DATE January 26, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Peter Landesman discusses his article in The New York
Times Magazine on the sex slave trade
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
In a speech to the United Nations last year, President Bush condemned what he
called `the special evil' of the world's sex trade. Much attention has
focused on sex slaves held in the Far East, but growing evidence suggests the
problem is much closer to home, maybe even next door. My guest, Peter
Landesman, is the author of "Sex Slaves on Main Street," the cover story in
this week's New York Times Magazine. Landesman found that tens of thousands
of young women, teen-agers and children are being held in captivity and used
as prostitutes, providing sex seven days a week without consent or
compensation in places from Atlanta, Georgia, to Plainfield, New Jersey.
Victims are lured from Eastern Europe or kidnapped in Mexico, then brutalized
into a life of terror and submission. Landesman's reporting took him to sex
trafficking sites in Mexico, where he was accompanied by his wife,
photographer Kimberlee Aquarro, who shot the pictures for the piece. A
warning to listeners: Some of the descriptions in this interview are
disturbing and may not be suitable for children.
Landesman is contributing writer to The Times Magazine and has covered
subjects from the arms trade to civil war in Rwanda. I spoke to him last
You write in your piece about how slave traders in Eastern Europe lure their
victims. How do they do it?
Mr. PETER LANDESMAN (Contributing Writer, The New York Times Magazine): Well,
I first saw this in Moldova last spring. I was finishing a story on arms
trafficking that took me to the former Soviet Union. And in Chisinau, the
capital, I noticed a billboard with a sort of fresh-faced young woman, and the
tag line was inviting young women to nanny positions and waitress positions,
baby-sitting positions in Western Europe and mostly the United States.
The former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, has a huge population of
well-educated, young women, specifically, who basically have no jobs. Poverty
rate is up to 80 percent in most of those countries; Moldova's even worse.
These are girls who are ripe for the picking because they're desperate for
jobs, they're desperate for something to do, and, also, in various parts of
the world they're considered to be extremely attractive. So they're really
perfect victims for this industry.
DAVIES: So they think they're signing up to become a nanny or maybe to get a
waitressing position. And then what happens?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Exactly. And they go to sometimes quasi-legitimate travel
agencies, who, at these victims' own expense, I should say, arrange for
flights to Mexico City. And the reason Mexico City is the destination is
because they're told that Mexico, as it is for millions of others, is the
easiest conduit for illegal entry into the United States. They say, `It's
just a short walk across the border, the no-man's-land, and sooner or later
you'll end up in sort of the wavy palm-tree area of sunny Los Angeles.'
So often, in an incredibly cynical way, these girls, as young as 13, as old as
probably 20, pay their way to Mexico City. Once they arrive in Mexico City,
they are greeted by Mexican officials, who are complicit in the industry, who
hand them over to traffickers. And once they are in the hands of the
traffickers, either literally or figuratively, these young women are in chains
and become slaves.
DAVIES: Now you found that the corrupt Mexican authorities cooperate with the
slave traffickers, literally, at the Mexico City Airport?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Literally, the highest customs and immigration officials at
the Mexico City Airport know which flights are coming in with these women and
sometimes, I was told by people who work at the airport, that some of these
flights have as many as seven to 10 of these girls on any one flight. These
flights are expected. The seat numbers of the girls are known. Sometimes
these girls are escorted around passport control, sometimes they're escorted
through passport control. But they're awaited and passed through and handed
on to the traffickers by, yes, Mexican officials.
DAVIES: What happens next?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Well, every ethnicity in this industry is treated differently.
These trafficking organizations are mono-ethnic machines, so the Russians have
their own trafficking mechanisms, the Ukrainians their own, the Moldovans
their own, the Mexicans their own. Since we're talking about the Eastern
Europeans, they arrive in Mexico City, they're usually flown or bused to Baja
California, just south of California, USA.
DAVIES: So that's not on United States' soil.
Mr. LANDESMAN: No.
DAVIES: That's actually part of Mexico.
Mr. LANDESMAN: We're still in Mexico. And at this point these girls still
think they're being prepped for a trip across the border to, you know, happily
ever after in the United States. They arrive in Rosarito or Ensenada to,
really, kind of windblown, gritty tourist towns in Baja California, where
they're taught to utter typically American phrases like `US citizen.' And
this is in preparation for if they are caught and stopped. Or they're told to
say `San Diego Zoo,' as though they're actually trying to get to the United
States, you know, from Chisinau to go to the San Diego Zoo.
