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Human trafficking in New York

Por Mariel Fiori
April 2013
Maria Elena was 13 when a family acquaintance told her in the United States she could earn ten times more waiting tables than what she earned in the small village she lived. She and several other girls were taken by car across the border, from where they continued the rest of the way on foot. They walked through the desert during four days to get to Texas, and then continued eastward toward Florida. Finally, Maria Elena and her companions reached their destination, an isolated trailer in which they were forced into prostitution. María Elena was gang-raped and locked up in the trailer until she agreed to do what she was told. She was guarded 24 hours a day and forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day. When she became pregnant, she was forced to abort and was sent back to work the next day. Finally, Maria Elena escaped and was arrested along with her handlers. A true story about human trafficking shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the United States.

Modern slavery is a global business worth 32 billion dollars; it is the enterprise that makes the most earnings, next to drugs and arms trafficking. It is also the most macabre of these businesses: what is being bought and sold are human beings, often children (as in the case of Maria Elena), to force them into prostitution or work in domestic and farm work, among other things. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that between 14 and 17.5 thousand people are sold to the country each year. According to the Polaris Project, a non-profit organization that manages a national telephone hotline to report cases of human trafficking, foreigners made up 36% of the calls to 1-888-3737-888.

Recently, I was a moderator for a panel in the city of Albany that dealt with the issue of human trafficking and its impact on the Latino community in New York. In attendance was the activist Rebecca Fuentes, who through her work in her organization, Workers’ Center of Central New York, was responsible for helping 19 immigrants with visa H2B who worked for the New York Fair in extreme conditions of abuse and exploitation (they were paid a dollar per hours for 16-18 hour shifts daily and they were forced to sleep with 9 or 10 men in an insect-infested trailer, among other abuses) to receive $115,000 in withheld wages. Because this type of exploitation is without a doubt a form of slavery and human trafficking, the employer was forced to pay a fine of $55,000 for his crime. Lamentably, Rebecca told the panel, after the trial the employer once again received permission to run the fair and employed more immigrants with the same types of visa. One step forward, one step backward.

Also on the panel was Dania Lopez Beltran, a lawyer from the Immigrant Intervention Project of Sanctuary for Families, an organization based in New York that has helped more than 10,000 victims and their children of domestic violence and sex trafficking. According to Sanctuary for Families, 213 of their clients were victims of sex trafficking and in the majority of the cases, the woman was forced into prostitution by her own boyfriend or partner. Wayne Shuptrine, an FBI agent who is fluent in Spanish, shared what signs to look out for when reporting a possible case of human trafficking:  threat of force or serious damage to the person (or their loved ones), legal threats, confiscation of passport, increasing the debt, afraid to leave the site, and more. Despite the effort (human trafficking is the number 5 priority of the FBI) Shuptrine said that investigations begin when somebody makes a 1-888-3737-888 call, and that the possible arrest (once all the information has been carefully studied) occurs just one or two years after the initial contact.

Maria Elena Ferrer, founder of Humanamente, said that there is hope for the victims so that they can recover the confidence in themselves and have a free life after so much pain. It can be done! It is estimated that 63 percent of the victims of labor trafficking in New York State are Hispanic. A person in the audience pointed out that human trafficking issues do not appear in the media enough and that is why people are not aware. This editorial is for her and for the readers of La Voz.

*Translated by Emma Kading and Emely Paulino 

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