In April 2001, 15-year-old Reina was leaving her home in Tenancingo, a high-plateau town west of Mexico City. She was happier than she’d been in a while, traveling north to Tijuana, in the company of Arturo López-Rojas. At 32, Arturo was nicely dressed, heavy, and short, barely five feet tall; Reina, with a pretty round face, was shorter by several inches. Arturo was taking her to the border crossing at San Diego to get her into the United States; he would then deliver her to her new job as a housekeeper, maybe with children to watch; he also vowed that once she had established herself, they would marry. This bundle of offerings excited Reina. She knew of other girls who’d made the trip to California, who were cleaning grand houses with grassy yards and swimming pools and sending money to their loved ones in Tenancingo — dollars instead of pesos.
But Reina was also worried. Six months earlier, she had given birth to a boy, Manuel. Leaving her son behind was the most painful thing she’d ever done. For miles she cried, felt the space between her and Manuel stretch across the span of blue sky. Arturo said, don’t worry. In a month, after she had earned his gas money, Arturo would return to Tenancingo and pick up Manuel and bring him north. He would get Manuel across the border the same way he would get her across. Don’t worry. Reina felt better, remembering the swaddled baby she had hugged and kissed and given to Arturo’s sister, a young woman who also told her, No te preocupés. Don’t worry.
Before they left, Arturo asked about Manuel’s birth certificate. Reina said it had been lost. But, he said, we must have proof of his birth. So he arranged for Reina to go before a civil registry judge in Tlaxcala, Arturo’s hometown, where she told the judge that Arturo was Manuel’s father. With the boy theirs, Arturo could now do things for Manuel that Reina could never do by herself.
From Tenancingo to Tijuana took several days of Arturo’s driving the desert highways and their sleeping in the car. Upon arrival, Arturo, according to court records, took Reina to the home of his brother, Daniel López-Rojas. Besides Daniel, she met a woman named La Porfa, who also lived there. The next day La Porfa took Reina shopping. The kind of clothes La Porfa pulled off the rack were short dresses and tank tops, silver belts and black shoes, things her future husband Arturo, La Porfa said, would like. Reina was glad for something girlish to wear.
That night, after dinner, La Porfa walked Reina into the heart of Tijuana’s nightlife. North along Avenida Revolución — by the discos pulsing out Mexican rap and packed with norteamericanos; by dark doorways with men extending their arms and opening their palms to invite them in; by all-night pharmacies, an AM/PM, lines of cars with California license plates. Along the way very young boys wore T-shirts riddled with holes; their soiled pants were belted low on their hips and drooped below their knees. Some staggered and fell, high from sniffing glue. Soon Reina and La Porfa reached the north end of the street. There, guy wires anchor a great steel arch, and a screen flashes the time and ads for Corona beer. Below the screen is the sign, Bienvenidos a Tijuana.
The border was only two blocks away. Would Reina see it now? Would they cross tonight? Not yet. They turned a corner and walked toward a narrow street. Crowds of people bunched together. Urine-colored light and angry motorcycles unsettled the scene; there was a bar called El Fracaso (the Failure), and out front a vendor sold carne asada, the smell as savory as Reina’s grandmother’s kitchen. Then a shock. In front of every building were girls, leaning against the wall, facing the street. Some were Reina’s age, some were older, most dressed in the clothes she wore. They possessed a vigil-like silence, waiting for someone and no one. Men with ponytails cocked their heads while they lectured girls who gazed forward, dead-eyed. What was this place? La Porfa told her, Zona Norte.
They walked farther. Two dozen girls flanked both sides of a fat man with a thick gray mustache, sitting on a stool at the entrance to a loud bar. How much the girls’ faces resembled each other! Tall, skinny, or fat, how many were sisters? Their supershort dresses covered only their behinds; their feet, strapped into black or silver-glittering high heels, changed places, one foot easing forward and one moving back; their rouged-up faces, drawn-on eyebrows, and red or pale lipstick made them look tawdry and older. Many were darker skinned than Reina. Those girls were from states in southern Mexico, Chiapas and Oaxaca, maybe a few from Guatemala. Some looked Mayan, the most ancient women of Mexico and, many believed, the most beautiful.
Suddenly La Porfa thrust Reina into a bright-lighted stairwell, marched her up the steps to a dark room with curtains. There, according to court documents, La Porfa told Reina, you must begin working, before you cross into the United States. What? Work. To pay off the coyote’s bill. Now, sit on the bed and be quiet. In a minute a man was in the room, telling Reina to pull her skirt up, pull her panties down. He pushed her back and didn’t ask.
What Reina had put out of her mind for three days, the truth about her past, now may have flooded back. It was her father — what he had done and why she had left. When Reina was 10 and her mother and grandmother had died, her father began abusing her — constant put-downs, slaps, and beatings. To escape, she quit school at 13 and, looking older than her age, got a job in a club. There, a Tenancingo policeman met Reina and, alone with her one night, had her take her pants off, had her do things she didn’t like doing. When she resisted, he got angry and hit her; when she cried and screamed, he became enraged. He raped her. Reina wanted to tell her older sister, but she had left home. She told one of her brothers, but he didn’t believe her. She cried to her father then, and he believed her but not about how it happened. He said she had seduced him, the policeman. She deserved what had happened, and she had embarrassed her father. She was nothing more than a prostitute.