They're dressed in American clothes, baseball caps. And then very frequently
they're actually, at that point, tried out on the local population, and at
that point begins a long and sort of deeply barbaric process of subduing these
women, making them essentially obedient sex slaves. And that involves
beatings, drug addiction, sort of perpetual intoxification and repeated
rapings by either their captors and/or the customers of their captors. So
they're literally raped and beaten into submission in Mexico, often by other
women put in charge of these houses and these stash houses in Mexico,
primarily because women, females, have a sort of more direct line to the
psyches and hearts and minds of these girls.
And once these girls and women come to trust these keepers, they're often
handed over to other men and literally just, you know, raped repeatedly and
again prostituted out to local population. That goes on for days and weeks,
until the women and the young girls become sort of sufficiently subdued, so
that when they do arrive in the United States at their destination, they can
be pimped out and the traffickers no longer have to worry that these girls are
going to ask for help.
DAVIES: Now we've been talking about women and girls who are recruited from
Eastern Europe. Quite a number of them are also taken, literally kidnapped,
from Mexico, right? There are gangs...
Mr. LANDESMAN: Indeed.
DAVIES: ...that undertake this activity. Tell us about that.
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yeah. The Mexican line works a little differently. There
are pimping organizations that are based out of particularly one town in
Mexico called Tenancingo, which is about an hour south of Mexico City. It's a
very strange, little place, this town. You come upon it, you travel across
miles and miles of hardscrabble Mexican wasteland, and then you arrive at this
town that's filled with candy-colored mansions that are owned by these
trafficking organizations. And that tells you two things. It tells you how
profitable this business is, and it also tells you how these organizations act
with impunity, out in the open, in Mexico, which of course leads you to the
conclusion, which I verified, that local, state and federal authorities in
Mexico not only are on the take and not only protect these organizations but,
in some cases, they are the organizations.
So the agents of these pimping families, which are built around hierarchies
that are similar to the Sicilian mob--they spread out throughout Mexico, and
they literally troll the lines, the trail that are followed by, you know,
young Mexican women who are looking for employment or looking for something to
do, looking for a drink, looking for an ice cream cone. And the seduction can
last for 30 seconds, it could last for a week, however long it takes to get
these girls in a car, around a corner, to their house, at which point there
begins a process of subjugation, after which they're brought across the US
border north to the United States.
And I should add there actually that the most important stop along that trail
is a street in the ghetto in Mexico City called La Merced. The street is
called Calle Santo Tomas, which is literally a slave market in which many of
these girls--and I'm talking thousands and thousands a year--are walked in a
circle, in a kind of parabola, around this street. Surrounding them are
hundreds of men, some of them buyers, some of them renters, some of them just
purely johns. And these girls will be forced to have sex with these men up to
30 times a day, and that process can last weeks, until these girls, at the end
of which, are just--they're, really, purely fodder and easily manipulated,
easily intimidated. And, really, by then, you know, they're often starved,
they're frequently beaten almost every day, and by the time they arrive in the
US, you know, they will just obey orders.
DAVIES: You actually traveled to La Merced and witnessed this, didn't you?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yeah. I saw this twice. It's not a place that foreigners
get to easily. It's deeply dangerous. I went late at night one night with
four very heavily armed federales and one US agent. We went at night for
obvious reasons; so I wouldn't stick out. We stayed there for a while. I
returned during the day with my wife, who's actually the photographer on this
story, Kimberlee Aquarro, so she could shoot it. That was a little dicier.
There were spotters everywhere looking for outsiders, looking for policemen
who are not complicit, policemen who are not in on this, who actually might
give them a hard time. And, yeah, it was sort of deeply unpleasant.
DAVIES: You described going into, I guess you would call it, a brothel, a
putrid-smelling area where there was a warren of--well, you describe it. I
mean, it was a lot of booths in effect, where these girls take these men for
having sex. How did you get in there? Did you pretend to be a john?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yeah. This was part of the difficult part of reporting this
story. As I said, my wife Kimberlee, who is the photographer on this
story--we spent some time trolling the area, trying to get her good angles on
this street action, while I was doing some reporting. We were
leaving--literally behind us and in front of us these federales, who are under
orders of their boss to really make sure nothing happened to us. We were
leaving, and I spied to the doorway to this brothel, and I realized that I was
seeing the external nature of these mechanisms. And I was talking to victims
and getting their story, but I had yet to actually get a firsthand look at
what went on in this place.
