Maria's story: From Guatemala to Hell

This is excerpted from Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter’s book, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), based in Washington, DC, and Baltimore, works with survivors of sexual slavery. In their training sessions and public seminars, they present the story of a young girl whom they call “Maria.”

According to LIRS records, Maria grew up in a small country town in Guatemala. Her father, a farmer, struggled but failed to provide adequately for his family, and they often went hungry. For years, an uncle occasionally came by to bring some food–and to sexually abuse Maria. Her parents refused to believe the girl when she complained.

When Maria was sixteen, a man met with her parents and offered to send their children to America, where steady work awaited. They selected Maria because of her “maturity” and ability to work hard. At this juncture, the man treated her well. He flattered her, bought her gifts, made her “feel special.” With her natural beauty and his contacts, he told her, he was certain he could make her a successful model. The prospect of removing her uncle from the picture by sending money home, and hopefully sparing her sisters the pain and shame of being molested as she had been, pleased the young girl.

The dream died abruptly. The night Maria was scheduled to make her journey north, the man picked her up in his truck, drove her to a border town, and rented a motel room. For the next four days, she was locked in the room and raped again and again. Then, she and four other girls were driven into the United States; their first stop was a ravine, where Maria was forced to have sex with nine men. Her “sponsor” told her that if she attempted to leave or speak to the authorities, she would be jailed as an illegal immigrant. In addition, he threatened the lives of her family. She was trapped, and it was about to get worse.

The trafficker sold the shell-shocked teenager to a Mexican organized crime group. They took her further north and installed her in an apartment with three other girls, to be sold for sex all day, every day. Sometimes she was forced to walk the streets under a trafficker’s watchful eye. Not surprisingly, she contracted several sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and was beaten regularly.

In time, the apartment was raided, and Maria was victimized yet again–this time by the authorities, in a “sting” operation. Maria should have been freed and helped toward the mental and physical healing she so desperately needed. Instead, she was arrested for illegal prostitution and eventually released back to her “uncle”–the trafficker who paid her bill. She was returned to her life as a sex slave.

There were several opportunities for Maria to be freed; all of them were missed. They came when she was taken to the health clinic for her STDs; when she was brought to the emergency room after a particularly vicious beating by a sadistic john; when a naive social worker failed to question how the trafficker’s “wife” had fallen down a flight of stairs; and when she was picked up by the police. Training, sensitivity, and awareness would have made all the difference. A suspicion that all was not right, a few carefully phrased questions, and Maria’s story would have ended differently. She could have received counseling, an education, and the chance to become a free resident of the United States. As it is, after her long-delayed rescue in another raid on the brothel, she was briefly placed in a foster program, from which she ran away. This is not a story with a happy ending; the overwhelming majority of sex slavery stories aren’t. (79-80)

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