There, Correspondent Peter Van Sant is negotiating to buy a human being – not for an hour, but forever. In this 48 Hours report, Van Sant infiltrates the billion-dollar business of human trafficking, a business that is worldwide.
Hundreds of thousands of young, desperate girls are trafficked each year as sex slaves. Some are lured overseas with the promise of a good job, only to be enslaved once they arrive. Others are simply abducted.
To investigate, 48 Hours traveled to Bucharest, Romania, with hidden cameras to find out if it was really possible to purchase a sex slave.
Posing as traffickers from America, 48 Hours crews went undercover, hoping to rescue a victim of this insidious industry. To infiltrate this world, crews hired streetwise journalists Paul Radu and Daniel Neamu as guides.
Like many poor Eastern European countries, Romania has become a popular place for international traffickers looking to recruit, or even purchase, girls.
After dark, the 48 Hours team ventures into the older sectors of Bucharest, to see what money can buy. Within minutes, the crew finda what looks like the kind of pimping and prostitution you can see in any large city. But soon it learns that some of these girls are for sale as slaves.
"You can buy 10 girls in one night, if you want to. You can say I want a 13-, a 16-, a 17-, and a 21-years-old, and you can buy them all like that," says Iana Matei, who runs a shelter for trafficking victims outside Bucharest.
Matei agreed to take in any girl that 48 Hours could rescue. "Young girls and women, bought and sold, first to work in prostitution. That's slavery. We choose to believe that they are prostitutes and we don't look into it," says Matei.
She says that many of the girls on the street look like prostitutes but are actually slaves, ready for purchase and export to Western Europe or the United States.
"It's on the street. It's impossible not to see," says Matei. "It's not a secret industry. It's right in your face."
A woman named Francesca claims to have girls all over Bucharest. Over a meal, our undercover team explains to Francisca that it wants to buy her girls, and bring them back to the United States. The team asks if the girls have the proper documents to cross the border.
"No problem," says Francesca, who is hungry to close the deal.
But 48 Hours decides to do business with another trafficker, Nadia, who says she has a young, blonde girl for sale.
Nadia brings out the girl, "Nicoleta", to meet with Van Sant. She and her business partner and husband, Costel, put Nicoleta on display in the filthy apartment where she services clients.
To rescue Nicoleta, it is crucial that Van Sant and the 48 Hours team convincingly play the role of cold-hearted traffickers.
Nicoleta undresses. "They usually show the girls to see she doesn't have any marks, any skin disease so they can show she's good to be used," says Matei. "It's, like, when you say, sell a cattle in the market."
"To you, it's a human being. To them, it's not," adds Matei. "To them, it's income. It's a way of making money."
Van Sant offers to pay $1,000 for Nicoleta, but suddenly there is a problem: Nicoleta doesn't have any ID on her. However, Costel assures 48 Hours that the issue will be resolved the next day.
The plan is to return to the traffickers' apartment the next day, buy Nicoleta for $1,000, and then bring her to Matei's shelter, and let Nicoleta reclaim her life.
But within minutes, negotiations hit a snag. Now, Nadia wants $2,000 for the sale. Why has the price doubled overnight? "Obviously, they understood that you are going to take her overseas," says Matei. "So she goes overseas, the price goes up $1,000."
Nadia says much of the money will support Nicoleta's family. In the end, Van Sant offers $1,800, and the deal is settled. But even though the traffickers haven't produced Nicoleta's ID, 48 Hours wants to get her out of there. Nicoleta leaves with only the clothes on her back.
Once in the car, 48 Hours hands over the rest of the cash. In less time than it takes to buy groceries, 48 Hours had bought a human being.
"I want you to know that you are absolutely safe with us," Van Sant tells Nicoleta. "You've got nothing to fear."
It's now a very difficult decision for Van Sant, who is trying to decide whether he should tell Nicoleta that the 48 Hours team are undercover reporters. He's concerned that Nicoleta might jump out of the car, think that he is lying to her, or believe that he is part of the authorities.
But Nicoletta is convinced that Van Sant is her new owner. During the drive, she tells 48 Hours that this is the first time she's been outside in more than a year. She says her owners brutally beat her, and that she was fed like a dog.
How did she become a slave? Nicoletta says her mother abandoned her at an orphanage: "Then, they threw me out. With no family, I didn't know where to go."
She says she eventually came to Bucharest, where she spent years living in the sewers and shantytowns with other young runaways. The traffickers found her by the side of a road. They promised her food and shelter. But they ended up making her bad world worse.
After nearly two hours of driving, Van Sant tells Nicoleta the truth: "We are journalists from the United States. We have bought you because we want to set you free."
Exhausted and a bit stunned, Nicoleta hugs our translator, and says: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart, that you saved me from that hell."
48 Hours arrives at Matei's shelter after midnight. Nicoleta gets a change of clothes and a hot meal.
How does Nicoleta look? "She is tired, obviously. Not well taken care of," says Matei. "She doesn't have self worth, self respect, self esteem."