He laid down the law. Since she was grown and probably pregnant, she was responsible for herself. So he ordered her to leave. Reina wandered the city, sleeping outdoors for a time. She stayed briefly with an aunt and uncle. She took a job in another bar and there met a nice young man, whose kindness she felt she didn’t deserve. She figured he wanted her sexually, and she made herself available. Soon she was pregnant. The two decided to marry, but the boy’s mother opposed the union. Come wedding day, he didn’t show up, and Reina was devastated. Her aunt and uncle helped her have the baby. After Manuel was born, she was back working in the bar where she’d met the boy’s father. And there, Arturo, this mysterious benefactor, found her, promising America.
Someone was shaking Reina. “Wake up, wake up, muchacha. We’re going to San Diego.” It was the next day, late afternoon. Darkness was coming. Reina was put between La Porfa and Daniel in the back seat of a car, traveling east to Tecate on Highway 2. How many men did as they pleased with her last night? Men who had no faces, whose boozy smell remained in her hair. El Chivo was driving. Beside him sat Arturo. El Chivo, the goat, was the one getting paid, the coyote. Reina heard her price — $2500. A lot of money, but then she was a girl who could make a lot of money. Arturo kept boasting about the ring that brought women from inside Mexico and placed them inside California. The ring had the same name as the woman beside Reina — La Porfa, from por favor, Spanish for “please.”
Some 40 miles east of Tecate and before the Rumorosa Grade, El Chivo made the “jump” over the border. The car rumbled and rocked over mountain roads during the small hours of the night until the passengers felt pavement below the tires. The United States, at last. El Chivo got his cash and the four transferred to another car. Later that day, according to court documents, Reina, La Porfa, and the López-Rojas brothers entered 955 Postal Way #3, in Vista, where the brothers lived. It was a plain apartment at the top of a steep hill, terraced with blocky buildings. Along the road going up the hill is a sign: Despacio, Niños Jugando. Slow, Children At Play. The silhouetted figure on the sign shows a boy running; it may have reminded a weary Reina again of leaving Manuel behind.
At #3, the group was joined by another brother, Pedro López-Rojas, a year younger, though much taller and darker than Arturo. The double-bolt lock clicked behind Reina, and Pedro smiled, his top front teeth encased in silver. Pedro’s common-law wife, the slender Liliana, 25, five and a half feet tall, with long dark hair, looked her over. Another man gawking at her was the stocky Quinas, whose dark curly hair was concealed under a baseball cap.
Reina was in the house only briefly when Arturo told her she must begin working the next day — just as you did in Tijuana. You dress up nicely too. But Reina preferred the maid’s job, the one he had promised. Arturo laughed. There’s no money in cleaning houses. She pleaded; she didn’t want to prostitute herself. She would work in the fields, clean the migrant camps. Anything but those men ordering her to pull her pants down.
She said no. Arturo hit her. She screamed, No. He hit her again, harder. And again. Harder. She ran into a closet. Arturo was on her again, beating her until he was stopped. He shouted that if she ever went to the cops, if she ever talked against him, if she ever tried to run away, he would have Manuel killed. One phone call. Live baby’s a dead baby. Finally Reina agreed, but she did not agree in her heart.
The next several months either Arturo drove Reina to various brothels or Daniel and La Porfa took her in Daniel’s white Lincoln Continental. La Porfa worked the brothels too. Camps and ranches, houses and fields. Reina, La Porfa, other girls and women, took care of the men. Gave them condoms. Told them they had ten minutes. Motivated them to finish. Handed each a paper towel. Four or five customers an hour, six hours on Sundays. La Porfa liked it, she said. She chose this life. Reina would too. In time.
To get the johns was easy. One pickup hub, said a Vista policeman, was Las Palmas, a drive-up restaurant in Vista, smelling of fried fish. The cocky pimps, Arturo and Pedro, would pace out back by the toilets, a signal for contact. “Got any girls?” four johns would ask, packed side by side in the cab of a pickup. Directions taken, they’d speed away.
A pimp with a clutch of 20 girls and women could, on a good day, service 300 men. That’s $6000. The pimps bought clothes and food for the girls, spent the rest on bills. The smuggler’s charge; a little something for the girls’ families in Mexico; expenses incurred in running vans, renting apartments, buying two-way radios. On occasion a girl might turn a trick behind a pimp’s back. Reina learned to do this, stashing $5 and $10 bills in a sock to finance her freedom — if she ever escaped.
Beatings and threats kept the girls in line. One threat the pimps didn’t have to initiate. They knew that once a girl had sex with a number of strangers, she felt ashamed for what she’d done. Once the family in Mexico knew, they would feel the shame as well. All the pimp had to say was “I’m telling your loved ones, ‘I’m sorry to report that your child didn’t want to clean houses, so she started prostituting.’ ” To soil the family’s reputation was the worst disgrace the girls carried.
At night Reina cried, remembering Manuel’s real father, whom she had loved because he was nice to her but whose mother suspected that in Reina was a prostitute who could never be banished. She dwelled on Manuel, in the hands of Arturo’s sister; no, not in her hands — he was alone in a crib, neglected, missing his regular feedings, growing skinnier, dying like a plant without water or sun. Maybe he was already dead. How would she know?
Reina dreamed of being rescued — maybe one of the johns, one of the older, married men, might show pity. Reina imagined the face of her rescuer much as she had imagined Arturo’s face before he, like a dust devil, swept her north from Tenancingo. She prayed to a God who grants heroes, who reveals Himself in His saviors. Other girls in the ring also dreamed of their white knights. One drew a map and listed directions to 528 Citrus Avenue, the address where she was imprisoned, one of many houses and apartments in North County where the girls were kept. She wrote at the top “casa de prostitución” and slipped it under the door of Rick Castro, a deputy sheriff in Vista.