It was a very last-minute decision, and I went in posing as a john with one of
the younger federales to get a look around and found a kind of deeply
disturbing scene in there, as I describe in the article. These girls, many of
them, are wearing the pendant of the Grim Reaper; that's sort of, you know, an
age-old custom among prostitutes and forced prostitutes in Mexico to ward off
evil spirits. They enter the brothel. They first pat down the johns looking
for weapons. Then they genuflect in front of a statue of St. Jude, which is
the saint of lost causes.
They lead you to the back, and it really is a putrid place. They first point
you toward a urinal to empty yourself. A condom is handed over. A roll of
toilet paper is handed over. I mean, we're talking about the basest, most
primal level of sex here. And they lead you to the back, and it literally is
like a row of bathroom stalls, of toilet stalls, one after the other after the
other. I think I estimated 30 to 50. They were all being used. They were
all filled up. So you can imagine the coupling going on there.
And the strangest detail was--I couldn't figure it out until I actually left,
but I realized I didn't hear a sound; that is, with all the sex and deeply
unpleasant sex, I have to add, being done back there, there wasn't a single
noise. I couldn't hear a grunt or a noise or a voice. All I heard was the
shuffling of feet. And it struck me as extremely representative of this
entire thing; that is, we're talking about sex, which, in our culture, is, you
know, purportedly about pleasure. And yet back there I couldn't imagine any
pleasure going on, obviously not for the girls. But even for the men, it just
seemed to be some sort of automated response or automated satiation. There
was no voice pleasure, there was nothing positive about what was going on back
DAVIES: What did you do when you reached the booth with the girl who was
bringing you in?
Mr. LANDESMAN: After she patted me down for weapons and after she
genuflected in front of the saint, we went in the back. And as I said, every
one of these booths was in use. And she kind of propped me against the wall
next to, I guess, her booth. And, by the way, these booths are separated by
curtains. Again, strange--no noise because there's nothing between these
booths. You'd think you'd be able to hear everything. And I waited and I
looked around, and I was trying to obviously absorb as much detail as
possible. And I suppose, just before it was time for us to go in, the curtain
was thrust aside. The couple that was in there before exited. She walked in,
and I essentially walked in the other direction out. And she followed me
closely because she became very nervous obviously. I mean, again, I have to
say, these are not women who work for themselves. They work for men, who not
only will injure or kill them but injure or kill their families if something
goes awry. So, of course, she's deeply concerned that I was going to complain
or something. What I essentially did was I doubled her fee; I gave her twice
as much I had to. And I tried to tell her as best I could that I wasn't
interested, and I walked out.
And we arranged it, really, mostly through hand signals and, I assume, really
for her safety that we would walk out together, and that's what actually
happens. The john doesn't walk out, and the sex slave does not follow. They
walk out together. So we had to walk out together as though we had
consummated the act. And I realized silently and just, really, in the span of
a few seconds that, you know, her life actually may have depended upon this
DAVIES: Journalist Peter Landesman. We'll talk more after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to our interview with journalist Peter Landesman,
whose cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine deals with women and
children being held as sex slaves in the United States.
There's an incredibly compelling photograph that accompanies your story by
your wife, Kimberlee Aquarro. It's shot at this place that you describe, La
Merced, in Mexico, where these sex slaves are paraded in front of, you know,
dozens, even hundreds of men. And we see, from an overhead shot, a young
woman surrounded by, I'd guess, 10 or 20 men that are in the picture with her
head down. How did she get that photo?
Mr. LANDESMAN: It's an extraordinary shot. It's an award-winning shot.
Kimberlee was actually seven months pregnant at this point, you know, which
multiplied our concern about the safety in this area. And she had to do this
in daylight, obviously, to be able to take the photograph. She was wearing a
bulletproof vest and, at some point, a helmet. And the night before I had
gone back with some of these federales to try and rent out a room that sat
above this street. It wasn't easy to do. Everybody's very deeply suspicious,
and obviously nobody wanted to be seen as complicit definitely with the police
but most definitely with an American journalist. So with enough money, we
actually convinced somebody to rent us the room for an hour or two.
