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Save These Women: Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida

Sex trafficking might seem like a third-world problem, but it's happening in Southwest Florida. Here's a look at how locals are fighting to stop the predators and help the victims as well.

It was dark when the blue Honda civic reached Tampa one night in early January. It pulled up to the Hard Rock Cafe where Interstate 4 crosses I-75. Two men and two women stepped out. There to meet them in a pickup truck was Antonio Ubaldo Mendez-Lopez, a middle-aged Guatemalan who ran what authorities have called the southernmost spoke of a sex-trafficking ring that connected Florida to the Carolinas and points in between.

The two women crawled inside his truck.

Eventually, Mendez-Lopez hit the gas. The neon casino glow melted into the night, and the amber street lights led them south. As the trio sped toward the Hillsborough County line near 10 p.m. on Jan. 6, federal agents stopped tailing them. They had the surveillance they needed, and they were monitoring the location of a cell phone on board. They pulled off the highway and let the pickup truck disappear.

In the six days after the Hard Rock rendezvous, prosecutors say hundreds of men would pay to have sex with the two women in what was perhaps the most lucrative week of the enterprise, which the arrest warrant describes as a “prostitution delivery service.” Thirty dollars for 20 minutes.

Mendez-Lopez had converted his suburban Naples efficiency suite into a brothel around 2011 and watched the cash roll in. He and his partners traded the women among themselves like cards, prosecutors say. Meanwhile, neighbors in the dense Golden Gate subdivision had no idea what went on next door.

Once thought of as a third-world problem, sexual slavery—as Americans are learning—happens under their noses, even in suburbs east of Naples. In the year leading up to September 2012, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, investigated 894 human trafficking cases and made 967 arrests. That is triple the arrests they made in 2010.

The Immigration Advocates Network estimates 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. But that number is dwarfed by the 100,000 to 300,000 American children who are forced into prostitution, usually beginning around age 13, according to Shared Hope International.

For undocumented victims of sex and labor trafficking, the U.S. government offers the possibility of residency in exchange for aiding in prosecution. From 2002 to mid-January, 9,883 victims and their family members applied for these visas, though the Department of Homeland Security says the program is “significantly underutilized.” And more than 20 percent of applicants were denied.

Florida politicians have prioritized aid for victims. On March 5, Gov. Rick Scott pledged $1.5 million to help trafficking victims and praised everyone working to “raise awareness against this evil and stop this crime from claiming even one more victim.” Scott’s agency, the Department of Children and Families, is the lead on a related project, called the Safe Harbor Act. Its triumph is a provision that requires police to send victims to therapy, not jail them as prostitutes.

One bill in Tallahassee this year— the Florida Victim’s Relief Act— would take the Safe Harbor Act a step further and acknowledge some sex trafficking perpetrators are themselves victims, strung along by psychological manipulation akin to Stockholm syndrome. These victim-perpetrators could offer duress and coercion as an affirmative defense.

In the Golden Gate neighborhood of Mendez-Lopez’s brothel apartment, small children walk home from school. Nearby, there is a church and an elementary school and a sheriff’s office outpost. Ten days after Mendez-Lopez visited Tampa, he was walking home and found several deputies and ICE agents waiting for him there.

“The day we arrested the guy, he wasn’t even here,” Brendan Quigley, the ICE officer running the Fort Myers office, says. “We talked to some people, and they said, ‘Oh, we think he’s in Miami,’ and then he came back and then we got him.” His tardiness was crucial. Similar busts were happening in other parts of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, all at the same time. A single text message alerting the others could have spoiled the raid, the culmination of more than two years of police work, dubbed Operation Dark Night.

Reporters from CNN were allowed to accompany ICE agents in Savannah, the epicenter of the network, as they rounded up suspects. Footage shows agents, flak-vested and anxious, loitering in a parking lot then driving to their targets. Several cuts later, men and women with blurred faces were led from trailers, an old brownstone and even a suburban single-family home.

The alleged leader of the organization, Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, known as El Flaco, came out wearing a white T-shirt tucked into faded jeans, his wrists zip-tied behind him. Agents rescued 11 women and arrested 13 suspects, including Menedez-Lopez, in Naples. Twenty-five people, both men and women, were eventually indicted.

The agents also encountered 44 men hanging around, apparently clients. All were picked up on administrative charges, officials say, and placed in the deportation queue. When the feds announced the sting, ICE Director John T. Morton flew to Savannah for the press conference. “This case is ultimately a tale of the perverse, callous exploitation of young women for profit,” he said. “There was no humanity in this, no fairytale ending. Just hard, abusive organized crime.”

