
IMPRISONMENT AND SUBMISSION
The basement, Andrea said, held as many as 16 children and teenagers of
different ethnicities. She remembers that it was underneath a house in an
upper-middle-class neighborhood on the West Coast. Throughout much of her
captivity, this basement was where she was kept when she wasn't working.
[... Quotes from Andrea ...]
there would be people doing drop-offs and pickups for kids. It's a big
open area full of kids, and nobody pays attention to nobody. They would
kind of quietly say, 'Go over to that person,' and you would just slip
your hand into theirs and say, 'I was looking for you, Daddy.' Then that
person would move off with one or two or three of us.''
Montserrat said that she was moved around a lot and often didn't know
where she was. [...] because the
door to the apartment Alejandro kept her in was locked from the outside.
She says she was forced to service at least two men a night, and sometimes
All the girls I spoke to said that their captors were both
psychologically and physically abusive. Andrea told me that she and the
other children she was held with were frequently beaten to keep them
off-balance and obedient. Sometimes they were videotaped while being
forced to have sex with adults or one another. Often, she said, she was
asked to play roles: the therapist's patient or the obedient daughter.
cell of sex traffickers offered three age ranges of sex partners --
toddler to age 4, 5 to 12 and teens -- as well as what she called a
''In the damage group they can hit you or do anything
they wanted,'' she explained. ''Though sex always hurts when you are
little, so it's always violent, everything was much more painful once you
were placed in the damage group.
Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves says:
''The physical path of a person
being trafficked includes stages of degradation of a person's mental
state. A victim gets deprived of food, gets hungry, a little dizzy and
sleep-deprived. She begins to break down; she can't think for herself.
Then take away her travel documents, and you've made her stateless. Then
layer on physical violence, and she begins to follow orders. Then add a
foreign culture and language, and she's trapped.''
''There's a vast misunderstanding of what coercion is, of how little it
takes to make someone a slave,'' Gary Haugen of International Justice
Mission said. ''The destruction of dignity and sense of self, these girls'
sense of resignation...''
He didn't finish the sentence.
In Tijuana in November, I met with Mamacita, a Mexican
trafficking-victim-turned-madam, who used to oversee a stash house for sex
slaves in San Diego. Mamacita (who goes by a nickname) was full of regret
and worry. She left San Diego three years ago, but she says that the
trafficking ring, run by three violent Mexican brothers, is still in
''The girls can't leave,'' Mamacita said. ''They're always
being watched. They lock them into apartments. The fear is unbelievable.
They can't talk to anyone. They are always hungry, pale, always shaking
and cold. But they never complain. If they do, they'll be beaten or
In Vista, Calif., [... a] local health care worker had heard rumors about
Mexican immigrants using the reeds for sex and came down to offer condoms
and advice. She found more than 400 men and 50 young women between 12 and
15 dressed in tight clothing and high heels. There was a separate group of
a dozen girls no more than 11 or 12 wearing white communion dresses.
girls huddled in a circle for protection,'' Castro told me, ''and had big
eyes like terrified deer.''
I followed Castro into the riverbed, and only 50 yards from the road we
found a confounding warren of more than 30 room-like caves carved into the
reeds. It was a sunny morning, but the light in there was refracted,
dreary and basement-like. The ground in each was a squalid nest of mud,
tamped leaves, condom wrappers, clumps of toilet paper and magazines.
Soiled underwear was strewn here and there, plastic garbage bags
jury-rigged through the reeds in lieu of walls. One of the caves'
inhabitants had hung old CD's on the tips of branches, like Christmas
ornaments. It looked vaguely like a recent massacre site.
It was 8 in the
morning, but the girls could begin arriving any minute. Castro told me how
it works: the girls are dropped off at the ballfield, then herded through
a drainage sluice under the road into the riverbed. Vans shuttle the men
from a 7-Eleven a mile away. The girls are forced to turn 15 tricks in
five hours in the mud. The johns pay $15 and get 10 minutes. It is in
nearly every respect a perfect extension of Calle Santo Tomas in Mexico
City. Except that this is what some of those girls are training for.
If anything, the women I talked to said that the sex in the U.S. is
even rougher than what the girls face on Calle Santo Tomas.