And with a federales standing guard at the door, another one in the staircase,
we went up to this room, and we spent about an hour and a half. And
Kimberlee, in bulletproof vest--because you have to understand, in this part
of Mexico City, so many people are armed: knives, guns. And, obviously, in
her condition, because she's pregnant, we were very concerned. There were
spotters everywhere. So she spent about an hour and a half leaning out this
window taking shots of various aspects of this industry and these
transactions. And that was one of the shots she got. It was really--the
second she took it, I knew it was an extraordinary picture of this poor girl.
And my guess is she was maybe 13 or 14--was surrounded by these men who, you
know--it almost looks like a sheep surrounded by wolves. And it struck me as
very representative of everything we're talking about, everything from her
posture to the postures of the men around her.
DAVIES: And some of the men surrounding her are buyers or traders. Some of
them are simply johns?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yeah. It's very difficult to tell the difference. You know,
there were some men who, I think, were most obviously buyers. And there were
some men who just seemed to be day laborers looking for a very, very
inexpensive 15 minutes. And I must say that, you know, it's not as though you
get an hour with these girls. You know, for very little money--and I'm
talking, you know $4.50 worth of pesos, you get 15 minutes. So, you know,
these are men not really looking for intimacy.
DAVIES: A lot of attention has been paid to tightening border crossings
between the United States and Mexico. How did traffickers move these sex
slaves across the border and, in some cases, back and forth several times?
Mr. LANDESMAN: They would frequently piggyback on the largest migration in
human history from Mexico into the United States: different mechanisms,
different traffickers, different coyotes who moved different groups. The sex
slaves were usually moved separately. And, again, since these networks are
mono-ethnic machines, the Russians and Ukrainians utilized, basically, two
routes. One was by boat from Rosarito Esenada up the Pacific to usually San
Diego or Los Angeles, and they would avoid customs and the Coast Guard that
DAVIES: Land on the beach?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Land on the beach, yes. And they'd be met by other boats
who'd bring these girls ashore, and once they arrived in San Diego or LA,
usually the person who reserved them or bought them, usually for about $10,000
apiece, would be waiting for them and would take them away in cars and vans.
Mexicans and, also, the Ukrainians were also marched across two or three
routes over land near Tecate, Mexico, through the no-man's-land, the hills up
towards San Diego. And you're talking about a 12-mile trek. You're talking
about women who are dressed, you know, pretty much ready to go in scantily
clad clothing, you know, in lipstick, sometimes in the high heels, and they'd
be marched over really tough, barren territory, just a sort of brutal, forced
march. Mexican girls sometimes marched through the same area; also, snuck
across other parts of the border into Arizona and Texas in a similar manner as
regular illegal aliens.
There's one particular area south of San Diego where the enormous fence that
begins near Tijuana that separates the United States from Mexico--it begins in
this ocean. It ends in this really hardscrabble, tough, little village in
Mexico. The customs officials call this the end of the fence. It's also the
end of a lot of other things. There, sort of spelled into the hillside in
letters 10 feet tall, is the word `Jesus.' And up above that, top of this
hill, is this 15-foot-high, white, wooden cross. And the sex traffickers
would march the women up to this cross, allow them to pray and then herd them
north towards San Diego, across the hills and through the trails toward their
DAVIES: Journalist Peter Landesman, who wrote about sex slavery in the United
States in this week's New York Times Magazine. He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Coming up, a victim's story. We continue our conversation with
journalist Peter Landesman, who wrote about sex slavery here in the US in this
week's New York Times Magazine. One young woman he interviewed was held
captive from the age of four; she's now in her early 20s.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, back
with journalist Peter Landesman, who wrote the cover story for this week's New
York Times Magazine. The piece is called "Sex Slaves On Main Street."
According to Landesman, authorities believe there are tens of thousands of
young women, teen-agers and children being held in captivity and forced into
prostitution in the United States, most of them foreigners who were smuggled
into the country through Mexico. We caution that some listeners may find this
interview disturbing and not suitable or children.
Peter Landesman, some of the most compelling parts of your story are the
stories of the victims that you spoke with. You mentioned one named Andrea--I
guess most of these are pseudonyms--who describes her experience living in a
basement in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Tell us about
Mr. LANDESMAN: In my years as a journalist and the dozens of stories I've
done, Andrea's probably the most compelling and disturbing interview I've ever
done. Yes, Andrea is her pseudonym. In fact, it's important to know that
Andrea doesn't actually know her name, and the reason she doesn't know her
name or her age, for that matter, or where she was born or when is because she
was abducted or sold--she doesn't even know--she thinks around four years old
to a ring of pedophile S&M traffickers in the West Coast. I have to be
careful here. Andrea lives in an undisclosed location. I visited her there,
but she's in deep jeopardy. If these traffickers knew she was alive and
certainly knew she was talking, with what she knows and what she went through,
she could put a lot of people behind bars for a very long time.