Matei says it will be months before Nicoleta trusts her enough to tell her the truth – but she isn't optimistic. "My first opinion is, it will be very difficult to work with her."
48 Hours says goodbye to Nicoleta, promising to check back in a few months.
While Nicoleta is just beginning to deal with what she's endured in Romania, another young woman – more than 6,000 miles away in southern California – has spent years recovering from her dark journey.
48 Hours talked to "Olga," 25, who's also a survivor of a million-dollar sex slave trafficking ring in Russia. Her ordeal began in 1999, in her hometown of Moscow, a growing supplier of sex slaves to the United States.
She was the perfect target for traffickers. Both her father and boyfriend had been murdered by the Russian mob. She was scared and desperate to get out.
A friend introduced her to a man named Alexander Rashkovsky, who was looking for girls to work in America. Rashkovsky offered Olga a chance at a new life: a job as an assistant and transportation to the United States.
"The only thing that I knew: that America is really secure – a person has rights," says Olga. "And everywhere would be pretty much safer than being in Moscow."
Jolene Smith, executive director of the Free the Slaves Foundation, says Rashkovsky's come-on is a typical tactic for a slave trader. "And then the harsh reality sets in. There are threats. And that's where the person realizes, 'I'm trapped. And there is nothing I can do.'"
After Rashkovsky spent the money on the plane tickets, he made it clear there was no backing out. "If anybody try to run away, he's not going to deal with you," says Olga. "'I'm just going to cut your head off.'"
Olga got on the plane with four other Russian girls. In that instant, they became the personal property of an international slave trader. Olga's plane, however, was headed to Mexico. Rashkovsky was planning to smuggle the women across the notoriously unsupervised border between Mexico and the United States. He brought the women to a hotel in Tijuana.
Olga, a consultant to 48 Hours on this report, returned to Mexico to retrace her steps. "It's just old memories," she says. "The older I get, the more scarier it is to think about, what could happen to me."
Girls like Olga are sometimes put to work in Mexican strip clubs before heading north. But Mexico is more than just a transit country and training ground for Eastern Europeans. In its own right, Mexico is the No. 1 country providing slaves to the United States, accounting for the majority of federal trafficking cases.
Many girls come from the central Mexico region of Tlaxcala, an infamous haven for modern-day slave traders. Two years ago, "Rosaria" was kidnapped. She was 20.
"They had me working overnights. It was worse than prison," says Rosaria. "No freedom. Doing things I had never done before. It was like hell on earth."
Rosaria recently escaped from a Tijuana brothel before she could be taken from the border. "They told me they will kill me. They even threatened me with hurting my family, if I tried to escape," she says. "They told me that I was going to work in the United States. They had girls working over there already."
Many of those girls never return. 48 Hours met "Elsa," one of the mothers of the missing. The last time she saw her daughter was on her 20th birthday, in June 2001.
Elsa claims that the people behind her daughter's disappearance are allegedly members of an well-known family of slave traders called the Carretos. She alleges that members of the Carretos abducted her daughter on her way to work, and eventually brought her daughter to the United States.
But first, Elsa says they brought her daughter to Calle Santo Tomas, one of the many brutal training grounds in Mexico where traffickers "break in" new girls like Rosaria.
Rosaria said she was beaten: "They just looked at me and told me to go to work. I was so scared of being killed, I did everything they wanted me to."
"One of the key tools that modern day slaveholders today use is to break the person's will as soon as possible," says Smith. "The sooner the will is broken, in many cases, it's easier to transport that person. It's easier to force that person to work."
On Calle Santo Tomas, you can find dozens of girls, day and night, parading in a slow circle. A crowd of clients stands around them, while a vendor sells snacks. The pimps overseeing matters are suspicious of outsiders, but 48 Hours got in with hidden cameras.
The girls bring their clients into a warehouse-like structure, and the sex takes place inside filthy curtained cubicles. Elsa says her daughter was helpless: "They threaten the girls. They say, 'If you leave, I will kill your family. I will kill you and cut you to pieces."
But for Olga and the other Russian girls, a different version of the "training process" took place on their first night in Tijuana.
Rashkovsky brought some men to the hotel and began putting his new slaves to work. Olga convinces them she is too sick to perform, but she now sees a horrible future ahead of her. "He [Rashkovsky] wouldn't care at all," she says. "We could die, and he would probably step over us and keep walking."
And now, just as Elsa is determined to free her daughter, Olga is determined to escape. "This is my chance," says Olga.
The border crossing between Tijuana and California is the busiest land border in the world. Rashkovsky was behind the wheel, and Olga and another Russian woman were passengers on the road to becoming Rashkovsky's newest sex slaves in America.
But first, they had to pass the last obstacle: getting through the border checkpoint.