Don’t Mess with My Bitches
Rick Castro’s head is shaved so close that the hair underneath the scalp looks like an ink stain. In dark glasses, saddled with badge and gun, he seems unshakable. But, said one female friend, he’s also gentle, “testosterone mixed with mellowness.” Castro has been working prostitution crimes for seven years. As the only Spanish speaker on the force, he was assigned to bust up the prostitution ring in Vista. His boss told him, “Here’s a problem. Solve it. That’s what you’re paid to do.” “Sure enough,” Castro said, “within a few months, I organized a raid.”
The first raid came in 1996 and was followed by a dozen more. By late 1998, Castro, along with federal and other local authorities, had shut down 25 houses of prostitution in North County and deported some 300 immigrants. Among those busted was Tomás Salazar-Juárez, whose brother Julio is suspected of being at the center of Vista’s sex ring. Tomás Salazar-Juárez was arrested for beating a young woman. Castro told me that he beat her with “a wire clothes hanger on her back so hard that her skin ruptured. It popped right open like [she’d been cut with] a filet knife.” He tortured the girl for two hours in front of other girls, who may, Castro says, have been victims of prostitution. “Just imagine the lasting impression those other girls had. Do you think they’re going to run away or testify against them?” For Castro, the message was clear: “ ‘This is what will happen to you if you try and leave us. We own you. We control you.’ ” Though Salazar-Juárez was charged with a crime of domestic violence, Castro thinks it wasn’t just domestic violence — it was the violence of intimidation.
During the preliminary hearings, the girl stuck to her story that she was beaten. “When she came to testify,” Castro recalled, “she totally recanted and said [the beating] happened [not in Vista] but when she was crossing the border.” The testimony from other witnesses, however, corroborated the girl’s initial tale. So did the “clothes-hanger evidence.” Castro said the jury felt her retraction made no sense. Salazar-Juárez was convicted of torture and mayhem and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, although that sentence has been reduced on appeal.
Whenever a prostitution raid or court case plays in the local press, the number of tips goes way up. Raids typically help a “culture of denunciation” grow. Not only do the tips increase, but the pimps collaborate. After one raid, a sign in the window of a known house of ill repute read, “No More Women Here.”
Still Castro didn’t suppose that his dozen raids had wiped out the pimps, but he knew he had disrupted their operation. By 2000, he figured the pimps were reorganizing. Since Castro was the number-one prostitution lawman in the county, calls often came in, inquiring about his schedule. When were his days off? Was he testifying that day in a trial? Once, at a community-outreach program, Castro was asked, “What are you doing about prostitution in Vista?” His answer revealed neither time nor date of an impending raid. He eventually learned that the select men at these programs were planted by the pimps to gather information. In addition, harassing letters from the traffickers arrived. One read, “Don’t mess with my bitches or you’re messin’ with me — so back the fuck off.”
Castro was contacted by Marisa Ugarte, a crisis counselor who worked at Escondido Youth Encounter. Ugarte, a woman of fiery dedication to helping Mexican minors in the United States, had several young female clients who spoke openly about other girls practicing prostitution in the migrant camps. With Castro, she developed a plan, believing they’d soon have a case — a girl or young woman, who had been trafficked, who might inform on her abusers, and who would need the kind of life-building skills Ugarte could supply. For years, Ugarte had been guiding social service and law enforcement agencies in the United States and in Mexico into one corral, the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. The idea was simple. If pimps and smugglers were trafficking women — from Central America and Mexico, across the border to California, Oregon, and Washington — Ugarte’s coalition could outpost the same routes with support services for women and minors. Her idea was to set up safe houses for trafficked victims along this transcontinental corridor, much the way the Underground Railroad once provided safe houses for slaves.
The pimps of North County were devising outposts of their own, a string of open-air brothels along river bottoms and in chaparral. Some sites would be near the workers’ camps or close to footpaths the migrants frequented. The idea was to rotate the women to five locations every week. Weekdays, business would be limited. Sunday, though, would be the busiest, the one day of the week the migrants got to loiter.
Among the sites are three named for local landmarks. Beside Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad are high-voltage towers, and beneath them is a prostitution site called Las Antenas. Also in Carlsbad, next to strawberry fields, is a long ditch with cardboard shacks covered in brush named Las Fresas. And in Oceanside, in the dry bed of the San Luis Rey River, there’s the most notorious spot of all, accommodating scores of men every Sunday, called the Reeds.
Not far from Camp Pendleton, North River Road snakes beside the San Luis Rey River. The road curves gently as it passes a community park and housing and condo developments on one side and a concrete embankment that walls off a 400-foot-wide ephemeral river on the other. The San Luis Rey here is usually dry, though the high water table and flash floods in winter nourish the growth of shallow-rooted plants. Willow and mule fat cluster near the levee, while in the sandy soil of the channel an invasive plant has clumped in a dense thicket. Arundo donax, a 15-foot-tall bamboolike reed, is commonly known as Spanish, or giant, reed. Where the plant is thickest, about a quarter acre, lies the Reeds.
On Sundays, from 7:00 to 2:00, men ambled beside North River Road in a line one observer noted was like “ants” going back and forth, the returning ones silently acknowledging the deed to those going in. Lookouts with two-way radios paced the walkway that topped the levee. One watcher had a whistle — its sound meant the girls must abandon camp and hide in the bushes, bury themselves, if necessary.
