Inside the Hidden World of Sex Trafficking on L.I.

Rosa* was about to cross the United States-Mexico border when her coyote, or human smuggler, ordered the 22-year-old to have sex with him and told her that the promise of a job in computers or modeling in New York was a trick to force her into prostitution. Tracy*, 18, a product of the Boston foster care system, had been sold from one pimp to another until she was arrested for prostitution on Long Island; she told her story to investigators and was admitted to a shelter for human trafficking victims.

Rosa is staying in a group home where authorities hope that she will one day get to testify against her traffickers.

Tracy checked herself out of the shelter three days later and hasn’t been seen since.

The two are but a glimpse of the untold number of victims swept up in the global and domestic sex trafficking trade—mostly women under 25, one-third of them minors—who have been forced, coerced or duped into a life of selling sex. Up to 200,000 are reportedly U.S. citizens, in addition to more than 17,000 Hispanic, Asian and Eastern European immigrants, but experts say such statistical estimates are virtually impossible to verify. The approximately $9.5 billion human trafficking trade is among the top three criminal markets worldwide alongside illegal drug and arms dealing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sex trafficking cases are among more than 80 percent of reported human trafficking incidents, DOJ estimates show. The rest are exploited in the equally shadowy and traumatizing world of labor trafficking, such as two Indonesian housekeepers found physically abused and severely underpaid for five years in a 2007 slave case in Muttontown. While the conviction of two multi-millionaire slave masters highlighted the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of those crimes, federal prosecutors similarly lifted the veil on a local sex slave ring, charging three Suffolk County suspects with recruiting women from Latin America to work at LI bars where they were allegedly forced to have sex with patrons for money.

Those two federal trafficking cases are among the first to be tried on LI since investigations into this form of modern-day slavery became possible under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. On the local level, the first sex trafficker to be convicted under a 2007 New York State (NYS) anti-trafficking law aimed at smaller, more localized cases was a Queens man sentenced in January to 25 years in prison. In neighboring Nassau County, however, prosecutors say the state law doesn’t go far enough and needs to be amended in order to be effective. As Tracy’s story illustrates, getting a distressed victim to cooperate is not an easy task, further complicating an inherently complex initiative.

“A lot of people don’t believe that this is going on, [that] it’s only in the movies,” says Detective John Birbiglia of the Nassau County police Narcotics/Vice Squad, who shared the details of four cases, including Tracy’s and Rosa’s, in the hope of raising awareness. This is all he deals with as the Nassau police representative on the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force for Long Island, which teams federal investigators with local authorities and nonprofit service providers. “How many kids are being prostituted out there that we aren’t even aware of?”

Advocates who have been sounding the alarm on this issue agree.

“I think the public isn’t necessarily aware of how exploited the youth is in the sex trade,” says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of Equality Now, a New York City-based international human rights and women’s rights organization.

“When you think about slavery you think of somebody being chained to a radiator,” says Bien-Aimé, whose organization teamed with likeminded advocates to form the New York Anti-Trafficking Coalition. “They don’t need a gun to the head…we’re talking about the exploitation of the most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Still, investigations are usually more focused on cracking down on the supply end of the sex trade, not the demand, although there are the occasional “John stings.” And Johns, as men who seek out prostitutes are colloquially called, can be anyone—even the man who signed the state’s anti-trafficking law, which also toughened penalties for patronizing prostitutes, former NYS Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned two years ago this week amid a prostitution scandal.

Ashley “Kristen” Dupré, the former high-priced call girl linked to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

“A lot of these guys go to these places once, twice a week,” Birbiglia says from his office in an undisclosed secluded building. One pimp, whom Birbiglia calls “Brazilian Joe,” told him he brings women from Connecticut and New Jersey to hotels and motels on Long Island for one reason alone: “The men in Nassau County have money.”

Brazilian Joe, whom Birbiglia did not identify because his case is still being investigated, will likely be deported thanks to the victims that identified him. But another trafficker will quickly fill the void, he says. It’s just the nature of the beast.