What's unique about her is that any young woman who's reached her
position--she's now in her early 20s. She was in captivity for, she thinks,
about 12 to 14 years. Any young woman in her position would either be dead or
so, you know, maddened, driven to madness, that they wouldn't be a worthwhile
witness. What's remarkable about Andrea, who suffers from multiple
personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder--what's remarkable
about her, the details that she remembers: the color-coded exchange of
toddlers at Disneyland; the rest stops along American interstates, where one
set of traffickers would exchange children for another set of children from a
different set of traffickers; how she was trafficked back and forth across the
Mexican border to Juarez, to Guadalajara, to Veracruz.
She remembers the hotel rooms, she remembers the hotel ceilings. And,
again--this is bitter, bitter medicine--she remembers the hotel ceilings
because that's, really, what she saw. She remembers the older mostly American
men who paid to have sex with her as young as four years old. I mean, she
told me that her very first childhood memory is being gang raped at four years
old, and then it just accelerated from there.
DAVIES: You open the story with your visit to what had been a sex slave
brothel in a neighborhood in New Jersey, where a bunch of young, teen-age
girls were kept for months and months, visited by dozens, hundreds of men. It
seems Andrea's story is different. She moved around a lot. I mean, what's
the pattern? Is there a pattern?
Mr. LANDESMAN: What's different about Andrea is that she's American, and
she's light-skinned, and she was a toddler. When I say toddler, I mean not
even prepubescent; I mean, under 10, under nine. And it's important to make
these distinctions. We are talking about different types of sexual appetites.
It's important to do this without being graphic. The men who go after sex
with toddlers are after something else. It's more than just satiation. It's
really repeated acts of rape, repeated acts of barbarity. And Andrea would
frequently tell me about moments of absolution after these acts, in which
these men would have to sort of tunnel through their remorse by--in one case,
she told me about a man who would read the Bible to her before and after.
When we're talking about sex with foreigners, Mexicans and Eastern Europeans
who were brought into this country, they're usually a little older. And when
I say older, they could be 10 but usually young teen-agers--middle teens, late
typically men who will use any other prostitute; that is, the typical john.
You know, we're talking about average American men who pay for sex who don't
know the story of the girl or woman who's underneath him. What they're
looking for is obviously cheap sex. What they're looking for exotic sex, sex
with a girl darker-skinned or speaks a different language than he is. And
that's a different kind of sexual appetite than pedophilia sex, than--and not
just pedophilia sex. And that's broken down into sadomasochistic sex with
Andrea would frequently tell me about moments of videoing sex with minors and
how her particular group of victims, all between four and 16 years old--and
she said there were roughly 10 to 15 of them held captive in this basement in
Southern California--they were broken down into different groups. There was
the toddler group, there was the young teen-ager group, the older teen-age
group, and then there's something called the damaged group.
DAVIES: What was the damage...
Mr. LANDESMAN: And the damaged...
Mr. LANDESMAN: Andrea said that at one point she entered the damaged group
after she had been used by a man who physically damaged her. The damaged
group is a group of children--and, again, it could be any age, as young as
four or five--in which the paying customer can literally do anything to them,
anything short of killing them and sometimes even killing them. Andrea would
tell me that Mexican children, especially, were so disposable that it was
possible to kill them and actually it not being that big a deal; they'd
probably have to pay a little bit more money. But in the damaged group, you're
talking about sadomasochistic sex with children that would often result in
physical damaged, which is why they were called the damaged group.
DAVIES: She lived, you wrote, in the basement of an upper-middle-class house
in the Los Angeles. And where the kids simply spent all of their times in the
basement, where they were relatively safe with each other, the trouble came
when the door would open.
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yes.
DAVIES: Would they tell each other their experiences? I mean...
Mr. LANDESMAN: No.
DAVIES: ...did they know what kind of damage--no.
Mr. LANDESMAN: They would not talk about what happened outside. She was very
specific about this actually. They hardly talked at all. Most of their
interaction came in training exercises, in which the traffickers or keepers or
captors would force them to train each other to have sex with older people.
