For weeks I didn't actually believe the story I was working on. I thought it must be hype. Enslaving teenagers for prostitution could not be happening under our noses.
The Early Show's national correspondent, Tracy Smith, and I went through piles of research, conducted interviews with the experts, looked at documentation from the Justice and State departments, reports from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the U.N. and the CIA. We talked to local law enforcement, child rights advocates and investigators from five or six different Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and finally talked directly to the victims.
Soon I started to understand the economics of such a business, how easy it is to make lots of money, how universal the demand, how difficult it is to prosecute. Human trafficking is a low-risk, high-profit enterprise, and because it looks to the casual observer -- and even to cops -- like garden variety prostitution, it is tolerated. And worse, it is growing.
It is easy to track the success of the immigrant trafficking industry. People are brought here, some with visas and some without, with the promise of a new life, but then are stranded in a world where no one is looking for them. Suddenly, they are threatened with death and they are told their families back home will be killed.
They have no place to run. They are afraid of authorities. Often they are told lies about what American authorities will do. They fear ICE more than their captors. They will work in hotels and construction sites for no pay; or they are prostituted, which is far more lucrative. Their only compensation is staying alive. Others are told that they must pay a debt to the ones that brought them here, but the debt only grows and is rarely ever paid off.
But American kids? How is this possible?
Experts and police describe the process in terms of grooming or recruitment, similar to the kind of grooming described in pedophile cases. There is an initial encounter with a recruiter in a mall, playground or neighborhood, then the trap is set.
In Shauna's case, she made friends with a new girl at school. Shauna described the girl's so-called "father" as a guy who hired Shauna and her new "friend" to clean condos. He always gave them money for the mall. He was always very attentive to Shauna. She says she could never have predicted that the man would hurt her.
The "father" turned out to be a trafficker and the new "friend" was his recruiter. How could a high school "girlfriend" be part of such a terrible plot? The "father" or one of his cohorts slipped Shauna a date rape drug in a glass of water. She was beaten and raped repeatedly by a group of men.
She remembers talk of money changing hands and a conversation about going to Texas. When she was finally dropped off after her captors were threatened by investigators, she was overdosing on six different drugs and had to be revived three times on the way to the hospital. The nightmare that Shauna described to us will be with her for a long time.
In many of the other cases that we heard about, the trickery was predictable. The girl (or boy) would be solicited in a kindly way. "You are beautiful." "A glamorous life awaits you." Some are offered drugs, others a career in the movies.
The experts seem to agree on the type of kid being sought: someone who appears lost, who is left at a mall, or at an arcade, or even at the movies. Traffickers are said to be attracted to kids on their own, with low self-esteem.
Kids who run away are especially vulnerable. Tyamba grew up in a strict loving home and was an A student. She's a bright and determined girl and had many citations for perfect attendance. According to her mother, self-esteem was not at issue. But when Tyamba was 13 she rebelled against her mother's strict rules and ran away from home.
Traffickers know exactly what to say to kids like Tyamba to lure them into a feeling of security and comfort with the promise of a new life. They give the victim the impression that it is their own choice, that it is their own direction, that they are following independently. The child feels empowered and grown-up, and that this new person understands them like their parents do not.
Soon they are beaten, "softened," drugged, and introduced to a sexual transaction. They are told it is their choice. They are told that they will be arrested for prostitution and that the trafficker/pimp is the one who will protect them now and keep them safe. They can be sold or traded.
The NGO's that work with victims tell us that months of debriefing are required to get the victim to tell them the truth. The trafficker/pimp has terrified them so much that until they believe that the trafficker will be locked up for good, they will not talk. Also, the credibility of the victim, who now looks and acts like a prostitute, is a factor in a courtroom. Victims rarely testify, and that is why, according to law enforcement, this crime is so difficult to prosecute.
The trafficking operations are described by law enforcement as being mob-like networks; some are mom and pop, still others are local city-wide networks. The kids are either brought to a prostitution district or they are moved around to large work sites -- like New Orleans, and the Mississippi coast -- or they are even moved around to convention cities. They are brought to where there is demand, something which, experts will tell you, exists everywhere across the United States.
At the federal level, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was written in 2000, and enhanced in 2003, and since reauthorized. There are potential life sentences attached to the crime of human trafficking. However, because of certain jurisdictional idiosyncrasies, the same trafficker who will do a year or so after a local or state conviction as a pimp could do 50 years to life if prosecuted as a trafficker on the federal level. This is why state trafficking laws are being introduced and passed. (To see what's going on in your state, click here.)
Finally, there is something to be said about the marketplace. This $32 billion worldwide business would not be so lucrative if there were no market for it. After doing this report I would simply hope that the "regular" guys that use these illicit services just think about the consequences of what they're doing.
These men, the "johns," are described as bankers and firemen and cops, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. It is possible that the prostitute they are visiting is not a volunteer. They could be a slave, forced into this life against their will. It could be someone you used to know, someone's daughter or sister or friend. You, the anonymous john, could be the engine driving the machine.