Raising Awareness of Human Trafficking in NYC

(Photo via El Diario)

(Photo via El Diario)

The state of New York is a “niche for human trafficking,” warned activists who seek to raise awareness on this issue and to break stereotypes about victims and survivors.

Griselda Vega, senior director of nonprofit Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program, said that most of the people served by their organization were victims of labor-related human trafficking and that they entered the country with a work visa.

“These are not undocumented immigrants, as it is commonly assumed,” said Vega. “The employer promises a well-paid job and takes care of the visa paperwork but, when the person arrives in the country, she is threatened and forced to live in slavery conditions.”

Vega said that another common situation among the people who turn to Safe Horizon is when the “coyote” (smuggler) sells the victim to unscrupulous employers. The trafficker takes the victim’s wages as payment for the delivery. In many cases, the illicit transaction is facilitated by a member of the person’s family.

“We have seen recruiters from the U.S. who travel to rural areas in Mexico with labor trafficking purposes,” said Vega. “Once they are in the [U.S.], the victims sleep in deplorable rooms with up to 20 other people. The employers do not feed them, and they abuse them physically and sexually.”

Since 2001, Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program has assisted nearly 600 people, 45 percent of whom entered the U.S. on a work visa. Most came from the Philippines, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and 79 percent of them were women while 21 percent were men.

“Their visa is legal but, when they come into the U.S., the job offer turns into trafficking,” added Vega.

The activist said that most of the cases of labor trafficking seen at Safe Horizon are linked to the industries of domestic work, hospital services and construction.

The numbers from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) are staggering: As of Sept. 30, the agency had received 438 calls from people in the state of New York this year and assisted in 141 cases of human trafficking. Of those, 113 were sexual trafficking cases, 19 were related to labor trafficking and seven were both. Of the victims, 124 were women.

According to the NHTRC, the places where sexual services linked to trafficking are most commonly purchased are brothels disguised as legitimate businesses (20), brothels located inside private homes (14), hotels and motels (14), online services (9) and escort services (7).

“On neither side of the [U.S.-Mexico] border the gangs who trade and traffic humans are prosecuted with the same rage as drug cartels,” said Teresa Ulloa-Ziáurriz, regional director for the Regional Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW-LAC) in a phone interview. “However, district attorney’s offices and police forces in New York formed an effective offensive against pimps and traffickers, which has forced Mexico to take action.”

The CATW-LAC has built networks in 15 countries in the Americas and has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Ulloa-Ziáurriz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2005, pointed out that New York set a precedent when it sentenced four pimps from Tenancingo to life in prison. The Mexican city, located in the state of Tlaxcala, is the epicenter of the trafficking networks currently operating here in the tri-state area.

“The traffickers had been able to escape, but were apprehended in Mexico and are facing sentences of between 70 and 120 years in prison, and even 300 years, which is the equivalent of life in prison in the U.S.,” said Ulloa-Ziáurriz, who has worked with female victims of human trafficking for 45 years.

Bilateral collaboration

The branch of CATW-LAC in Mexico City collaborates with the New York nonprofit organization Sanctuary for Families. This binational effort makes the identification of trafficking routes easier and increases the chances of victims being rescued. The latest person to be freed was a 14-year-old girl from Puebla who was being sold as a prostitute in Queens, said Ulloa-Ziáurriz.

The activist explained that pimp gangs are protected by drug cartels, the Gulf, Los Zetas, Nuevo Milenio and Los Caballeros Templarios in particular. For their close proximity to the border, the cities of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Tijuana are their door into the U.S.

Ulloa-Ziáurriz said that Queens and Brooklyn are the networks’ most frequent destinations in New York. Most of the victims are from Puebla and Tlaxcala.

An idea prevails that male immigrant workers are the main consumers of the sexual services offered through the trafficking business, but Ulloa-Ziáurriz said that “people from the U.S. with money and power” are the ones paying for the services.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office said that, every year in New York state, around 1,000 minors are victims of sexual trafficking. “Without demand, there would be no sexual exploitation,” said Ulloa-Ziáurriz.

CATW-LAC findings reveal that kidnapping, false promises of employment, and seduction (in the form of offers of marriage or romantic relationships) are the methods utilized to recruit the victims of human trafficking. Pimp gangs usually advertise through so-called “chicas cards.”

Safe Horizon offers services in Spanish. To find help 24 hours a day, call (800) 621-4673.

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