Currently, all the men arrested in the sting are being held in Georgia awaiting trial on dozens of charges. All have plead not guilty. The organization, meanwhile, is hardly crushed, investigators say.

The toll of sex trafficking on victims is difficult to conceive. Lawyers are reluctant to allow them to talk about open cases. Once the cases are resolved, victims are desperate to leave their memories buried and escape retribution from their own families and still-at-large perpetrators.

Recent candid testimony of a Mexican woman known by her initials, S.J., offers detailed insight into the brutality of the crimes. On Nov. 15, 2011, she addressed a federal courtroom in Miami during the sentencing of three convicted traffickers.

“Good afternoon,” she began, in Spanish. The judge told her to speak into the mic. “I was a victim of Israel Cortes, as well as some other of his family members who are not here. I want to tell you something about what happened to me; I would be unable to tell you everything that happened. It’s been so painful for me.”

She said her godfather’s son, Israel Cortes-Morales, at the time in his mid-20s, picked her up one day 10 years ago to take her to a party several hours away. There was no party. Instead, Cortes-Morales and his family detained her for at least six months at their home, where he repeatedly raped her and beat her as the Cortes family kidnapped more women.

Deeply worried, S.J.’s mother went searching for her daughter. She found her bruised and tortured and went to the police. “The police themselves beat my mother, hit my mother there at city hall,” S.J. said. Then they drove her out of town.

“Before this happened to me, my life was beautiful,” S.J. said. “I went to school in the morning and in the afternoon to become a nurse. We were poor, but my life was beautiful, and I enjoyed living with my mother. At that point I was selling snacks, fruits, shoes, anything that I could in order to be able to help my family, and I felt happy to be able to contribute some money to the family. I put in a lot of effort in order to get ahead.”

Cortes-Morales married S.J. in Mexico and trucked her to a mushroom field in Pennsylvania. “It was really awful, horrible in those mushroom fields. The men (were not clean), and I still had to perform oral sex. When I got home, if I did not deliver all of the money, I would be beaten up. On one occasion I hid the money in a deodorant bar, and he beat me up brutally,” she said. “Never again did I dare do that.”

S.J. twice tried to kill herself, she said. And once, she retaliated, striking Cortes-Morales with a vase. For that she was beaten. This went on for three years. Finally—and it is unclear why—he sent her back to Mexico and continued to run his prostitution circuit, which spanned the east coast down to Miami.

Cortes-Morales and two family members received 15-year sentences and were ordered to pay more than $1.2 million in restitution. S.J. fears the day they are released and still sees the battered faces of the other women. “He completely destroyed my life,” she said.

In Southwest Florida, federal agents are battling the perpetrators of these crimes, and case workers are repairing the wounded. They operate in unmarked buildings, far from the public eye, and speak with measured words because the information they keep— the whereabouts of victims, the identities of informants—is sacred.

In a corner office of a blocky edifice off Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers, Quigley, the regional ICE director, wears a tie brightly patterned with University of Florida Gators. “My daughter’s there,” he says. Quigley’s own degree, in business, comes from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. His first job was as a U.S. Customs agent working narcotics cases out of Tampa.

“I was working dope smuggling and money laundering cases,” he says. “It sounds stupid, but I had never even heard of human trafficking at that point. Really. We didn’t deal with it.”

Then in 2003, Immigrations agents merged with Customs agents. “We have a saying that says, ‘dope doesn’t talk.’ So dealing with narcotics and dealing with human smuggling, it’s different facets,” he says. “Yes, they’re crossing the border and similar routes, but it’s a different commodity.” As a business, it may make more sense to smuggle people: similar profit, but lower risk, as penalties for human smuggling are less than those for moving drugs, he says. “It’s all a business.”

El Flaco, the Savannah kingpin, ran his business mercilessly. He told his enslaved conscripts he would return them to Mexico or Nicaragua if they failed to serve 25 clients per day. Any less, investigators noted, and “she would be labeled as lazy within the organization.”

One of the prostitutes was Luisa Capilla-Lancho, who goes by Marisol. Though she was charged as a suspect and referred to as El Flaco’s girlfriend, social workers say she was just as much a victim. In one wiretapped phone conversation with El Flaco, Marisol told him she felt tired after servicing 163 men. If El Flaco said anything consoling or loving, it did not appear in the prosecution’s documents. He simply asked how many clients Marisol’s friend had seen.

The Shelter for Abused Women and Children in East Naples is one of the most secure buildings in Collier County. On a recent morning, I passed through four locked doors, one lined with Kevlar, to meet with a social worker there. Later I learned that if I had not been invited onto the property, my presence would have been a felony.