Olga, who at the time didn't speak any English, was given a two-word crash course in English by Rashkovsky: "Yes. U.S." It was something she would have to say at the border.
"I knew that it wasn't easy to cross the border, so as soon as I get there, I should try to escape," says Olga.
When the car pulled up to the border guard, Olga made her move. "I just hope they were going to stop our car," she says.
She began speaking in Russian, and says Rashkovsky was furious. But her gamble worked. Everyone was ordered out of the car by the border patrol, and detained. Rashkovsky was questioned on video, and tried to convince his interrogators that he had just met the girls in Tijuana.
But it didn't work. "An older gentleman in the company of two young females who had heavy Russian accents, you know, just didn't pass the litmus test," says Special Agent Mike Unzueta, who worked the Rashkovsky case for the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as "ICE."
Rashkovsky was arrested for attempting to smuggle human beings across the border.
"He was basically a monster," says Olga. "Really a monster. That's him."
Investigators later learned the ugly truth: Rashkovsky had raked in more than a million dollars, trafficking young Russians into the Los Angeles area.
"The money that they were making was going right into Rashkovsky's pocket," says Unzueta. "These women basically were going to be treated as slaves."
Olga was taken to a safe house in San Diego and placed in protective custody. She was one of the lucky few to be saved before she was forced into slavery.
Sadly, it was totally different for Elsa's daughter. Members of the Carreto crime family of Tlaxcala, Mexico, allegedly brought Elsa's daughter and other girls all the way to Queens, N.Y.
"In New York, threats, force, violence, rape used to force these Mexican women into prostitution, six, seven days a week," says ICE Director Mike Garcia.
For years, ICE agents have been investigating the pipeline that brings Mexican girls to the quiet Queens neighborhood where members of the Carreto family were allegedly running their operation.
48 Hours sent an undercover researcher into the Latino neighborhood in Queens, where Elsa's daughter was brought. He soon finds a pimp who steers him around the block and down into a basement.
Under the careful eyes of their keepers, the girls are working in two small rooms, separated by a bed sheet.
"When we think of how trafficking victims are surviving within our own countries today, I can only imagine that it's something like this," says Smith, who was shown the undercover tape. "What's interesting to note about this particular case is that it seems to be happening in a middle-class residential area. This further proves the point that we all need to be vigilant. This could be happening next door."
At another popular location, a girl tells the undercover researcher that she is 22 and from Vera Cruz, Mexico. He asks the men running the place if they have anyone younger. They promise him a 16-year-old girl.
48 Hours can't say for sure if these girls are being held against their will, but when Elsa's daughter got her first chance to call Mexico, she contacted her mother and pleaded for help.
"She was afraid because she had been threatened," says Elsa. "And I cried very much when I heard her voice."
Despite the danger of speaking out against members of the Carreto family, Elsa was not intimidated. She went public with her story in The New York Times magazine, and filed a complaint with the Mexican federal police.
"I saw the way to find justice. I made the move," she says. "But I still worry a lot about my daughter."
Elsa's determination paid off. Members of the Carreto family were arrested last year. Authorities say they eventually will be going to trial in New York.
Elsa's daughter was rescued and now assisting in the investigation. She hopes to be reunited with her mother.
Slave trader Alexander Rashkovsky ended up in prison in California after Olga testified against him at trial. He died of pneumonia behind bars in 2003.
Olga was allowed to stay in the United States under a special visa the federal government offers to victims of trafficking. Now, she's trying to build a real estate career.
As for Nicoleta, the girl that 48 Hours bought in Bucharest for $1,800 and then freed? 48 Hours returned to Romania three months later to find out how she's doing. She's still in recovery at Iana Matei's shelter for trafficked girls.
"She's doing better than I expected her to do, honestly," says Matei. "She's doing quite well in the shelter."
For the first time in her life, Nicoleta has people around her who care. "They're a really good family," she says.
And they are her only family. It has taken months for Matei to learn the true details of Nicoleta's life, including her true age, 26. She believes that Nicoleta, homeless and mentally challenged, was picked up by traffickers and spent years as a sex slave.
Just the mention of her past life reduces Nicoleta to tears.
48 Hours went back to the apartment where Nicoleta was held captive, to confront her former owners, Nadia and Costel, but they were nowhere to be found. The traffickers seemingly melted into the back alleys of Bucharest, as Nicoleta picks up the pieces of her shattered life.
"I was quite impressed, honestly," says Matei. "I am pleased to say there is hope for Nicoleta."
Today, it's the simple pleasures of freedom that make Nicoleta happy – like having her own room, working in the shelter's tailoring shop, and being able to walk outside. Now, perhaps for the first time, she can look forward to the future.
"I want to learn to read and get a job," says Nicoleta. "And maybe one day have a family."
Elsa's daughter, who was rescued in New York, is expected to be a key witness against members of the Carreto family. Their trial for sex trafficking is expected to begin this spring.
There are an estimated 4,600 women currently held in the United States as sex slaves.