They Came to This Country Seeking Better Lives for Themselves and Their Families. Instead, They Found Abuse and Forced Prostitution. The Tale of Two Survivors.
The moment Rosa saw the clothes, she knew she had been deceived.
Short shorts, micro minis, crop tops. Not the kind of clothing the 17-year-old girl would need to care for the elderly or wait on tables--jobs that sounded full of promise when the smugglers described them in her impoverished village in Veracruz, Mexico.
With dread squeezing her stomach, she looked at the man who had smuggled her into the United States. "Why do I need these clothes?" she asked him, afraid of the answer.
"For prostitution," he said to her. "That's what you are now."
Prostitute. The word, uttered in Spanish, hung in the air.
She began to cry, the fears she had been fighting since the border crossing into Texas swamping her.
"I don't want to do this. I will not do this," she told him.
Roughly, he reminded her of the family she left behind, threatening to send his associates to harm her parents. She now owed the Cadena family a $2,300 smuggling fee, he said, and there was only one method of payment: Work it off in the family brothels.
"It's too late for tears," he told her.
Illegally in a foreign land, unable to speak English, fearful of retaliation against her family, not even sure of her own location, she stopped crying. And put on the clothes.
In an ordeal that would last more than nine months, the girl was forced to work in a sex-slavery ring run by the Cadena family of Veracruz, Mexico. At least 26 other women and girls--some as young as 14--were similarly lured to the United States and made to work as prostitutes in Cadena brothels.
They came to this country seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Instead, they found sexual enslavement, their bodies sold to a different man every 15 minutes, often for 12 hours a day, in sex houses that were little more than rundown trailers with partitions separating one mattress from another. Beatings, forced abortions and armed guards were routine parts of brothel life.
In their first extensive interviews, two of the victims described for The Herald a tale of abuse and forced prostitution that law enforcement officers call the worst case of modern-day slavery they have seen. Court documents, interviews and testimony corroborate their accounts.
Because the women still fear retaliation against their families and were victims of sexual crimes, they have asked that their identities be protected and their real names not be used.
Rosa, in her late teens, has a shy smile, a whispery voice and a round face bare of makeup. Dressed in a t-shirt and nylon exercise pants, dark hair pulled back in a long ponytail, she keeps her eyes downcast as she talks of her experiences.
Sarah, sitting next to her, is the older and more poised of the two. In her mid-20s, she is working two jobs and trying to teach herself English from television.
"We decided to be brave," said Sarah, her dark brown eyes intense, "for all the other girls who cannot be. Someone has to talk about it."
FAMILY OPERATION: EIGHT MEMBERS WORKED BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER
The slave trade was a family affair for the Cadenas: Four brothers, their mother, two uncles and one of their wives all played roles in the business, according to law enforcement.
They worked both sides of the border for at least 18 months, luring young women from Mexico, then forcing them to work in brothels that dotted Florida and stretched into South Carolina.
The business collapsed in the spring of 1998, when the federal government indicted 16 people--including eight members of the Cadena family.
Critical statements for prosecutors came from 17 victims. Their graphic descriptions of abuse elicited a fierce response from U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp, who called the case "one of the most base, most vile, most despicable, more reprehensible crimes that I think I have ever encountered...utterly disgusting."
One of the ringleaders, Rogerio Cadena, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and other charges. He was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison and ordered to pay $1 million to the victims. Six others pleaded guilty to charges relating to the brothel operation, receiving sentences between 2-1/2 and 6-1/2 years.
One other family member, Abel Cadena, was captured in Mexico two months ago and is awaiting extradition. The other members of the family remain on the run, probably in Mexico.
Outrage over the case prompted Attorney General Janet Reno to form a national task force on exploited workers, harnessing for the first time the powers of local, state and federal agencies to fight the unthinkable: slavery in modern-day America.
DEGRADATION: 'I FELT TERRIBLE...TO BE WITH STRANGE MEN'
"I never wanted the 'clients' to touch me. I would put a pillow on my chest and cover my face when I was with them," wrote one of the Cadenas' victims, as she described her painful and degrading existence in the brothels in a letter to the judge.
"After work, when I showered, I never wanted to come out. I felt disgusting and dirty. I felt terrible because I had to be with strange men."
Once, she wrote, she was locked in a closet as punishment for protesting after a boss told her to speed up with the customers.