But the Shelter is not a bomb shelter. There are paintings on the walls and warm staff members. When I visited, 60 people were living in the emergency shelter in the back of the building, where there are kitchens and 60 beds. Most are escaping domestic violence, but several clients per year have been trafficked.

“A lot of the time they don’t understand that dynamics exist beyond them and the trafficker,” says Jaime Crossan-DeBres, who was born in Scotland, raised in Canada and studied social work in Toronto. She counsels the people who are brought to the shelter. “They don’t understand that there’s a systemic issue there. That there’s a coyote involved, that there’s money that’s been paid, that this didn’t happen by accident. … For a lot of the victims, when they come to the realization, there’s a real grief and betrayal. To really understand that you had no say in this. Even when you thought you did, you didn’t.”

Prosecutors hope each victim will help to convict the perpetrators, to testify if necessary. Cooperation could ensure them visas to stay in the United States. Or they could go home to face their families and possibly the coyotes. “To prosecute is not an easy choice. To go home is not an easy choice,”

Crossan-DeBres says. The Shelter helps weigh their options, gives them therapy and keeps them safe. Crossan-DeBres could not reveal whether any of the Shelter’s clients were rescued during Operation Dark Night because it could tip off traffickers who escaped arrest. Often, those rescued in one place are taken to another. But she said that when major stings happen, the recovery centers feel the shockwaves.

Though the Shelter’s address is confidential, its neighborhood is not low-income. One of its domestic violence programs is designed for “women of means.”

“People have said to us before, ‘That must happen there,’” Crossan-DeBres says. “They think, ‘Even if it happens here, it happens in the fields of Immokalee.’ No. There is sex trafficking here in Naples.”

The setting for Operation Dark Night is not a lawless underworld. It is Golden Gate, where swimming pools dot the suburban landscape and residents earn close to the U.S. median income. So ordinary was Mendez-Lopez, a landlord told the Naples Daily News, “Honestly, I don’t think he did it.” He even once hosted a backyard barbecue.

During their raids in Savannah, federal agents drove past a Sears auto center, an American Red Cross office, a BP gas station. They stormed not blighted neighborhoods, but middle-class neighborhoods. While vacationers sun themselves on the Pier, there are men in Naples creating demand for forced sex labor. They line up outside trailers with $30 cash in their pockets, then go home as pimps loiter outside bedrooms and trade victims in Hard Rock parking lots.


A Victim Becomes an Advocate

JULIE T. SHEMATZ, A 48-YEAR-OLD Fort Myers nonprofit founder, understands the distorted relationship between a perpetrator and victim of sex trafficking better than most. As one of the thousands of American women and children trafficked for sex, her experience is personal. “I didn’t even know that I was a victim of human  trafficking,” she says.

“I didn’t have a father figure growing up. I had an abusive home life. I was looking for that male figure that I never really had,” Shematz says. The man materialized as the charming friend of a classmate, who offered drugs and affection. When Shematz made the reluctant choice to start stripping in Indianapolis to pay for school at Purdue, he was there waiting for her after her first nervous night on the job.

He groomed her like this for one year, then slowly the relationship decayed. There were more drugs and domestic violence. If he hit her, he swore apologies afterward. Once, he was arrested for battery against her. She wrote a heartfelt letter to the judge, begging for an easy sentence. Eventually, there was prostitution, but it was shrouded in the context of Indianapolis’ swinger scene. He trolled the Internet looking for adult meet-up ads.

“Most of the time, I would be thinking that I was just being the consensual, cool girlfriend,” Shematz says.

“I still struggle with it. My way of dealing with it was to get higher and higher and higher and higher.” She says she “would see him taking money from guys, and he always said it was for drugs.” Sometimes she allowed herself to believe him. Perhaps 10 or 11 times, she left him but returned.

This went on for seven years.

Then one day, she left for good. Shematz spent nine months on the road, stripping near racing shows and golf tournaments, living out of hotels. At night she read the Bible. Eventually its message struck her hard. “I surrendered my life to Christ.” The night before she left for Florida to found her nonprofit —and eventually get married and start her master’s degree—she gave her first ministry at the Indianapolis strip club where she used to work.

The exploitation Shematz experienced has a name: “Romeo trafficking.”

In her graduate research, Shematz observes a common thread. She writes that “traffickers groom and lure their victims in with promises of love, provision, protection and opportunity that turns into a nightmare they are unable to escape.”

Since 2005, her Beauty from Ashes Ministries has served more than 1,300 victims of sexual exploitation and domestic violence. The group’s philosophy centers around “unconditional love.” It’s something many of the victims, shattered and fearful, have never known.




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