As long as there are those willing to pay for sex, trafficking will continue to fuel the prostitution industry played out in Internet ads, in the back rooms of certain strip clubs and in covert brothels disguised as massage parlors in strip malls across LI.

Now that it’s almost spring, temperatures have warmed up enough for street prostitution to make a comeback, as evidenced by a recent drive-by of women loitering on street corners during the early-morning hours in a western Suffolk County industrial park (the Press is not identifying streets and towns, lest this become a how-to story). There may not be a neon sign advertising it, but the indicators are all there: a half-dozen women in racy, tight clothes on a desolate street offering an inviting smile to passersby.

But this does not mean love is in the air, as is often said about this time of year. There may be some forced flirting, but the business of prostitution is not about warmth. It can often turn violent.

Birbiglia recalls Janet*, a prostitute he recently interviewed in the psych ward at Nassau University Medical Center after she was found on Hempstead Turnpike near the hospital. He was called in after the heavyset, 20-year-old black woman, whom he describes as a “rambler,” told an officer she was a high-level member of a drug- and sex-trafficking ring.

“I think she jumped out of the pimp’s car,” he says. “She knows the pimps are out looking for her and want to beat the hell out of her.”

Janet gave only vague details and offered no names, so she was treated and released without being offered trafficking-victim protections, a tough call that Birbiglia says he has to make in these situations. Since she is homeless, she likely went back to the pimp, he adds. Although disheartening, unhappy endings are not out of the ordinary in his line of work.

Spitzer during his resignation speech on March 17, 2008 with his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, by his side. Sptizer cited “private failings” for his decision amid reports he was caught in a prostitution scandal. (AP Photo/ Stephen Chernin)

The last time Birbiglia heard anything about Tracy, the teen who checked herself out of the group home, she was somewhere in New York City.

“She’s been used and abused in foster homes; this is all she knows,” he says. He estimates he’s seen at least two dozen cases like hers in the past four years since he began conducting trafficking investigations.

“At that young age, when they get involved with pimps, it gets to be Stockholm syndrome,” he says, referring to the psychological condition in which captives become sympathetic to their captors. After Tracy was arrested and jailed, her pimp paid her bail. “‘We just bailed you out, now you’re going to have to work twice as hard,’” she said they told her, according to Birbiglia. That’s when the syndrome apparently wore off.

“When they finally sit there and start opening up to you, it’s really sad,” he says. But that cooperation proved fleeting. After Tracy was checked out at a hospital and checked into a group home run by Catholic Charities, one of two nonprofits that help local trafficking victims, “she very politely told us to go scratch.”

Then she was gone, which is also not uncommon in this type of case.

“You have young girls and boys that are lured into this activity, oftentimes runaways, and you’ve got the pimps who intentionally get them addicted to drugs like meth or crack because that helps them to continue that trafficking,” says Andra Ackerman, director of human trafficking prevention and policy for the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“Let’s say you have a perpetrator who has six girls that he has lured into this—forced them and drugged them up—now when he’s done with them or gets caught, you have six drug-addicted, oftentimes mentally ill, to a certain extent, and traumatized girls who, when they meet with law enforcement, have problems in their life much bigger than this case,” continues Ackerman, a former prosecutor for Schenectady’s special victims unit.

“It’s very hard for [police] to be able to not only get [victims] to talk initially, but when they do, to keep them on board for six months to a year when the trial comes. Because you can’t force the victims to stay local. You can’t force them to continue to cooperate,” she says.

And there are strong feelings on both sides of the law to overcome, Ackerman adds. “The law enforcement [officers] that are so buried with cases, it takes time to change their attitudes on this so they don’t take it so personally when that victim might be antagonistic toward them,” she says.

Experts liken the currently shifting attitude in law enforcement to a similar change in the approach to domestic violence cases over the last several decades. Whereas police may have told a physically abusive husband to “take a walk” three decades ago, now officers are trained in these types of cases, which are recognized as emotionally charged situations that require careful handling.

Similarly, now investigators are trained by the likes of Ackerman and Birbiglia so that some of those who are arrested for prostitution are properly identified as sex-trafficking victims, and not criminals.