The girls — Reina among them — were vanned in, spirited out the sliding door and down the embankment, like a platoon run into the jungle. On the paths, they passed small open areas where men were already gathered, sitting on rocks and awaiting their arrival, a few arranging their mercaditos: ice chests with bottled water and sodas, $5 apiece. Farther on, the girls went by the “executive suite,” a space large enough for several johns and pimps to confer. There, as stated in court records, the pimps, Arturo and Pedro and Liliana, each with a stable of girls, assigned the girls and women their “hooches.” These were small, tentlike caves cut into the reeds, where they might lie down. The reeds surrounding the space were bent and tied to form something more “intimate.” They were hardly intimate; pathways ran to them and beside them. None of the hooches, or “love shacks,” were as spacious as the executive suite. That was reserved for the chief prostitute, La Porfa.
Spanning the entrance to each hooch was a blanket or a plastic sheet. The sheet, along with the canopy of entangled reeds overhead, provided a meager privacy. Behind the blanket each girl got ready. From her knapsack, she removed a towel or carpet for herself, then paper towels and magazines, condom packages and jars of Vaseline, for the men. On a branch she tied a plastic bag in which she deposited the used paper towels with which she and the john cleaned up.
In the small clearing, the pimps talked up their girls, negotiated which one each man would like. The men paid the pimp first, money that the younger girls never saw; the older ones who had been doing this for a long time may have collected themselves. Reina seldom saw money change hands, though she knew the price for ten minutes with her was $25.
While the men waited, they passed around pornographic magazines with pictures of women smiling seductively and holding their legs open. The men usually brought the magazines with them: looking at pictures during masturbation or intercourse typically helped. From her hooch, Reina heard the other girls doing what she was doing. Girls and women like Silvia, Joana, Gabriela, Maria, Rocio, Alicia, Delmy, Denise, Theresa, and Herminia. They were on their backs, with men on top of them or beside them, magazines propped open, next to the girls’ heads. Just outside the hooch where the two now lay, Arturo wound an egg timer to ten minutes. The clock on their tryst was literally ticking. If the timer rang and the man wasn’t finished, Arturo didn’t care. He was hollering, Get out, Vámonos, ahorita.
All morning the men streamed in. Waiting turns, they may have read Spanish-language pamphlets about sexually transmitted diseases. All morning the girls did as they were told. They did it whether they were disgusted or sick, whether sober or high (the high helped deaden the pain). They did it until day was done, when they backpacked out everything they’d brought in — including the hanging plastic bag now heavy with soiled paper towels and used condoms.
When I visited the Reeds with Castro and Ugarte, I said at one point that trafficking in prostitution like this has very little to do with sex. “Right,” Ugarte replied. “It’s organized Mexican crime.” Castro said that one of the strangest parts for him was that such a big operation — 300 men on one Sunday — was a secret to nearby homeowners. Outside the Reeds, church services and soccer games and families home watching Tiger Woods on TV went on as usual. But the contrary might also be true, namely, that most people had no interest in closing down any brothel. Were Californians going to deprive the migrants of their “fun” after picking tomatoes in the sun all week, whose end result was Vons’ family-friendly price of 49 cents a pound?
Why the Reeds? Why not a house?
A house couldn’t accommodate the number of johns, the number of girls, the number of spaces the girls worked in, and the number of escape routes — if the operation were raided — as well as the Reeds could. Its unlikelihood was its genius and lure.
Escape and Bust
Reina worked at the Reeds and at other brothels from the time of her arrival in Vista in April 2001 until July. On July 9, her enslavement took an unexpected turn. That day a neighbor called sheriff’s deputies about a domestic dispute at #10 Oak Terrace Apartments. Officers found a teenage girl in a second-floor apartment across the hallway from #10. The girl said a man named Arturo had thrown her down the concrete stairs. He had also punched her and cracked her upper lip. She said she’d had enough of his beatings. The police found no one home at #10. They asked her name — it was Reina. She had been moved from apartment #3 on Postal Way to this apartment, where Arturo had continued to beat her. Reina was treated by a doctor and placed in protective custody.
When Castro heard the news, he called Ugarte: “Marisa, we’ve got a case.” A week later, after Reina had been taken to a battered women’s shelter, she met with Castro and Ugarte. Reina and Castro recognized each other. He knew her as one of the women he had surveilled in the Reeds; she recalled seeing him on patrol as well. Inquiring whether she was part of a prostitution ring, Castro noticed that Reina was embarrassed by the question. She admitted that she had been forced into prostitution in Mexico and slipped back to it here. She also claimed to be 18, which, if she was working for a pimp, was an age Castro knew the pimp would have told her to give. Speaking about prostitution victims he has seen, Castro told me, “You can tell it in their eyes. You know, the eyes are the lights of the soul. Their body may look older, like 18. But their eyes don’t say that.” Reina finally conceded that she was a minor, and Castro had her taken to San Diego’s Polinsky Children’s Center. He notified the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who classified her as an undocumented minor.
Over the next few weeks, Reina began to trust Castro. Court records state that she described how her main trafficker, Arturo, ran the brothels and who else was involved. In the following months, the U.S. attorney’s office interviewed Reina; so, too, did officials from the Department of Justice, civil rights division; the FBI; the American Civil Liberties Union; and the Mexican Consulate. The ACLU contacted immigration attorney Lilia Velasquez, who agreed to be Reina’s pro bono lawyer. By October, “over 17 agencies,” Castro recalled, “were involved in this one case, for this one young lady.” When Reina saw such support, Castro said she may have thought to herself, “ ‘I think I’m going to do what they’re asking me to do.’ ” Castro’s hopes for multiple arrests grew. He could now add eyewitness testimony to the observational evidence — license plate numbers and Polaroids of men and women detained in raids — he had already collected. And, like a man scaling a mountaintop and seeing a new valley below him, Castro started to understand who Reina, the first trafficked minor he had known, was. She was no longer “a prostitute, in my mind, but a victim.”
