New York Times | January 25, 2004
by: Peter Landsman
correction and editor’s note appended at end
The house at 12121/ 2 West Front Street in Plainfield, N.J., is a conventional midcentury 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. On 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. ”They came in to buy candy and soda, then went back to the house,” he said. The same girls rarely came twice, and they were all very young, Miranda said. They never asked for anything beyond what they were purchasing; they certainly never asked for help. 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,” Miranda said. 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. ”I consider myself hardened,” Mark J. Kelly, now a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security), told me recently. ”I spent time in the Marine Corps. But seeing some of the stuff I saw, then heard about, from those girls was a difficult, eye-opening experience.”
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 antiulcer 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.
Last September, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush named sex trafficking as ”a special evil,” a multibillion-dollar ”underground of brutality and lonely fear,” a global scourge alongside the AIDS epidemic. Influenced by a coalition of religious organizations, the Bush administration has pushed international action on the global sex trade. The president declared at the U.N. that ”those who create these victims and profit from their suffering must be severely punished” and that ”those who patronize this industry debase themselves and deepen the misery of others. And governments that tolerate this trade are tolerating a form of slavery.”