Investigators say forced prostitution victims who have been smuggled into the United States—willingly or not—may be more inclined to cooperate because they can qualify for T-visas, a special residency status offered to human trafficking victims that may lead to citizenship. This is because a common occurrence in sex trafficking cases involving immigrants is that the coyotes will take victims’ passports and personal documents upon arrival and use the threat of deportation as one of their main coercive tactics.

Sonidos De La Frontera in Lake Ronkonkoma (pictured) and La Hijas Del Mariachi in Farmingville (next page) are now closed down, but authorities say the two bars down the road from one another were a home to a violent sex slave ring run by a convicted sex offender, his sister and a third man who carried out their orders. The trio are now facing federal sex trafficking charges. (Ethan Stokes/Long Island Press)

“We’re basically committing them to what we call a victim-centered investigation, which focuses on the identification, rescue and the needs of victims,” says Lou Martinez, spokesman for the New York division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which plays a leading role in these types of cases. “They have equal value as the apprehension and prosecution of traffickers.”

Four victims in the Suffolk County federal sex trafficking case pending in the Eastern District of New York are likely acquiring visas after telling their stories to authorities. In that case, brother and sister bar owners and their bar manager who were arrested in August 2009 are accused of forcing Latin American women, some as young as 17, to perform sex acts on patrons for money and threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they refused. Those who still resisted were assaulted and raped, prosecutors say.

Antonio Rivera, 34, who was convicted of raping a 13-year-old in 1998, is one of the alleged ringleaders, along with his 31-year-old sister, Jasmin Rivera. Together they owned Sonidos de la Frontera in Lake Ronkonkoma and La Hijas del Mariachi in Farmingville, where investigators say manager John Whaley, 29, encouraged the women—who were originally hired as waitresses—to drink with and strip for patrons, let them touch their nude bodies and have sex with them in the bar. Undercover investigators witnessed waitresses performing oral sex on patrons out in the open, according to court documents.

ICE agents say that the trio also shuttled the women between bars in Hempstead, Huntington and Brentwood.

In the end, it was a case of following the money, investigators with the Internal Revenue Service say. “People don’t typically think about IRS criminal investigators being involved with a sex trafficking case,” Patricia Haynes, IRS special agent-in-charge of the New York Field office, said at the time of the arrest. “But what it all comes down to is greed.”

For other alleged victims, the trip to the United States alone makes the case for a trafficking investigation, according to Birbiglia.

Louisa*, 24, took a 24-hour bus ride from Honduras to Mexico. There, she joined about 30 other people being smuggled at a halfway house, where the coyotes called her family, demanded they wire $1,000 and threatened her with death. Upon payment, the group was shipped via train to another halfway house, where another 80 people being smuggled boarded. Four times during local stops, everyone got off and ran past the next station, then boarded again on the other side to avoid detection by authorities or other smugglers, Birbiglia surmises.

The group then slept outside two nights, again reminded that if they tried to escape, they would be killed, until they later boarded box trucks. A new group of smugglers led them to the Texas border where another $3,000 was demanded—but not before the women were separated from the men and herded like cattle from compound to compound, where they were strip searched. Some were chained up, beaten with sticks and raped.

Eventually Louisa and a small group climbed on top of an old car to boost them over the border wall into the United States, but the final group of smugglers on the other side was the most violent and threatening, she told investigators. Again the coyotes forced her to strip, model for them and touched her all over. They finally turned her over to a relative for $1,600.

Louisa and the family member then drove across country to her sister’s home on Long Island, where they called police to report what had happened.

For Rosa, the would-be model who was duped, the story is somewhat similar. She and four Mexican transvestites walked from Tijuana for four days across the desert until she reached a house in Los Angeles where her passport and personal documents were confiscated by coyotes, Birbiglia says. She was given a fake ID for her flight to New York City and once she arrived, was put right to work as a prostitute. Several months later, in November 2006, she was arrested on Long Island and deported back to her native Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, but the coyotes kept calling: They demanded her to come back. She still owed them $6,000.