That is, I mean, their very young bodies are not built to be penetrated by
adult men. She talked about how to teach a six-year-old toddler, six-year-old
girl, how to perform oral sex on a man using honey. That was, really, the
basis of their interaction.
DAVIES: She mentioned that when the door opened and one of them was required
for a trip, that they were often given clothes, dresses, that were
color-coded. What was that about?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Groups of these children would be exchanged for other groups
of children. Actually it was not the Los Angeles area, but she was in
Southern California, and her particular trafficker seemed to use Disneyland
frequently as a place of transit and a place of exchange; Disneyland being the
perfect cover because there's nothing but children and adults. And nobody's
looking at identity cards, and nobody's checking drivers' licenses. You know,
an adult walks up with a child, the assumption is that child belongs to that
adult. And the way she described it was that the customer or the other
trafficker would be told beforehand what color of clothes these kids would be
wearing, so they were easily identifiable.
So there's a kind of color-coded mechanism by which one set of children was
brought, exchanged for another set or a customer waiting for one child, two
children, three--would, again, be waiting for a certain color clothing to show
up. And then Andrea told me that she would walk up to the gentleman and say
something that was prearranged. In one case, it was, `I've been waiting for
you, Daddy,' and put her hand in his, and that was the code, and she'd be
wearing the right clothes, and then he would take her away.
DAVIES: A lot of these kids and young women were marched across, of course,
the border to the United States, where they were placed in brothels all around
the country and in situations like this. Did operators in the United States
literally place orders for the sex slaves from these Mexican markets?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Yes. Stash houses in the larger hub cities of the United
States, which is where this activity's mostly concentrated; you're talking New
York, LA, Atlanta, Chicago. The stash houses would call down to pimping
organizations or families that they worked with, usually in this town
Tenancingo, and say, you know, `We need five. We need five of this age.'
They would put in orders for numbers, orders for quality and orders for age.
DAVIES: And what do they pay?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Nothing actually. These girls in Mexico were abducted, so
the overhead from the beginning was zero. Sometimes they're bought for $500
from an impoverished family, who thinks their child is going on to a better
life in the United States. Profit-sharing happens on the other end, and the
profits are enormous. For instance, in Calle Santo Tamas, where these girls
are tried out and trained, one girl could earn a trafficker something less
than $2,000 a week, and that's 30 men a day, seven days a week. That same
girl in the United States could earn a trafficker up to $30,000. And then if
you're talking about Russians and Ukrainians, who frequently are used for a
different subset of customer, usually much higher paying, you're talking
earning a trafficker or a captor up to $50,000 a week. Now this is often,
frequently, with zero investment. So the profit margin is absolutely
enormous. There's plenty of money to go around.
And just as one example, in Sonora in Mexico, a Mexican state which is across
from Arizona, 10 federal police officers and government officials who are
complicit in the industry there--every week they share a payoff of $200,000;
that's $20,000 apiece, which in Mexico is absolutely a king's ransom. So if
$200,000 a week is shared by just 10 officers in one place, one place among
hundreds of places where these kids and girls and young women are trafficked
across--you know, simple arithmetic brings you to the numbers of dollars we're
talking about, billions.
DAVIES: My guest is journalist Peter Landesman. We'll talk more after a
short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're back with journalist Peter Landesman. His cover story in this
week's New York Times Magazine deals with the sex slave trade here in the
You met some victims of the sex trade. How did you get them to talk to you?
Was it difficult? What was their process of opening up like?
Mr. LANDESMAN: It was very difficult. I probably met a dozen, and probably
in the end eight spoke to me: some, in the end, reluctantly; some spoke to me
with great remorse--that is, afterwards they really regretted it. It was
really a long negotiation of trust; that is, A, they wanted to know why I
wanted to know these lurid details, and, B, was I going to hurt them? Every
single one of these victims, if it was known by their trafficker from whom
they escaped that she was talking, she would be dead. There's no question
that these girls would most likely be killed.
In the end, you know, they put their lives in my hands, and that kind of
process is very long and can be very sweet because, in the end, you know, I
get the information and their story, and they receive sometimes catharsis but
also the sense of trust. And don't forget, because I'm a man, I represent to
them two things: I represent their subjugators, their captors, who are mostly
men, and I represent the, quote-unquote, "customers." I represent the kind of
guy who would have sex with them, you know, sometimes dozens of times a day.