Finally Reina told Castro and other investigators that she had left her son, Manuel, in Mexico with Arturo’s sister and that he was being held as collateral so that Reina would earn money as a prostitute. Investigators told Reina that they would work with Mexican officials to reunite her and Manuel. But, in the meantime, she would have to promise to testify against the López-Rojas brothers, Arturo, Pedro, and Daniel, as well as Liliana and La Porfa herself, once they were caught. Reina promised, and with her guidance, Castro began planning a raid on the Reeds.
Now that Reina was willing to testify, the government began building a case under its new Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. In fact, the law’s “two severe forms of trafficking in persons” describe Reina’s situation perfectly. These forms are “(a) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or (b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” The law carries stiff fines and jail sentences for the pimps.
Reina’s case was one of thousands nationwide. The State Department estimates that annually 18,000 to 20,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States and forced into prostitution. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, a State Department agency, believes that every year between 800,000 and 900,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked into sexual slavery throughout the world. They have been “bought, sold, transported, and held against their will in slave-like conditions.” Other studies put the number of trafficked persons between one and four million. In the brothels of India, many experts estimate that more than one million women and girls are sex slaves. To rank nations, the State Department uses a three-tier system. Tier Three, the worst, means the country is doing nothing to combat trafficking. States currently in Tier Three are Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burma, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Georgia, Greece, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Liberia, North Korea, Sudan, Suriname, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. In 2001, Israel was moved from Tier Three to Tier Two (where most countries reside), perhaps embarrassed by its third-tier status. Israel had made “significant efforts,” government officials claimed at the time. News reports, however, continue to surface about the “Natasha Trade,” the selling of 100,000 to 150,000 young women and girls annually as mail-order brides from Russia to Israel, many of whom are pressed into sexual bondage.
On December 2, 2001, San Diego County sheriff’s deputies, the Oceanside Police Department, and agents from the FBI and INS raided the Reeds. Eighty officers rounded up 44 people — alleged pimps, lookouts, customers, as well as 10 females, among them La Porfa. (Many of the women, Castro had picked up before.) One confiscated item was a ledger, with the names of women and men and numbers marked beside each man’s name, along with “pagado,” paid.
Alma Goss, special agent supervisor for the INS in charge of interviews following the raid, said that the ten women refused to cooperate. She believes they were coached to say they were prostitutes by choice and the money they made they kept for themselves. The women were also told to give a false surname, in part, to slow down the verification process and allow the pimps time to be released or to escape. Some of the women told Goss that they accepted the abusive treatment of the johns and the pimps as part of their profession. According to Goss’s paraphrase, the women bragged that “ ‘even if they treat me bad, it’s better than what I can do in Mexico.’ ”
Reina’s lawyer, Lilia Velasquez, told me that when prostitution victims are arrested, she prefers a nongovernmental “women’s advocacy group to intervene.” Advocacy groups “talk to the women and say, ‘You’re not the only victims,’ make them come to their senses, despite the fact that they’re very scared of reprisals by traffickers in Mexico.” Velasquez stressed that when untrained agents ask the women “how many times you do it and with how many men,” such questions are too shameful for the women to answer. “Women who are scared, who don’t speak the language, who are undocumented — it’s very difficult for them to testify” against pimps.
Perhaps worse than the women’s refusal to name names, Arturo and Pedro López-Rojas fled from the Reeds during the raid and, Castro believes, returned to Mexico. The government was able, according to court records, to hold six men on the charge of trafficking. One of these was Daniel López-Rojas, Arturo’s older brother, who had put Reina up in Tijuana and helped bring her across the border. Reina said that she would point to him as one of her pimps. With a trial looming, in which she’d be the sole victim on the stand, Reina’s testimony might nail Daniel with 25 years to life.
You Have a Right to Be Loved
Marisa Ugarte met Reina at the Escondido Youth Encounter in July 2001, shortly after her escape from Arturo. Ugarte recalled helping a girl that summer and fall who was “frightened, hoping to trust somebody, and very angry at her batterers.” To build rapport, Ugarte told Reina what she tells all her clients. That she has human rights. “I think there are a lot of things that have been happening to you that are hurting you,” she said in a gentle, confiding tone. “I want to tell you what you have a right to: You have a right to be loved. You have a right to love yourself. You have a right to go to school. You have a right to feel safe. And that’s what we’re here for.” Reina’s tears, Ugarte said, “began streaming down.”
Ugarte then brought out a police diagram of Reina’s cuts and bruises. The cut on her lip was healing, though it would leave a scar. She asked Reina, who did this to you? Arturo. Who was the man who recruited you in Tenancingo, the “chicken hawk” who filled you with promises? Arturo. Who was the man who beat you and threw you down the stairway? Arturo.
Many who met Reina after her escape agreed — she couldn’t be 16. One, seeing Reina with very little makeup, said, “I would guess she was in her 20s.” A woman who interviewed what she called a “streetwise” Reina wondered, “Where is she? Is she a woman or is she a little girl?” In part, Reina seemed older because she’d been highly sexualized, packaged and coached as a lure for men. “Her behavior was flirtatious, her makeup was heavy,” Ugarte said. “One day we were at a coffee shop and I told her, ‘You’re painting your eyebrows too thick; I can’t see your beautiful eyes.’ Next day, her eyebrows weren’t painted, her makeup wasn’t heavy, and for the first time her youth came out. ‘How do I look?’ she asked. ‘You look absolutely beautiful.’ I said.” Reina dressed like a “teenybopper” — tight clothes that “detailed her figure. Exactly like the girls in the streets in Tijuana,” Ugarte said, referring to the Zona Norte. Another person said that when a Spanish-speaking man met Reina, she automatically became coquettish. She believed “ ‘he wants me. He’s stalking me.’ She didn’t know how to draw the line.”