"I was already seeing a client every 15 minutes. The boss told me to shut up and do it. I said I was not a machine. He then instructed another worker to take me and lock me up in a closet," she wrote.
She spent 15 days in the dark, cramped space. Food was slipped in to her: "I was only allowed to come out to go to the bathroom."
Agonizing lessons like that served to reinforce the brutal house rules. Each girl--there were three or four to a house--was expected to have sex with 100 to 150 men a week on average, six nights in a row, Tuesdays off. The mattresses used for work were the same mattresses the women slept on at night. Sometimes the guards wanted sex, too, after the paying customers left.
In trailers on the edges of civilization, the women worked for 15 days, seeing one man after another, until they were moved to another trailer, in another location, where another line of men waited for fresh "stock."
Armed guards watched the women day and night, drove them in vans from one brothel to another, warned them not to go outside alone, and monitored their once-a-week phone calls home. Sometimes, they would force the girls to strip and videotape them.
The customers, mostly undocumented migrants themselves, usually paid $20 for 15 minutes with the women. Many knew the women were being held against their will. A few even helped with escape attempts. Usually, they paid the money and kept quiet.
Men called "ticketeros" collected the fees and handed a condom to each customer. The girls were paid almost nothing. From the $20 charged each man, the house usually took half and another $7 went toward smuggling debts of $2,000 to $3,000.
That left $3 for the girls--less, if she had additional expenses, such as medical care. If a girl was forced to have an abortion, the cost was added to the total debt.
Objecting to a drunken or abusive customer could trigger a beating. One girl said she was kicked in the stomach when the bosses learned she was pregnant; she later had a miscarriage.
Girls who tried to escape were brought back forcibly. An unknown number made it to freedom, but most were trapped in the rural brothels where phones were scarce and police patrol cars infrequent. Unsupervised contact with the outside world was rare.
Cloistered, the women formed their own insular societies within the walls of the brothels. Sarah, older than many of the girls, quickly took on the role of mother-protector, volunteering to take the drunk or abusive customers to shield the terrified young girls.
"They called me Mami," she said, with a haalf-smile. "They were younger than me and if I couldn't save them from this life, then maybe I could protect them from some of the worst parts of it. When I would see a new girl come in, my heart would sink because I knew what was going to happen to her."
But the Cadenas were clever, offering the women just enough hope to keep them compliant. If they paid their debts, they were free to go. And some did leave.
But most found themselves at the mercy of the bosses' accounting methods. Many of the girls and women kept tally sheets of their own, painfully noting each customer.
"I would take careful notes of everything so that I would know when I paid off my debt," Sarah said. "After four months, by my count, the debt was paid."
But when the time came to collect her belongings from another brothel, Rogerio Cadena decided to accompany her.
"Of course, when he took me, I wasn't really free to go at all," she said. She would spend nearly six months more in the brothels.
Abuse was frequent, the women said.
"They would do whatever they wanted to do to us--beat us or rape us," Sarah said. "But I wouldn't keep quiet, I would talk back to them, and so I would get a lot of beatings....Rogerio hit me many times."
One beating she received at his hands sent her to a clinic, her face battered into a bloody mess. "I told them I was in a car accident," she said. "I was afraid of what would happen to my family if I told the truth."
Rosa recalled a day when Alberto Cadena pulled her back into the brothel by her hair and hit another woman in the face with his fists when she insulted him. Another time, she saw him shoot at a girl's feet after she sneaked an alcoholic drink. He missed, but the point was made.
Hope was a precious commodity in the brothels, nurtured with clipped out magazine pictures of a better life, carefully kept tallies of earnings toward freedom--and friendships, forged late at night, while the guards slept.
"At night, after all the customers would leave the brothel, the girls would get together and talk," Rosa said. "A lot of girls were scared to sleep alone. We would try to encourage each other."
At her worst moments, when she felt the abuse would never end, she would think of home and her mother's words. "She would say to me: 'Think about your future, the good things your future will bring. I love you more than anything in the world.' And when I would think of that, I would be able to get through another day."
DECEPTION: GIRLS WERE RECRUITED WITH LIES ABOUT JOBS
The Cadenas were skilled in recruiting fresh faces for the brothels. The approach would begin casually, with a job offer in health care or waitressing to a young Mexican girl from a poor family.
