Sex slaves hidden victims in trade
Along with thousands of people who try to cross the U.S. Mexican border every day are many woman destined to be trapped in world's most lucrative slave markets. Once in the U.S. the women are kept quiet by threats of violence against them or their families in Mexico.
"If you get caught with guns and drugs you'll get a long prison term," says Rick Castro, a deputy sheriff with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and a veteran of the war against modern slavers.
"But if you're a trafficker you've already told your victims that if they talk to the cops they'll be killed or raped. Or their family members back home will be killed. So there's less chance of being caught."
Little wonder that many victims keep quiet. Only 100 or so human trafficking cases have made it into US courts.
Slave trafficking ranks only behind drugs and weapons smuggling among the world's most profitable crimes. It's extent is not known with any certainty. The State Department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the US each year, but other organizations estimate that the number is much higher.
"Maybe half that annual number, or more, become sex slaves," says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation. "It's a very hidden crime. And it's one in which the crime is not an event, like a mugging reported to the police, but a process."
Trafficing in slavery is a world wide phenomenon. In France 90 per cent of female prostitutes are believed to be trafficking victims. Bales estimates that up to 250,000 slaves exist in the US. "The basic rule of trafficking is that people move from poorer to richer countries," he says. Many victims come from Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. But the trade is pervasive. Women are traded from, say, Mali to Ghana, and from Ghana to Nigeria, then from Nigeria to Italy.
Rescue groups across the US work to rehabilitate physically and psychologically traumatised women, while toll-free, international hotlines in the US, the EU, Russia and other regions to receive calls from victims and their families. For example, San Diego's Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition has helped to rehabilitate 16 victims - from Korea, the Philippines, Mexico and Guatemala - in the past three months.
But law enforcement remains largely uninvolved in the problem and many victims are too frightened to testify resulting in few cases ever being prosecuted. "A lot are forgotten," says deputy sheriff Castro. "After years of abuse they almost forget who they are. They become numb and zombie-like. These girls are raped 20 to 30 times a day. Every day for years."
Slavery is a human rights area badly in need of publicity. Without public awareness, little will be done about it.