Under Ugarte’s care, the child temptress began to change. Reina wore less makeup, baggier clothes, sweatshirts and jeans, then, one day, to Ugarte’s joy, no makeup. “The change on the outside began to move to the inside,” Ugarte said. She and Reina went to dinner, movies, the beach, shopping. Reina called Ugarte regularly, saying, “I’m lonely,” and Ugarte would respond, “Don’t get depressed — I’ll be right over.” Ugarte recalled three days with Reina at a youth empowerment camp, where Ugarte talked to the group about not running away from shelters and about suicide prevention. At the camp Reina went on treasure hunts and hikes. “This was the trigger — Reina got to be a kid. The kids began to love her and accept her. It was the first time that she was accepted after everything she had done,” which very few there knew about. After that, Ugarte said, “Reina never dressed up again like a woman. Except to go to court.”
It’s a delicate mind-set, the confused rage of a trafficked girl, of which Ugarte and Castro are well aware. Their protocol comprises seemingly opposed tactics: on one hand, to make the victim feel safe; on the other hand, to empower her so she will want to see her abuser prosecuted. “We began to work on her with how she could be a hero,” Ugarte said. “What good she could do to protect other children like her.” All of a sudden, this girl opted to fight. “She was saying, ‘I’m going to save everybody. I’m going to get that guy,’ Arturo, so she could get her baby. That’s when she really got involved with Rick. He had the qualities of a hero, a savior. She built a rapport with him, and sure enough, she was in a federal office directing the whole thing.”
The empowerment may have worked too well. One evening in September, “overwhelmed with people giving her too much attention, asking too many questions,” Reina snapped. She decided, Ugarte said, to confront Arturo, whom she called her batterer. She left the shelter and went to #10, “to beat the hell out of him.” It turned out that Arturo was not there, so Reina called Ugarte. Ugarte was upset because Reina’s status was still up in the air. At five in the morning, Ugarte contacted police, who returned Reina to the shelter. Safe once more, Reina began wearing a necklace from which two small talismans hung — one, the figure of a mother, the other, the figure of a child.
Stability and Chaos
Six weeks after the raid and six months after her escape, in January 2002, Reina appeared at a youth conference on trafficking at the University of San Diego, accompanied by her attorney Lilia Velasquez. With 20 years in immigration law, Velasquez — who is nicknamed la flama and often sports a lapel pin of the beret-wearing revolutionary Che Guevara — advocates on both sides of the border for human rights, particularly for refugee women. Velasquez introduced Reina: a yellow silk scarf, draped over her head, concealed her face. Sitting close to Velasquez, Reina told the audience of 650 that “people need to be aware so that the same thing that happened to me doesn’t happen to others.” The headline in the next day’s Union-Tribune read, “Sex Slave, 16, Tells Her Story.”
Though Reina betrayed no details of her plight at the conference, the shelter she was staying at “didn’t want to risk [being identified],” according to Ugarte, “so they released her to me.” She found space for Reina at San Diego’s Storefront, a shelter and drop-in center for homeless and troubled minors. Since the kids at the Storefront shared “many of Reina’s issues,” Ugarte said, “relapsing for her would be very easy.” Reina was vulnerable — given one bad move — to arrest by the INS and, most likely, a trip to juvenile hall or deportation.
Storefront team leader Manolo Guillen helped Reina with an exhaustive number of legal and social-service appointments. Attorneys and government officials were gathering evidence against her pimps, as well as oiling the international machinery that would reunite her with Manuel. Reina had learned that Mexican authorities knew where Manuel was and that he was safe. This, Guillen recalled, buoyed Reina’s spirits. She got on fine with the other kids, almost all of them American runaways. Reina befriended a girl about her age, telling her that when she (Reina) crossed the border at night, at a specific spot, her smuggler was a man named El Chivo.
“Really,” the other girl said. “Is that what they call him?”
“Yes,” Reina replied.
“Can you describe him?”
Reina detailed his features, and the other girl said, “Oh my God, that’s my dad!” It turned out that this girl was El Chivo’s daughter, and she knew of her father’s business. El Chivo was a coyote who’d skipped bail in 1999 before his sentencing on smuggling charges in Tijuana and was one of the ten most wanted border jumpers between Mexico and the United States.
At first, Guillen recalled, Reina took part in activities the shelter ran. One night at a party, she found kids using marijuana. The next morning she reported that to Guillen, who told her that was a “pretty decent thing” to do. But, Guillen said, Reina dwelled on her pimps. “They humiliated her, they raped her, they beat her, they forced her to sell her body, and, in a sense, sell her soul. It killed her that these men, especially Arturo, who had lied to her, had her baby. She knew that the [López-Rojas] family was irresponsible and heartless, and she couldn’t stand the fact of her son crying at night.”
Guillen watched Reina throw fits of rage. Always about Manuel. “She would make comments like, ‘I know that his diaper is sagging, he has a rash, he’s not eating. [Manuel’s keepers] could care less. They use drugs.’ ” Reina hated herself for making “the poorest mistake of her life — handing over her son to strangers.” “A lot of her hatred turned inward,” Guillen said. She believed “nothing would ever change” her past.
Reina still had friends in North County. One was a young Guatemalan whom she liked. Unannounced, one day, she left the shelter to visit him. Ugarte recalled that this meeting was a disaster. He abused her verbally, telling her she would never amount to anything, not with her history. Ashamed, Reina limped back to the Storefront. Her self-esteem vanished; she began to punish and “revictimize herself.”
