''If a girl tries to run, she's killed and becomes just one more woman in the desert,'' says Marisa B. Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a San Diego organization that coordinates rescue efforts for trafficking victims on both sides of the border. ''But if she keeps going north, she reaches the Gates of Hell.''
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.
''The border is very busy, lots of stuff moving back and forth,'' she said. ''Say you needed to get some kids. This guy would offer a woman a lot of money, and she'd take birth certificates from the U.S. -- from Puerto Rican children or darker-skinned children -- and then she would go into Mexico through Tijuana. Then she'd drive to Juarez'' -- across the Mexican border from El Paso, Tex. -- ''and then they'd go shopping. I was taken with them once. We went to this house that had a goat in the front yard and came out with a 4-year-old boy.'' She remembers the boy costing around $500 (she said that many poor parents were told that their children would go to adoption agencies and on to better lives in America). ''When we crossed the border at Juarez, all the border guards wanted to see was a birth certificate for the dark-skinned kids.''
Andrea continued: ''There would be a truck waiting for us at the Mexico border, and those trucks you don't want to ride in. Those trucks are closed. They had spots where there would be transfers, the rest stops and truck stops on the freeways in the U.S. One person would walk you into the bathroom, and then another person would take you out of the bathroom and take you to a different vehicle.''
Andrea told me she was transported to Juarez 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 Leon, the Crowne Plaza in Guadalajara. She remembers most of all the ceiling patterns. ''When I was taken to Mexico, I knew things were going to be different,'' she said. The ''customers'' were American businessmen. ''The men who went there had higher positions, had more to lose if they were caught doing these things on the other side of the border. I was told my purpose was to keep these men from abusing their own kids.'' Later she told me: ''The white kids you could beat but you couldn't mark. But with Mexican kids you could do whatever you wanted. They're untraceable. You lose nothing by killing them.''
Then she and the other children and teenagers in this cell were walked back across the border to El Paso by the traffickers. ''The border guards talked to you like, 'Did you have fun in Mexico?' And you answered exactly what you were told, 'Yeah, I had fun.' 'Runners' moved the harder-to-place kids, the darker or not-quite-as-well-behaved kids, kids that hadn't been broken yet.''
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.) ''I was going to work in America,'' she told me. ''I wanted to go to school there, have an apartment and a red Mercedes Benz.'' 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, she said.
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 family. ''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. ''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 24 hours a day. ''As the girls were leaving, being let out the back, all of them 14 or 15 years old, I felt confident,'' Montserrat said. We were talking in Mexico City, where she has been since she escaped from her trafficker four years ago. She's now 19, 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 Plainfield, N.J., 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, 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. ''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, N.J., there is a row house on 51st 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, Calif., 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.''
I.J.M.'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 U.S. now offers 5,000 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 U.S., 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.''
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. ''There was lots of scrawling on the walls,'' she said. ''The other kids drew stick figures, daisies, teddy bears. This Mexican boy would draw a house with sunshine. We each had a mat.''
Andrea paused. ''But nothing happens to you in the basement,'' she continued. ''You just had to worry about when the door opened.''
She explained: ''They would call you out of the basement, and you'd get a bath and you'd get a dress, and if your dress was yellow you were probably going to Disneyland.'' She said they used color coding to make transactions safer for the traffickers and the clients. ''At Disneyland 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.''
Her account reminded me -- painfully -- of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the story, a piper shows up and asks for 1,000 guilders for ridding the town of a plague of rats. Playing his pipe, he lures all the rats into the River Weser, where they drown. But Hamelin's mayor refuses to pay him. The piper goes back into the streets and again starts to play his music. This time ''all the little boys and girls, with rosy cheeks and flaxen curls, and sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls'' follow him out of town and into the hills. The piper leads the children to a mountainside, where a portal opens. The children follow him in, the cave closes and Hamelin's children -- all but one, too lame to keep up -- are never seen again.
Montserrat said that she was moved around a lot and often didn't know where she was. She recalled that she was in Detroit for two months before she realized that she was in ''the city where cars are made,'' 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 more. She watched through the windows as neighborhood children played outside. Emotionally, she slowly dissolved. Later, Alejandro moved her to Portland, Ore., where once a week he worked her out of a strip club. In all that time she had exactly one night off; Alejandro took her to see ''Scary Movie 2.''
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. Her 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 ''damage group.'' ''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.
''They'd get you hungry then to train you'' to have oral sex, she said. ''They'd put honey on a man. For the littlest kids, you had to learn not to gag. And they would push things in you so you would open up better. We learned responses. Like if they wanted us to be sultry or sexy or scared. Most of them wanted you scared. When I got older I'd teach the younger kids how to float away so things didn't hurt.''
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.''
Then add one more layer: a sex-trafficking victim's belief that her family is being tracked as collateral for her body. All sex-trafficking operations, whether Mexican, Ukrainian or Thai, are vast criminal underworlds with roots and branches that reach back to the countries, towns and neighborhoods of their victims.
''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 operation. ''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 killed.''
In Vista, Calif., I followed a pickup truck driven by a San Diego sheriff's deputy named Rick Castro. We wound past a tidy suburban downtown, a supermall and the usual hometown franchises. We stopped alongside the San Luis Rey River, across the street from a Baptist church, a strawberry farm and a municipal ballfield.
A neat subdivision and cycling path ran along the opposite bank. The San Luis Rey was mostly dry, filled now with an impenetrable jungle of 15-foot-high bamboolike reeds. As Castro and I started down a well-worn path into the thicket, he told me about the time he first heard about this place, in October 2001. 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. ''The 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 roomlike caves carved into the reeds. It was a sunny morning, but the light in there was refracted, dreary and basementlike. 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. Rosario, a woman I met in Mexico City, who had been trafficked to New York and held captive for a number of years, said: ''In America we had 'special jobs.' Oral sex, anal sex, often with many men. Sex is now more adventurous, harder.'' She 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. ''We've become desensitized by the soft stuff; now we need a harder and harder hit,'' says I.C.E. Special Agent Perry Woo. Cybernetworks like KaZaA and Morpheus / through which you can download and trade images and videos -- have become the Mexican border of virtual sexual exploitation. I had heard of one Web site that supposedly offered sex slaves for purchase to individuals. The I.C.E. agents hadn't heard of it. Special Agent Don Daufenbach, I.C.E.'s manager for undercover operations, brought it 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. Cyberauctions for some of the women were in progress; one had exceeded $300,000. ''With new Internet technology,'' Woo said, ''pornography is becoming more pervasive. With Web cams we're seeing more live molestation of children.'' One of I.C.E.'s recent successes, Operation Hamlet, broke up a ring of adults who traded images and videos of themselves forcing sex on their own young children.
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.''
Who can expect a young woman trafficked into the U.S., trapped in a foreign culture, perhaps unable to speak English, physically and emotionally abused and perhaps drug-addicted, to ask for help from a police officer, who more likely than not will look at her as a criminal and an illegal alien? Even Andrea, who was born in the United States and spoke English, says she never thought of escaping, ''because what's out there? What's out there was scarier. We had customers who were police, so you were not going to go talk to a cop. We had this customer from Nevada who was a child psychologist, so you're not going to go talk to a social worker. So who are you going to talk to?''
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.''
When I first met her, Andrea told me: ''We're way too damaged to give back. A lot of these children never wanted to see their parents again after a while, because what do you tell your parents? What are you going to say? You're no good.''
Peter Landesman is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about illegal weapons trafficking.
Correction: Feb. 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.
Editor's Note: Feb. 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. Some 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 captors.
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.