So I had that working against me.
And, actually, when I met Andrea at the airport--before we met, we spoke by
telephone, and she asked me if I had any facial hair. And I said, `No.' And
she said, `Well, that's good because if you did, I wouldn't be able to meet
with you because my captor, my keeper, had a beard.' And then I got off the
plane, and I approached her with my wife, Kimberlee, and I specifically put
Kimberlee in front of me in order to lessen as much as possible her pain. But
it was a warm day, and I was wearing an open shirt, and Andrea took one look
at me, and a look of horror came over her face, and she kind of staggered
backwards. And I realized I was wearing an open shirt, and my chest hair had
obviously reminded her of somebody. I didn't ask her who; I didn't even
really need to ask her who.
It really took about four or five hours before Andrea felt comfortable saying
literally anything. And then after a while it became a flood, like a torrent,
of information, and she made it very clear that this is the first and last
time she would talk about this because every time she did talk about it to me,
when she took breaks, she would return to her room, to the bathroom and do
damage to herself; she was a cutter. And so in order to relieve herself of
the pain of the attention of speaking to me, she would need to injure herself
in order almost to distract one kind of pain and replace it with another kind
of pain. So that was a very difficult negotiation. And I'm not sure if I
should regret asking her to talk about it or to feel grateful that she did
because I actually think she's done a great service.
DAVIES: Do we have any idea how many people have escaped from the sex
Mr. LANDESMAN: We have no idea how many people have escaped because we really
have no idea how many people are really in it. Let me give you one example of
that in terms of the numbers. One case in Atlanta, recent case, of sex
trafficking--the federal government broke up one sex-trafficking ring in a
medium-sized city, a medium-sized ring. They actually met and helped and
saved about two dozen of their victims. But this particular ring was strange
in the sense that it kept enormously detailed records. There was literally a
black book with the girls, the age, where they came from, how much money
they'd made. This particular ring had brought in over a thousand girls in
that one year.
So the federal government found a couple dozen, saved them, but where are the
other 980? They're dispersed throughout the United States unaccounted for,
uncounted. So any number the government comes up with is going to include the
couple dozen, but the rest of the thousand will not be counted. So we're
talking about many orders of magnitude in terms of how much bigger this
problem is than the government probably even knows.
DAVIES: Let's talk a bit about what anybody's doing about this. You quote
Laura Lederer, a senior State Department adviser on trafficking, as saying,
`We're not finding victims in the United States because we're not looking for
them.' What's being done about this?
Mr. LANDESMAN: At the moment, very, very little. One of the problems is that
the Bush administration--faith-based, influenced very much by evangelical core
of their constituency, very susceptible to influence by other faith-based
organizations and, really, quite rightly are very focused on the sex slave
trade elsewhere: Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam. And they have targeted
American sex tourists who go there and engage in sex with minors in Cambodia
and Thailand and the like.
What they are not realizing--and I don't think they're ignoring; I think they
just do not know--that in their back yard, in the United States, this problem
is really just as bad; that is, off the record and on background, State
Department officials have admitted to me that the number of girls and women
being trafficked into the United States for sex slavery and forced sex is
probably in the six figures, somewhere between a hundred and two hundred
thousand people. Conservative number...
DAVIES: Per year?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Per year, annually. Conservative numbers put that in the tens
of thousands, and that's what they will say on the record. But the reality,
they know and I certainly know, is much worse than that. The reason this is
happening is partly because, what we got into before, the issue of language
and definition. Prostitutes or girls being used for sex are looked at as, you
know, quote-unquote "hookers" and "girls for hire" and "call girls" and
"escorts." You know, local police look at these women as, `Yes, they may have
a tough individual, independent story, but they're basically volunteers.
They're basically voluntarily doing this for whatever reason.' And the reason
is, really, not their concern. Most of these--not most of these girls. Many,
many of these girls fit the category that we're talking about actually as sort
of sex slavery.
So the government on every level, local, state and federal, essentially
doesn't know this is going on. It's not being reported. In neighborhoods
where these stash houses are set, they look through the activity. I'm not
saying that they see it and ignore it. I just don't think they even know to
look for it. I can tell you that in all of my reporting over four months, the
dozens of law enforcement officials I've spoken to on both sides of the
US-Mexico border and mostly American law enforcement--officials and, also,
officers--not a single one thought this is a big deal or a big problem. They
just thought it was minor and not even, really, worth their attention on the
scale of the felonies that they deal with on a daily basis.