Fearing she would never see her son again and having lost the Guatemalan man, Reina fell into a severe depression in February 2002. Soon, she missed the Storefront’s 7:00 p.m. curfew and was gone. No one knew where. Alerts went out to North County sheriffs and Border Patrol agents. Ugarte notified the INS that a despondent Reina might call and say she’d been kidnapped, hoping to keep her status secure with the agency. A week later, Reina did call the INS from Tijuana to report she’d been kidnapped. Next, she called Velasquez, who arranged for Guillen to pick her up. Before he went, he got the paperwork from the U.S. attorney’s office and the INS to place her into his custody. He agreed to meet her in front of the cathedral Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, one block from the Zona Norte.
Guillen arrived at the cathedral and waited. Reina, who claimed she was staying at a girlfriend’s home, was four hours late. When she did show, she was dressed as she used to dress: provocatively. At a restaurant, Guillen tried to talk with her, but Reina was evasive about what she’d been doing. He suspected she’d been practicing “survival sex,” exchanging sex for drugs, food, shelter, clothing, even companionship.
“I messed up” was all Reina could say.
Guillen told her that he and others had “to move heaven and earth” to bring her back. “So, if you decide not to return [today], I’m not going to be able to cross you back” to the United States at a later date. Reina finally agreed. But then Guillen discovered that the officials at the Port of Entry he needed to meet with had left for the day. He returned without her. The next day, Guillen and Ugarte went to Tijuana and were relieved when Reina showed up.
Guillen did not tell Reina of his private feelings, namely, that after she’d gone AWOL, “I thought, ‘We may not be able to get [her and Manuel] reunited.’ ” He told Reina that if she wanted to see her son she had to cooperate completely. She must realize, Guillen said, that there was “a different Reina from the one who’d been prostituted.” Guillen, along with a small armada of lawyers and prosecutors, judges and consular officials, would need this different Reina to resolve an unprecedented international custody case.
How the Pimps
Get Away with It
At the Reeds, December 2, 2001, the INS had arrested six men and ten women. Two of the women were juveniles and eight were adults. The next day, the six men were charged with one felony count — conspiring to “illegally import” and to “keep, maintain, control, support, employ and harbor” the women in the United States “for the purpose of prostitution.” The men were detained because, with few ties in the United States, they would likely flee.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Larry Burns ordered that the ten women from the Reeds be held in protective custody while prosecutors gathered more evidence. In addition, arrest warrants for Arturo and Pedro López-Rojas were issued; they were wanted for “conspiracy to import aliens for immoral purposes.” The six men, if convicted, faced prison terms of 25 years to life.
Then, by mid-December, some ten days after the raid, all charges in the case — except those against Daniel López-Rojas — were dropped. The five men and the ten women were deported or voluntarily released to Mexico.
Why was the case thrown out? Sources have said that without the main traffickers, Arturo and Pedro López-Rojas, whose arrest warrants were also dismissed, the government would be prosecuting subordinates and not the “chicken hawks,” who procured girls regularly from inside Mexico. Others have asserted that the witnesses in this case were mishandled because investigators, after the raid, failed to follow procedures that Marisa Ugarte and others had advised for victims of trafficking. According to Ugarte, the women arrested should not have been placed in a holding tank or jail cell; they should not have been surrounded by uniformed and armed officers; they should not have been interviewed in English. Such tactics made the women only more fearful and more apt to lie.
Another reason the women refused to testify is that victims of prostitution don’t see themselves as victims. INS agent Alma Goss avoids the word “prostitution”; instead, she calls it “abuse.” “Prostitution” is the man’s word for what the woman does; “abuse” is the woman’s word. Even so, she says, most if not all the women who know they are being abused by pimps and johns never regard themselves as victims. Why? The “opportunity” to earn more money and live a better life in America than they could in Mexico is inculcated in them deeply, by the pimps and the culture. Goss quoted one woman who told her, “ ‘How am I a victim? I chose this for myself.’ ”
The scariest part for Mexican girls detained in the United States for prostitution is that without parents or guardians, the girls can be deported to orphanages in Mexico, often in Tijuana. And this could happen regardless of whether they share information with the INS. Not all orphanages in Tijuana are bad places, but several are, and one or two are notorious for cruel treatment. There is a recent case of a ten-year-old boy who stole into the United States by hiding above the axle of a truck. He had escaped his Tijuana orphanage because punishment for his misbehavior involved the staff’s hanging him from the top of a window frame by his thumbs.
The ten women, placed in protective custody, were offered the protected status of the new T visa, which might lead to permanent legal resident status, if they talked — but they did not talk, out of fear or stubbornness or ignorance. Or all three.
However, for prosecutors, there was a glimmer of hope. According to court records, Daniel López-Rojas said, after waiving his Miranda rights, that when he was picked up at the Reeds, he was “not involved with prostitution.” However, he admitted that he went there “on multiple occasions…to smoke marijuana.” He also admitted “that his brothers Arturo López-Rojas and Pedro López-Rojas had prostitutes who worked for them.” In a separate court order, the government charged Daniel with “conspiring to import and employ aliens for purposes of prostitution.” The order stated that “the weight of evidence” against Daniel was “strong.” With this charge and other knowledge garnered from Reina about Daniel’s part in her being trafficked to Tijuana and to San Diego, the government was able to detain Daniel. Investigators told him that unless he provided information about the location of Reina’s son, Manuel, they would turn Daniel over to the Mexican authorities, who were themselves investigating Reina’s case.