The Cadena recruiter--often a woman, sometimes matriarch Antonia Sosa, investigators say--would paint an ideal picture of life in the United States. Discos at night and a steady job during the day. And money. Plenty to send home.
The girl and her family usually knew little of the Cadenas except their shiny new pickup trucks, signifying wealth in impoverished Veracruz where per capita income is $40 a week.
A personal visit would often close the deal. Sitting across the kitchen table from the parents, the Cadena representative would assure them. The girl would be treated like family, she could return if she wasn't happy, and if she didn't like the job, she could work for one of the Cadenas, taking care of their children.
As a final gesture, the recruiter would pay the parents a token sum--a few dollars' worth of pesos.
"It's like me reaching in my pocket, pulling out a few dollars and saying, 'OK, let me have your daughter,'" said FBI special agent Alex Rivas, who investigated the case. "It was an insult."
A trickle of escapes triggered the investigation into the Cadena brothels. In November 1996, two girls made their way to the Mexican consulate in Miami. Two more followed in December, another two in March 1997. Two of the escapees were 15 years old.
"For me as a Mexican, that there would be Mexican-Americans or Mexicans holding their own people in this type of slavery is very, very painful," said Consul General Oscar Elizundia. "These people cannot be considered anything except animals--with all respect to animals."
SALVATION: WHEN FBI ARRIVED, GIRLS WERE INITIALLY SKEPTICAL
Salvation came with a knock on the door.
"FBI!" Federal agents surged inside six Florida brothels simultaneously in November 1997.
But they weren't greeted as heroes by the women inside. Instead, the faces they saw were hardened with suspicion and hostility. The Cadenas had instilled in the women a fear of police and the belief that any cooperation with the authorities would go hard on their families back in Mexico.
"They hadn't determined who were the good guys and who were the bad guys," said the FBI's Rivas. "So here we come, knocking on their door saying, 'we're here to help you.' They didn't know who to believe."
Worse, the women were jailed along with a group of low-level Cadena employees. The women had no legal status in the country, they were witnesses in a developing case and so the authorities had the right to detain them.
"The victims are behind bars and the defendants are on the loose," Rivas said. "It's pretty hard to explain that."
With every day that passed, Rivas and Border Patrol investigator Kevin Douglas felt the pressure increase--they needed cooperation from the women, a break in the case and to arrest one of the ringleaders.
"Visibly, we could tell we were losing them," Rivas said. "That spark in their eyes was gradually dying. You walk into the detention center, and you see all these upset and angry faces. And who can blame them?"
Rivas redoubled his efforts: "The casualty in this case was not money or property. It was people's youth and illusions and dreams. And so it was worthwhile, no matter how much work it took."
Then, finally, the tip they needed. It led them to the Fort Myers brothel and the arrest of Rogerio Cadena.
For Sarah, who was inside the brothel at the time, the moment remains vivid.
"I saw them put the handcuffs on Rogerio and I almost couldn't believe it," she said.
Then Rivas came inside. "He told us Rogerio was very evil," Sarah said. "I said that I knew that, because I had lived it."
But Sarah's freedom was brief. Like the others, she was taken into custody as a witness. The women, 17 in all, remained in the Krome detention center and the Palm Beach County Stockade for one to five months. They weren't released until lawyers Virginia Coto and Rosario Lozado Schrier of Miami's Immigrant Advocacy Center learned of the case and convinced a judge to let them go.
The lawyers found a place for them in a Miami women's shelter and non-profit groups across the county stepped up to help the women begin building new lives.
They were spared a trip to court when Rogerio Cadena pleaded guilty in the slavery case. At his sentencing, he maintained that he was a low-level worker, not an organizer of the operation.
"At this moment, were you to ask me, did you organize this whole business, are you the leader, I would say, 'You say so, not I,'" Cadena told Judge Ryskamp. "Today I pay for the mistake I made, but don't forget that all of us as humans make mistakes."
His lawyer, Abe Bailey, told the judge that Rogerio Cadena's family members "hightailed it back to Mexico and left him here holding the bag."
Then Justice Department trial attorney Lou DeBaca stood up:
"Millions of people look to the United States as a place where freedom and economic opportunity can be theirs. These defendants tapped into that American dream and perverted it by bringing these girls and women to the United States.
