By Cindy Dyer, Vice President, Human Rights
I was a domestic and sexual violence prosecutor in Dallas for 13 years. Back in 1996, I was assigned what seemed to be a typical aggravated sexual assault case where a man had brutally raped his wife. I met with the victim of the crime and started putting together the facts, but what they showed was something I had not encountered before, human trafficking.
The victim, who I will call Rosa, told me the police report was accurate. The defendant was the father of her 1 year old child and she had lived with this man for more than 2 years. But to my surprise, she insisted that this man was not her husband, lover, boyfriend or ex of any sort. Instead, she described to me the grim situation where this man had confined her to his house, raped her repeatedly and forced her to have sex with other men for two years. She was his prisoner and he controlled her through violence, intimidation and threats against her family.
Rosa’s story is not unusual. She told me about how she escaped from the poverty and violence of El Salvador with the help of a “coyote,” a person who is paid to help undocumented immigrants cross the border. Once she arrived in Texas, the coyote introduced her to a man who promised her a job as a waitress in Dallas. He assured her that she would have enough money to send home to support her family in El Salvador. Instead the man put her in his home, raped her and sold her to other men. She stayed because he said he had “connections” from El Salvador to Canada and that he would hurt her family if she ever tried to escape. Fearing for her family’s life, and depending on the small amount of money that he allowed her to send home, she endured his exploitation and violence and had never told anyone about her situation until then. On the night of this final attack, she was injured so badly that the neighbors heard her cries and called the police.
In Texas, as in the rest of the country, we did not recognize the crime of human trafficking in 1996. Our best option was to charge the defendant with Aggravated Sexual Assault in an effort to properly bring justice to this woman. We obtained a conviction against Rosa’s trafficker. But Rosa continued to be stalked, threatened and harassed by her trafficker’s accomplices. It took many years, but Rosa and her son are now safe and living in a new state, under a new name.
Since passing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, the U.S. has made great strides toward recognizing human trafficking as a crime and holding traffickers accountable while providing services and protection to victims. But there is much more work to be done, not only in the U.S., but around the world. Vital Voices is working with women leaders around the globe who are struggling to prevent and respond to the crime of human trafficking.