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U.S. grapples with 'modern-day slavery' August 31, 2000 Web posted at: 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- When an acquaintance offered Maria a way to land a good-paying restaurant job in the United States, the young woman from Veracruz, Mexico, had no way of knowing the magnitude of the lie she was being told.
She also had no way of anticipating the physical, moral and spiritual degradation she would endure.
The phony offer lured her at age 18 into becoming an unwilling part of what some are calling modern-day slavery. Maria was smuggled across the border into Texas, then transported to Florida and forced to work as a prostitute, having sex with 35 migrant workers a day in rundown trailers.
ALSO World faces deluge of human trafficking
Her horror did not end until months later when law enforcement officials raided the brothels and brought criminal charges against members of Mexico's Cadena family.
"I was enslaved for several months, other women were enslaved for up to a year," Maria, using an alias to protect her identity, said through a translator.
"We were constantly guarded and abused. If anyone refused to be with a customer, we were beaten. If we adamantly refused, the bosses would show us a lesson by raping us brutally. They told us if we refused again it would be even worse the next time," she said. "I was too afraid to try to escape."
Maria's story is tragic but not unusual. U.S. officials estimate that 50,000 people from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia are trafficked into the United States annually by organized crime gangs. Officials say half of them are women and girls -- some barely into their teens -- who are forced into prostitution, while the rest are people forced into involuntary servitude in homes, sweatshop factories and fields.
And the U.S. situation represents just a fraction of a massive worldwide problem. The U.S. State Department says one million people annually are ensnared in trafficking.
Local, state and federal officials are just beginning to recognize the scope of the problem and the inadequacy of existing U.S. laws to combat it. The Senate and House of Representatives both have passed legislation to increase penalties against the perpetrators, provide services and a new type of immigrant status for victims, and launch a global campaign to get the word out about human trafficking.
"There's been no real concerted effort to end this morally reprehensible, deplorable practice," Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in an interview. He and Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, are the chief sponsors of the Senate bill.
Multibillion-dollar business Trafficking in human beings, particularly women for prostitution, has become a $9-billion-a-year global business, the United Nations says. A key factor behind the recent surge in trafficking was the entrance of crime syndicates from Russia and other former Soviet republics that kidnap and exploit women from the old Soviet bloc seeking opportunities in the West.
"I think much of the world isn't aware that this is going on," Brownback said in an interview.
Most people brought to America come from former Soviet bloc nations (Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland), Latin American countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Brazil, and Asia countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, China and Vietnam, U.S. officials said.
A CIA report, "International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery," found that weak laws on trafficking people and the complicated nature of building cases against those responsible have dissuaded many U.S. prosecutors from taking trafficking cases.
The report pointed out that after raiding brothels, authorities generally jail and quickly deport the women because they are illegally in the United States, depriving prosecutors of potentially vital witnesses against the perpetrators.
Bills now in Congress are intended to change all that. They would criminalize all forms of trafficking in people and double the maximum penalties for enticement into slavery or peonage and sale into involuntary servitude to 20 years.
They provide for life terms for cases that result in death or involve kidnapping or aggravated sexual abuse or for sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion or trafficking of children under age 14. They would expand services for victims and would let them sue perpetrators for monetary damages.
The measures would also bar victims from being jailed, instead requiring authorities to give them shelter, medical care, food and other services, as well as access to legal help. And they would create a new immigration status for trafficking victims, letting them stay in the United States and seek permanent resident status after three years.
U.S. assistance also would go to nations aiming to stop the trafficking of their citizens, and America would mount campaigns to promote awareness overseas about trafficking schemes.
Strong support among lawmakers The House unanimously passed its version on May 9 and the Senate followed on July 27, also with no dissent. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and Rep. Sam Gejdenson, a Connecticut Democrat, are the lead sponsors of the House bill.
House and Senate negotiators are working to iron out the differences, chiefly over whether to require U.S. sanctions on countries deemed to be doing too little to stop human trafficking. Final congressional approval is expected in September and Wellstone said he has a firm commitment that President Clinton will sign the legislation into law.
Brownback said a trip he took in January convinced him that something had to be done. "I personally went into Nepal, to Katmandu, earlier this year and met with young girls -- they were probably around 16, 17, 18 -- who had returned from being trafficked from Nepal into India," he said in an interview.
"Two-thirds of them were coming back with AIDS and/or tuberculosis. These are girls who were being trafficked at 11, 12, 13 years of age, deceived, tricked, promised a job and forced into prostitution. And then they come home to die. It is the most horrifying thing that I've seen," he said.
"We like to stress that there's trafficking going on in just about every country: Either they're a sender country, a transit country or a receiver country," said Laura Lederer, director of the Washington-based Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in human trafficking.
Survivor tells her story Maria told her story to a Senate subcommittee in April, pleading for lawmakers to "not let this happen to anyone else." She wore a disguise during her appearance alongside a handful of other survivors, saying she feared her captors would recognize her and threaten her life and her relatives in Veracruz.
Her ordeal began in May 1997. Maria said she had been working as a domestic helper and jumped at the chance of making better pay working in a U.S. restaurant or bar. She described her disbelief when, after being smuggled into Florida, a member of the Cadena family told her that she would be working instead as a prostitute to pay off a "smuggling debt" of $2,200.
"We worked six days a week and 12-hour days," she said. "We mostly had to serve 32-35 clients a day. Our bodies were utterly sore and swollen."
She also described being jailed after the brothels were raided. She won her release only after the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center convinced authorities that the Cadena family's many victims needed help, not punishment.
Rogerio Cadena, a ringleader, pleaded guilty in federal court last year to civil rights violations and other charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution to the victims. Seven others also were convicted, but another seven indicted members of the Cadena family remain in Mexico.
-- K (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 31, 2000