Eventually, Rosa took the same route back to NYC, but by then they told her she owed $12,000 and had to work for them until she paid it off—a form of trafficking known as debt bondage. It was the same routine, traveling from hotel to hotel: New York to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, and back again. Up to nine men every day.

Her traffickers forced her into the realm of Internet prostitution, where online advertisements include a photo, phone number and an intentionally vague description of services offered—a scene that plays out countless times daily nationwide and on LI. With the going rate being about $150 per hour, Rosa would have had to have sex with an estimated 80 men before she would be free, but instead was held for more than a year, because traffickers include the victim’s housing, transportation and daily expenses in the debt.

Arrested on Long Island again in early 2008, Rosa told her story to investigators. Now, she’s in a group home, waiting patiently for justice to be served to her traffickers, praying her family doesn’t get retaliated against as a result.

“She’s looking for a better life for herself, she wants to send money back to her family and kids,” Birbiglia says, noting that another human trafficking task force in the Southwest has since picked up both Rosa and Louisa’s investigations. “The only ones who are making money in all of this are the pimps and the recruiters.”

Despite the progress that has been made, when New York State passed its anti-human-trafficking law, one glaring omission was the lack of protections for sex trafficking victims who are under 18. Force, fraud or coercion need not be proven in their cases because they are minors, yet under state law they were still being charged with prostitution.

Antonio Rivera, previously convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, is now facing federal sex trafficking charges.

That’s about to change. On April 1, the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act will go into effect in New York and will for the first time offer boys and girls access to safe houses, emergency medical care and counseling instead of throwing them in jail. For those younger than 16, who would be charged with prostitution as a juvenile in family court, the new law will offer similar services and protections as an alternative to juvenile detention.

Bien-Aimé of Equality Now cites New York’s most infamous former call girl, Ashley Dupré—of Spitzer fame—as an example of how easily a minor can get swept up in the sex trade.

was pimped out when she was 17 years old, at a time when she was homeless and she had no choice and she was a runaway. This was a child who was down on her luck, who was lonely and depressed, and of all the guys who came to her rescue, it was her pimp,” Bien-Aimé says, adding that children as young as 12 can be forced into prostitution.

“Was that really a consensual activity? No, it was exploitation,” she says. “I think there are many Ashleys out there. But even the Ashleys are a small percentage of the…devastatingly sad number of women and girls who are in ‘the life,’ as they say, and have no way of exiting.”

Another striking omission in the state law is the non-inclusion of the most addictive drugs predators use on their slaves in the sex trafficking trade. The law needs to be amended to include the full list of drugs that sex traffickers can be accused of using to manipulate prostitutes, Nassau County prosecutors say.

Carole Trottere, spokeswoman for Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, declined to elaborate on the one active sex-trafficking case the office has, but said there are only three drugs—marijuana, methadone and GHB, better known as the date-rape drug—that a sex trafficker can be charged with using to impair a victim’s judgment. However, the current state law excludes crack-cocaine, crystal meth and heroin—the three drugs experts say pimps often feed to prostitutes. Rice’s office says alcohol should be included as well.

Birbiglia says he is working with Rice’s office on their investigation, but notes that most of his cases will be tried federally. Ackerman, the state human trafficking prevention director, says trying sex trafficking cases federally is often best for the victim.

“In order to get the elements needed under the state law, that victim has to testify to her state of mind—that she felt threatened, that she was coerced, that she was given drugs—and she has to talk to 16 to 21 people in grand jury about what happened to her and that’s very traumatizing,” Ackerman says. “Federally, hearsay is admissible in grand jury, so a trusted investigator that’s built a rapport with that victim can testify as to what he or she felt and what happened.”

If the victim were to testify in grand jury before they’re ready, there is a possibility they could lie out of fear and wind up facing perjury charges, which not only further traumatizes the victim, but also damages the case, Ackerman adds.

Careful legal considerations aside, those who believe New York should follow Nevada’s lead and legalize prostitution say the war on human trafficking unfairly targets prostitutes who are not trafficked.

