Prostitution Ring Busted, Victims Getting Aid And Counseling

A number of Latin American women who were victimized in what federal officials say was a major prostitution ring are living in safe housing, getting psychological counseling and other assistance, and may qualify for special US visas for sex trafficking victims who cooperate with law enforcement.

The steps are just the beginning of a recovery process that could take a lifetime, said Linda Miller, executive director of the Civil Society in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of several Twin Cities organizations that works with victims of sexual violence.

"It's not possible to change people back to what they were before the crime," said Miller, "but it is possible to stabilize them and get them into a situation where they can deal with the present and the future. They will probably carry the scars their whole lives."

The women were rescued during a law enforcement sweep last month that uncovered eight brothels in otherwise ordinary-looking houses and apartments in Minneapolis, Richfield, West St. Paul and Austin, according to a federal indictment.

The indictment describes women being flown to Minnesota and delivered from one brothel to another, one woman given short heels so she wouldn't appear too tall to the johns, and two women forced to have sex with 80 men in one night.

The women's identification papers were reportedly seized by the ring leaders to prevent them from fleeing.

Twenty five men and women -- most illegal immigrants from Latin America -- were charged in federal court in connection with the bust.

Authorities would not reveal the exact numbers or the precise whereabouts of the women who were rescued. But Twin Cities agencies that work with formerly prostituted women say the first steps for such victims is finding a safe place to begin to heal. The women often are taken first to a domestic violence shelter, they said, and then moved into a "supportive housing" program that can coordinate their therapy and services.

In cases such as this one, where foreign-born women were stripped of their identity papers, getting proper identification for the women is a step toward giving them a sense of control over their lives, agency leaders said.

"Women being trafficked are severely controlled by their traffickers," said Jose Trejo, program director for Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides a variety of services to prostituted women. "When they come to an organization for assistance, they've been utterly traumatized. The biggest issues they face are shame, guilt and low self-esteem -- given all the things they've had to do."

Because so many women are given drugs as a way to control them, women may need help breaking chemical addictions when they're finally rescued, said Trejo. Likewise caring for their medical and mental health is needed.

"For women who are trafficked, you don't have just one person to be afraid of, you have a network of people to be afraid of wherever you go," said Miller.

Authorities aren't revealing how the women involved in the Minnesota ring were first drawn into prostitution. But agencies that work with prostituted women say that women who are "trafficked" -- bought and sold from other countries -- are duped with a variety of scams.

Often the women are recruited in their home countries, under pretenses of landing a restaurant job or other legitimate work in the United States, said Amy Sanchez, a director at Casa de Esperanza, a St. Paul-based agency assisting victims of domestic violence.

Many are women who have married or entered into romantic relationships with men who bring them to the United States and then sell them for sex, they said.

"We've worked with women who were told they had a student visa, but when they got here they were told, 'You don't have one. So you have to do as I say,' " said Sanchez.

Their situation is complicated by the fact that many women don't speak English, giving traffickers another means of control, said Miller. So rescued women are quickly assigned to English-language classes.

"We start the ESL, (English as a Second Language), right away because it gets their minds off of things," said Miller. "It's good therapy."

The women rescued in last month's raid are expected to be asked to cooperate with federal prosecutors. They are eligible to continue receiving services, housing and eventually vocational training as long as it's needed, said Miller.


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