She [Rosario] said that she believed younger foreign girls were in demand
in the U.S. because of an increased appetite for more aggressive,
dangerous sex. Traffickers need younger and younger girls, she suggested,
simply because they are more pliable. In Eastern Europe, too, the typical
age of sex-trafficking victims is plummeting; according to Matei of
Reaching Out, while most girls used to be in their late teens and 20's,
13-year-olds are now far from unusual.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the Cyber Crimes Center
in Fairfax, Va., are finding that when it comes to sex, what was once
considered abnormal is now the norm. They are tracking a clear spike in
the demand for harder-core pornography on the Internet.
desensitized by the soft stuff; now we need a harder and harder hit,''
says I.C.E. Special Agent Perry Woo.
Special Agent Don
Daufenbach, I.C.E.'s manager for undercover operations, brought [a web
site] up on a
screen. A hush came over the room as the agents leaned forward, clearly
disturbed. ''That sure looks like the real thing,'' Daufenbach said. There
were streams of Web pages of thumbnail images of young women of every
ethnicity in obvious distress, bound, gagged, contorted. The agents in the
room pointed out probable injuries from torture.
But the supply of cheap girls and young women to feed the global
appetite appears to be limitless. And it's possible that the crimes
committed against them in the U.S. cut deeper than elsewhere, precisely
because so many of them are snared by the glittery promise of an America
that turns out to be not their salvation but their place of destruction.
Typically, a young trafficking victim in the U.S. lasts in the system for
two to four years. After that, Bales says:
''She may be killed in the
brothel. She may be dumped and deported. Probably least likely is that she
will take part in the prosecution of the people that enslaved her.''
Even Andrea, who was born in the United States and
spoke English, says she never thought of escaping [...].
And if the girls are lucky enough to escape, there's often nowhere for
them to go.
''The families don't want them back,'' Sister Veronica, a nun
who helps run a rescue mission for trafficked prostitutes in an old church
in Mexico City, told me. ''They're shunned.''
February 8, 2004, Sunday An article on Jan. 25 about sexual
slavery referred erroneously to the film ''Scary Movie 2.'' A Mexican
woman who was being held as a sex slave in the United States could not
have been taken to see it by her captor; by the time the movie came out in
2001, she had already escaped and returned to Mexico.
February 15, 2004, Sunday ''The Girls Next Door,'' an
article about the importing of women and girls to the United States for
sexual slavery, has generated much discussion since it appeared in The
Times Magazine on Jan. 25. In response to questions from readers and other
publications about sources and accuracy, the magazine has carried out a
thorough review of the article.
On the issue of sources, the writer, Peter Landesman, conducted more
than 45 interviews, including many with high-ranking federal officials,
law enforcement officers and representatives of human rights
organizations. Four sources insisted on anonymity to protect their
professional positions. A magazine fact checker also interviewed all
relevant sources, many of them both before and after publication.
readers have questioned the figure of 10,000 enforced prostitutes brought
into this country each year. The source of that number is Kevin Bales,
recommended to the magazine by Human Rights Watch as the best authority on
the extent of enforced prostitution in the United States, who based his
estimates on State Department documents, arrest and prosecution records
and information from nearly 50 social service agencies.
In the course of this review, several errors were discovered in
specific details. One, an erroneous reference to the release date of
''Scary Movie 2,'' was corrected in the magazine last Sunday.
On the question whether women imported through Cottonwood Canyon,
Calif., could have been wearing high heels, the original source, when
pressed, acknowledged that his information was hearsay. The article should
not have specified what the women were wearing, and the anecdote should
have been related in the past tense, since the trafficking ring was broken
up in 2001.
The woman in her 20's known to her traffickers as Andrea recalled an
incorrect name for the hotel to which she was taken in Juárez, Mexico.
The Radisson Casa Grande had not yet opened when she escaped from her
After the article was published, the writer made an impromptu comment
in a radio interview, noting that Andrea has multiple-personality
disorder. The magazine editors did not learn of her illness before
publication. Andrea's account of her years in slavery remained consistent
over two and a half years of psychotherapy. Her therapist says that her
illness has no effect on the accuracy of her memory. Her hours-long
interview with the author, recorded on tape, is lucid and consistent.
An independent expert consulted by the magazine, Dr. Leonard Shengold,
who has written books and papers about child abuse and the reliability and
unreliability of memory, affirms that a diagnosis of multiple-personality
disorder is not inconsistent with accurate memories of childhood abuse.
Because multiple-personality disorder has been associated with false
memory, however, the diagnosis should have been cited in the article.
The magazine's cover showed a 19-year-old nicknamed Montserrat, who
escaped from a trafficker four years ago. An insignia on her school
uniform had been retouched out of the picture to shield her whereabouts.
The change violated The Times's policy against altering photographs.