“Sex workers are human beings and they deserve basic human rights,” says Elizabeth Wood, a Nassau Community College professor of sociology who specializes in sexuality. “Trafficking violates their human rights, but the criminalization of their work also violates their human rights,” she says. Wood adds that coercion may stem from an economic situation, meaning prostitution “could be the best of a bunch of bad choices.”

Arrests for Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Offenses (Source: DCJS, Computerized Criminal History System, 01/2010)

Those who support prostitution with their wallets, regardless of its criminality, don’t perceive their visits as a simple roll in the hay, either. “It’s like an addiction,” one John—who asked that his name not be used—tells the Press. “There was like binges you’d go on, almost like cocaine—and I had a girlfriend at the time,” he says. At his peak he saw a prostitute twice weekly, spending at least $10,000 in his lifetime, he says.

He worries that he may have contributed to sex trafficking in at least one instance. “I feel like I might have victimized one,” he says, adding that in all of his encounters, “they didn’t seem like they were being forced.”

Regardless, reality is not always pretty for those in the sex trade by their own free will or not.

“When we talk about violence against women, we understand domestic violence, we understand rape, we understand assault…but all of a sudden when we talk about prostitution, it’s two consenting adults,” says Bien-Aimé. “The reality of being sold into the sex trade is the reality of violence, of not having any choices.”

To report a suspect human trafficking offense in Nassau County, contact Detective John Birbiglia at 516-573-3400

*The names of all sex trafficking victims in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
Past Federal Human Trafficking Cases on L.I.

Jose Ibanez and his wife, Mariluz Zavala, pleaded guilty to forced labor and extortion charges in November 2004 for helping smuggle 69 fellow Peruvians, including 13 children, beginning in 1999. The couple held the victims prisoners in several houses in Suffolk, only allowing them out to work off their smuggling fees. The case was among the largest human trafficking rings ever uncovered in the United States.

Glenn Marcus, 56, of North Woodmere, was convicted of sex trafficking and forced labor in March 2007 and sentenced to nine years in prison but is currently free on bail after the conviction was overturned. Prosecutors said Marcus dominated and abused his girlfriend who initially consented to a sadomasochistic relationship but later wanted out. The case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its ruling in the near future.

Mahender Sabhnani and his wife, Varsha, were convicted in December 2007 of forced labor and peonage for forcing two Indonesian women to work in slave-like conditions for five years in the couple’s Muttontown home. The case came to light after one of the victims escaped and wandered into a Dunkin Donuts in Syosset. The couple has appealed the verdict, although a ruling has not yet been made.
Rise of the Virtual Brothel

The Internet has provided new marketplaces for sex traffickers to peddle their wares. Since their inception, sites like Craigslist and Backpage have become major hubs for the prostitution trade. One need only know a few simple codes to decipher such ads: “HH,” for instance, indicates a half-hour of service; “FH” is a full hour; “BBBJ” is a bareback blow job, i.e., fellatio sans condom; and so on. Indeed, in September 2007, Richard McGuire, Nassau County’s assistant chief of detectives told The New York Times, “Craigslist has become the high-tech 42nd Street, where much of the solicitation takes place now. Technology has worked its way into every profession, including the oldest.” (Naturally, there are also message boards where prostitutes found on Craigslist and Backpage are criticized, discussed and rated, so that potential clients can know what they’re getting.)

After mounting opposition and outrage—not to mention allegations by numerous states that their ads were being used for prostitution—in May 2009, Craigslist announced it would shutter its “Erotic Services” section, replacing it with a more heavily monitored “Adult Services” section.

Still, while the stricter protocol may have slightly curtailed activity, the site remains a viable marketing tool for prostitution. This past February, Rodney Hubert, of Brooklyn, along with three female associates, allegedly recruited a 15-year-old girl online, convincing her to travel to Maryland for what she was told was a modeling job. Once she arrived, the teenage girl was allegedly brought to a Comfort Inn in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she was photographed in suggestive poses. Those photographs wound up on Craigslist, where the girl was advertised for prostitution. According to the charging documents, the girl had sex with a man who paid $200, before the police busted the operation.



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