DAVIES: Journalist Peter Landesman, who wrote about sex slavery in the United
States in this week's New York Times magazine. We'll continue our
conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Peter Landesman.
His piece in Sunday's New York Times magazine tells the story of sex slaves
who were captured and brought to the United States, where they're forced into
prostitution. I asked Landesman about the speech President Bush gave to the
United Nations last year in which he condemned what he called `the special
evil of the sex trade.' I asked if Bush was referring mostly to the trade
outside the United States.
Mr. LANDESMAN: One hundred percent yes...
Mr. LANDESMAN: ...you know, and quite rightly. I mean, they are, in some
ways, really putting the screws to governments of countries where this
happens. The Cambodian and Thai governments have recently cooperated with US
agencies in sting operations to capture American tourists who are engaging in
sex with minors. But they really had to be deeply influenced, and I say that
politely. It took an enormous amount of pressure. And we're, really, still
talking about prosecutions in the single digits at this point. This isn't,
really, even a drop in the ocean. And my fear is like so much legislation and
verbal activity around trafficking in general--and we're talking drugs and
weapons and, also, human sex slaves--despite all the rhetoric, despite all the
legislation, really, none of this is stopping or even slowing. It all happens
with impunity, and the sex trade is no different.
DAVIES: Well, you've described fairly open collaboration in Mexico between
local authorities, local law enforcement and even, I guess, some in the
immigration authorities in Mexico, collaborations between them and sex
traffickers. Now it would appear that if the United States wanted to, it
could use some trade and diplomatic pressures to make a difference. Is that
Mr. LANDESMAN: It absolutely can. Yeah, the sex--trafficking in general,
whether it be drugs or human, with Mexico's very sensitive to this
administration. The administration has to pick and choose the subject matter
it raises with the Fox administration very carefully. It can't push them too
hard. I know that there are individuals high in the Fox administration in
Mexico City that are interested in this, but they have zero support and zero
resources to deal with this. The United States could probably shame them into
trying to do something, but they recognize that the Mexican political culture
is so saturated in corruption--the same political party in power for over 60
years--you're really talking about turning around an enormous ship. And I'd
say that maybe it's tilting 2 or 3 degrees in one direction or the other, but
it would be an enormous job to change the political culture in Mexico
overnight. So the administration probably has to weigh: `What would we gain
by embarrassing, shaming or even penalizing the Mexican government into acting
on this, you know, beyond what they could realistically do?'
DAVIES: You know, I have to say this story is hard to read. I mean, this is
truly heartbreaking. I can only imagine what it was like to report it.
You're a husband and a father. How do you prepare yourself emotionally for
this kind of reporting?
Mr. LANDESMAN: Reporting like this comes in waves. Some of the time I can
shield myself behind the need to consistently look for the architecture of the
narrative; that is, I hear information, whether it be, you know, an address or
information like, you know, Andrea's story, which is almost unbearable to
listen to, no less to have experienced--I receive information. And, still, my
job, what I'm paid to do, is to put together a story that's coherent, that
makes sense, that makes a point, that may make a difference, may not. But my
job as a writer is to write a story that is whole and has power, and that's
about craftsmanship. And craftsmanship is, really, emotionless. It's not
about emotion. It's about a skill. Now that's on a good day.
On a bad day, which is most of the time, I hear this information, and I go
back and have a very difficult time with it. Andrea's interview was done over
the course of a couple days. We would need to take breaks frequently. It was
almost unbearable at times. The fact that I was doing this story with my wife
was a positive experience. Somehow, since Kimberlee was pregnant, there
seemed to be an even exchange going on; that is, we were bringing life into
the world while we were reporting on the extinguishing of all these innocent
lives. But in the end, you know, when the story's closed and shipped and
edited and the magazine's out, I'm left with the content, just like a reader
is. And over the course of the following days and weeks--and I'm including
now--it all sort of crashes over me in the same way it would crash over you.
And I can read it and come to the story fresh again and be just as deeply
affected. So I guess my answer is the pain comes in waves, and I balance it
with the job.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Landesman, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. LANDESMAN: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Journalist Peter Landesman. His piece in this week's New York Times
Magazine is "Sex Slaves On Main Street."
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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