"Once they got here, rather than the good jobs and good life that they had expected--good jobs and good life that had been sold to them by the defendant--they found men waiting to pay for sex with them. They found beatings. They found being hunted down. They found being threatened with guns. They found Rogerio Cadena."
FREEDOM: AFTER THEIR ORDEAL, SURVIVORS PLAN FOR FUTURE
Sarah and Rosa sit in their lawyers' offices, four floors above Biscayne Boulevard and a million miles from their lives in the brothels. They are eating cheese pizza, drinking Coke and talking about their plans for the future.
Work, as waitresses or food preparers for now. Money to send back home. A solid immigration status. And school, they both agree. They want to learn English.
"It's important," says the younger of the two. "If I want to stay in this country and to get a good job, I need English."
All 17 women who were freed from the Cadena brothels hope to remain in the United States. Their legal status is still uncertain, as they wait to hear from immigration officials. But their lawyers hope they will be awarded S visas--for those who have risked their lives to help the government prosecute criminal cases.
But only 200 are given out each year, and the program is set to end this year. If the women are not granted S visas, lawyer Virginia Coto said she hopes the women will qualify for another type of visa that would allow them to apply for permanent residency--and a new life.
"The first time we met them, when we went to visit them in the stockade, we cried all the way home," Coto said. "The level of sexual exploitation was worse than anything we'd ever seen. We were shaken by it. But the distance they have come from that day is incredible. They're out in the community, living their lives with such courage."
They are at different stages of recovery, still struggling to overcome their fears and find peace.
"Today, when I talk to my mother on the phone, we don't talk about this part of my life," Rosa says. "She tells me to put it all in the past, and that is what I want to do. I thought about it a lot at first. I had a lot of nightmares. But little by little, I'm putting it in the past."
What does she value most about her life now?
She answers quickly with a rare smile. "My liberty."
Sarah, who used to hyperventilate when she talked of her experiences, still has moments of panic.
"When I see a tan van, I get scared, because that's what they transported us in. I wonder who's inside. When I see a van like that, I can't forget these things."
Sometimes she sees prostitutes on the street, she says, shaking her head. She cannot understand it. "I think, how can you? You're U.S. citizens! You don't have to do this!"
* * *
FEDERAL TASK FORCE SEEKS TO ROOT OUT INVOLUNTARY SERVITUDE
In California, 80 Thai workers were discovered in slave-like conditions--smuggled into the country, held in a garment sweatshop, forced to work long hours and held behind razor wire at night.
In New York, 50 Mexicans--all deaf--were ordered by their smugglers to sell pencils and trinkets in subways and on street corners for 12 hours at a time. Those who didn't bring in enough money were beaten and their families threatened.
And in Florida, law enforcement officials exposed a Mexican sex-slavery ring that forced at least 27 women into prostitution.
Welcome to America, land of the free.
Ten cases of modern-day slavery--involving about 150 victims--prompted the creation last year of the National Worker Exploitation Task Force, a joint effort between the U.S. departments of Justice and Labor to eradicate the shadowy business of trafficking in humans.
"It's amazing to me that in the final days of the 20th century, we have people held in slavery in this country," said Tom Scott, U.S. attorney for the Southern District, whose office prosecuted the Florida case along with the Justice Department. "That such brutal conditions could exist today--unbelievable!"
No one knows exactly how many people are trafficked into this country, held in slave-like conditions and forced to work, but some Justice Department officials say the number is in the thousands.
"We formed the task force because we had anecdotal information suggesting that this was a problem much larger than just the cases we already knew about," said Bill Lann Lee, acting U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We're talking about personal liberty and laws that derive from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits slavery. These are the most basic elements of humanity."
Cases under investigation or prosecution by the task force, according to a Justice Department official, include:
- Five defendants in Illinois who allegedly imported Russian women to the United States, telling their parents that they would be dancing in respectable, Broadway-type shows. Instead, they were forced to strip in nude dance clubs and become prostitutes.
- Young Nigerian women allegedly lured from poor towns and kept as domestic servants against their will in New York and Texas. They were told if they didn't cooperate, their families would be harmed.
- Two Thai women allegedly kept for years under harsh conditions of domestic servitude by a prominent member of Thai-American society in Los Angeles. The allegations included 18-hour work days, letter censoring and isolation from the outside world.