For Humanitarian Reasons
Adrián Martinez, a lawyer in charge of the Mexican Consulate’s juvenile division, had heard Reina’s story after she escaped from Arturo’s apartment in July 2001. To help out, he contacted the U.S. attorney’s office, and they asked him to search for Manuel’s birth certificate in Tlaxcala. Though Reina was the biological mother, Arturo López-Rojas’s signature on Manuel’s birth certificate had made him the father, giving him more rights to the child than she had. By early 2002, the task of legally procuring Manuel’s papers had dragged on for months: his rescue and reunion with Reina seemed in jeopardy. This question of “rights” in the hands of the Mexican government frustrated Lilia Velasquez so much that she told the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, “I feel like going to Mexico myself and getting the baby back. This is taking too long.”
Martinez surmised that Daniel knew where Manuel was. So, with Daniel still in U.S. custody, Martinez and other attorneys pressured him to talk, “politely but, at the same time, in a tough manner.” Their main threat was this: following Daniel’s deportation to Mexico, they would tell Mexican officials that he was a suspect in Manuel’s abduction and direct them to arrest him for kidnapping. Daniel decided to talk. He said that Manuel was in Tlaxcala with his sister. Martinez dialed Daniel’s sister’s number. Martinez told me, “We put Daniel on the phone, and he asked if the baby was okay. She mentioned that the baby was okay, but she wanted money for the baby’s expenses. When he explained to her that he had been arrested and something very bad was going to happen to him, he asked her to release the baby to DIF” — Development and Integration of Families, Mexico’s state-run social service agency. The sister got scared, called DIF, and gave Manuel up. In exchange for his cooperation, the charges against Daniel were dropped. He was deported to Mexico, but investigators did not tell Mexican officials of the charges they had brought against him in the United States.
The López-Rojas sister also conveyed that Arturo was in Tlaxcala and, with his lawyer, fighting to get Manuel. A judge would have to decide whether Arturo’s name on the birth certificate gave him custody of the child. This legal quagmire in Mexico, more than anything, is what slowed Manuel and Reina’s reunion.
Finally, a judge determined that Manuel could be released to his mother. Martinez received a special 24-hour waiver from the INS not only to cross a minor, Reina, into Mexico and rescue another minor, her son Manuel, but also to bring both back. Reina was given a “consular ID,” which stated that she was a Mexican national residing in the United States. This ID would get her through post-9/11 security at Mexican airports.
Monday morning, April 29, 2002, Reina was roused with the news: “Wake up, wake up, muchacha. You’re going to see Manuel today!” Martinez and Reina flew from Tijuana to Mexico City at midnight. On the flight, Reina told Martinez she feared Arturo would show up at the airport or the agency and harm them. But her fears vanished when, at DIF’s office in Tlaxcala, Reina saw Manuel, who at 18 months was walking and talking. Reina cried, Manuel cried, and “attorneys from DIF started crying,” Martinez said. “I almost had to go out of the room because it was very emotional.” After five minutes Reina and Manuel “were playing and getting along.” No sign of Arturo.
Returning to Tijuana, the three took a taxi to the Port of Entry. There, television crews from Televisa and Univisión were covering the story. Manolo Guillen, Lilia Velasquez, and INS investigator Kerri Marshall also showed up. Marshall had Reina and Manuel’s I-904 INS form, which indicated she was a “parolee.” At the time, Reina was still under the court’s supervision. Written beside her parolee status and allowing her entry was the bureaucracy’s most coveted phrase: “for humanitarian reasons.”
Guillen recalled that when he saw the pair, Manuel was still getting used to his mother. “I had never seen her smile that way.” Velasquez said Reina “was glowing. She was beyond herself.” Back in the United States, Velasquez stopped at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro and treated everyone to a meal. Manuel was, the lawyer recalled, “amazingly calm,” though he did cling to Mom. Velasquez said she saw at that moment in the restaurant something both obvious and profound about mother and son. “This is her kid! Their eyes are identical. That’s how you can tell. The same round face too. The profile. This is her kid!” In no time Manuel was feeding french fries to his mother.
Reina and Manuel, whose names are fictitious, have been resettled in another state. Manuel is 2 and Reina is 18. In exchange for her cooperation in identifying members of North County’s prostitution ring, Reina has been granted a T visa. In three years, she may apply for permanent resident status.
Prosecutors say that with Reina’s testimony, the López-Rojas brothers can still be charged if they’re ever apprehended. Rick Castro says that one of the six men arrested in the December 2001 raid, Edmundo Zitlapopoca-Hernández, was seized again in a jump across the border and has been returned to Mexico. Castro calls Zitlapopoca the “right-hand man” of Julio Salazar-Juárez, who has been identified as a ring leader in North County’s prostitution trade. Julio’s brother Tomás is serving a prison sentence for torture and mayhem. Julio’s brother Luciano pled guilty recently to immigrant-smuggling charges that involved bringing three women into the United States. Those women, according to the Union-Tribune, “later died when their car overturned in a swollen creek,” in December 2002. Luciano Salazar-Juárez was not charged with trafficking; however, he admitted that he and his brother Julio “recruited women from Mexico to engage in prostitution in the United States.” As a result of Luciano’s plea bargain, he is expected to receive a sentence of 18 months. There is a warrant out for the arrest of Julio, and he remains at large.
As for the prostitution camps in North County, Rick Castro says the pimps have again set up shop at Las Fresas and at the Reeds. Recent surveillance of both sites shows only “moderate activity”; each one is running at “different times” during the week. The good news, Castro notes, is that “it’s nothing like it was before.”