- Two Florida men who pleaded guilty in May to forcing more than 20 laborers to work in the tomato fields of Immokalee to pay off smuggling debts.
The targets of involuntary servitude tend to be vulnerable populations--poor immigrants, mostly undocumented, and frequently female, Lee said.
The story of the deaf Mexicans in New York became public in 1997 after four workers walked into a Queens police station and, using sign language and written messages, described a life of abuse and enslavement that triggered an avalanche of national attention.
As in many of the slavery cases, they had been promised decent-paying jobs and smuggled into the country only to find themselves living in cramped housing and forced to work. They were watched by bosses who doled out one diaper per child each day and demanded a certain amount of money from each worker. Threats and beatings followed for those who failed to sell enough key chains or pencils.
The task force soon hopes to offer services and information about where to seek help for those in forced labor.
"We need to get the word out in Spanish-language newspapers and television stations especially, that you can come to law enforcement and you will be helped," Scott said.
A national hotline is also on the way, offering information in 140 languages on where victims can get assistance.
For Lee, the cases strike at the heart of the American justice system and the founding principles of the country.
"When I assumed this job in December 1997, I did not anticipate that I would be spending so much of my time on the issue of involuntary servitude, just one year before the millennium," he said. "Today, after all the cases that have come across my desk, I am no longer surprised by it. But I am very saddened by that."--Amy Driscoll, Herald Staff Writer
* * *
ARCHAIC LAWS HAMPER ANTI-SLAVERY EFFORTS
Archaic laws, a lack of minority investigators and fuzzy immigration guidelines combine to hamper the fight against modern-day slavery, Justice Department officials and immigrant advocates say.
The difficulties start with the very laws used in slavery cases.
Peonage, involuntary servitude--the charges harken back to the Civil War and have remained largely unchanged since.
"You can be a slave without chains," one Justice Department official said. "Even though the law has caught up with changing attitudes in areas like domestic violence, slavery is still being prosecuted under the old laws."
Involuntary servitude, also known as forced labor, is the most common charge in slavery cases today. But to prove the case, prosecutors must be able to show that the victims were threatened by their captors. Helplessness or powerlessness isn't a sufficient threat. Law enforcement officials say they'd like to see that changed.
Peonage, the other charge available to prosecutors, is even tougher to prove, requiring that prosecutors demonstrate a debt exists and the victim is being forced to work it off.
The investigations themselves--before cases ever make it into a courtroom--also are hampered by a lack of agents who can assimilate into a minority community and win the trust of victims.
When U.S. Border Patrol Investigator Kevin Douglas was working on a tip about a Mexican brothel in Palm Beach County two years ago, his non-Mexican looks automatically triggered suspicion. He eventually had to pose as a cable television installer to get a good look at the trailer where women were being held.
And winning the trust of victims is tough for investigators--tougher if agents cannot speak the language, notes Mike Gennaco, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted the case of the Thai garment workers.
"The language barrier is a real problem in these cases," he said. "In our case with the Thai workers, we were fortunate enough to have an investigator who spoke the language."
Many of the task force cases involve Mexicans, and authorities believe that is due in part to higher numbers of Spanish-speaking agents.
"If there are Asian brothel houses in Portland, Ore., and they don't have any Asian investigators, they're probably not going to be aware of it," noted a Justice Department spokesman. "As Hispanics increasingly enter law enforcement, I think we're more attuned to those crimes."
After arrests are made, prosecutors face a new hurdle--immigration guidelines that offer an uncertain future for victims. Many victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of being returned to their homelands where they might face retribution. Most prosecutions rely heavily on the testimony of the victims.
Only recently have federal law enforcement agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, begun to work with the victims to help them stay. Some have obtained "S" visas, awarded to victims who substantially help the government in prosecuting a case.
But only 200 S visas are awarded nationwide each year and the program is set to end this year. Other visa programs are under consideration that may offer a better solution for victims in slavery cases, but nothing has been officially announced.
"The federal government wants to make sure that exploited workers--the true victims in these cases--are not exploited any further by the prosecution process," Gennaco said. "After it's all said and done, it should be taken into account that they did assist us and that they have concerns about retribution if they are returned to their countries."--Amy Driscoll, Herald Staff Writer