They Came to This Country Seeking Better Lives for Themselves and Their Families. Instead, They Found Abuse and Forced Prostitution. The Tale of Two Survivors.
The moment Rosa saw the clothes, she knew she had been deceived.
Short shorts, micro minis, crop tops. Not the kind of clothing the 17-year-old girl would need to care for the elderly or wait on tables–jobs that sounded full of promise when the smugglers described them in her impoverished village in Veracruz, Mexico.
With dread squeezing her stomach, she looked at the man who had smuggled her into the United States. “Why do I need these clothes?” she asked him, afraid of the answer.
“For prostitution,” he said to her. “That’s what you are now.”
Prostitute. The word, uttered in Spanish, hung in the air.
She began to cry, the fears she had been fighting since the border crossing into Texas swamping her.
“I don’t want to do this. I will not do this,” she told him.
Roughly, he reminded her of the family she left behind, threatening to send his associates to harm her parents. She now owed the Cadena family a $2,300 smuggling fee, he said, and there was only one method of payment: Work it off in the family brothels.
“It’s too late for tears,” he told her.
Illegally in a foreign land, unable to speak English, fearful of retaliation against her family, not even sure of her own location, she stopped crying. And put on the clothes.
In an ordeal that would last more than nine months, the girl was forced to work in a sex-slavery ring run by the Cadena family of Veracruz, Mexico. At least 26 other women and girls–some as young as 14–were similarly lured to the United States and made to work as prostitutes in Cadena brothels.
They came to this country seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Instead, they found sexual enslavement, their bodies sold to a different man every 15 minutes, often for 12 hours a day, in sex houses that were little more than rundown trailers with partitions separating one mattress from another. Beatings, forced abortions and armed guards were routine parts of brothel life.
In their first extensive interviews, two of the victims described for The Herald a tale of abuse and forced prostitution that law enforcement officers call the worst case of modern-day slavery they have seen. Court documents, interviews and testimony corroborate their accounts.
Because the women still fear retaliation against their families and were victims of sexual crimes, they have asked that their identities be protected and their real names not be used.
Rosa, in her late teens, has a shy smile, a whispery voice and a round face bare of makeup. Dressed in a t-shirt and nylon exercise pants, dark hair pulled back in a long ponytail, she keeps her eyes downcast as she talks of her experiences.
Sarah, sitting next to her, is the older and more poised of the two. In her mid-20s, she is working two jobs and trying to teach herself English from television.
“We decided to be brave,” said Sarah, her dark brown eyes intense, “for all the other girls who cannot be. Someone has to talk about it.”
The slave trade was a family affair for the Cadenas: Four brothers, their mother, two uncles and one of their wives all played roles in the business, according to law enforcement.
They worked both sides of the border for at least 18 months, luring young women from Mexico, then forcing them to work in brothels that dotted Florida and stretched into South Carolina.
The business collapsed in the spring of 1998, when the federal government indicted 16 people–including eight members of the Cadena family.
Critical statements for prosecutors came from 17 victims. Their graphic descriptions of abuse elicited a fierce response from U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp, who called the case “one of the most base, most vile, most despicable, more reprehensible crimes that I think I have ever encountered…utterly disgusting.”
One of the ringleaders, Rogerio Cadena, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and other charges. He was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison and ordered to pay $1 million to the victims. Six others pleaded guilty to charges relating to the brothel operation, receiving sentences between 2-1/2 and 6-1/2 years.
One other family member, Abel Cadena, was captured in Mexico two months ago and is awaiting extradition. The other members of the family remain on the run, probably in Mexico.
Outrage over the case prompted Attorney General Janet Reno to form a national task force on exploited workers, harnessing for the first time the powers of local, state and federal agencies to fight the unthinkable: slavery in modern-day America.
“I never wanted the ‘clients’ to touch me. I would put a pillow on my chest and cover my face when I was with them,” wrote one of the Cadenas’ victims, as she described her painful and degrading existence in the brothels in a letter to the judge.
“After work, when I showered, I never wanted to come out. I felt disgusting and dirty. I felt terrible because I had to be with strange men.”
Once, she wrote, she was locked in a closet as punishment for protesting after a boss told her to speed up with the customers.
“I was already seeing a client every 15 minutes. The boss told me to shut up and do it. I said I was not a machine. He then instructed another worker to take me and lock me up in a closet,” she wrote.
She spent 15 days in the dark, cramped space. Food was slipped in to her: “I was only allowed to come out to go to the bathroom.”
Agonizing lessons like that served to reinforce the brutal house rules. Each girl–there were three or four to a house–was expected to have sex with 100 to 150 men a week on average, six nights in a row, Tuesdays off. The mattresses used for work were the same mattresses the women slept on at night. Sometimes the guards wanted sex, too, after the paying customers left.
In trailers on the edges of civilization, the women worked for 15 days, seeing one man after another, until they were moved to another trailer, in another location, where another line of men waited for fresh “stock.”
Armed guards watched the women day and night, drove them in vans from one brothel to another, warned them not to go outside alone, and monitored their once-a-week phone calls home. Sometimes, they would force the girls to strip and videotape them.
The customers, mostly undocumented migrants themselves, usually paid $20 for 15 minutes with the women. Many knew the women were being held against their will. A few even helped with escape attempts. Usually, they paid the money and kept quiet.
Men called “ticketeros” collected the fees and handed a condom to each customer. The girls were paid almost nothing. From the $20 charged each man, the house usually took half and another $7 went toward smuggling debts of $2,000 to $3,000.
That left $3 for the girls–less, if she had additional expenses, such as medical care. If a girl was forced to have an abortion, the cost was added to the total debt.
Objecting to a drunken or abusive customer could trigger a beating. One girl said she was kicked in the stomach when the bosses learned she was pregnant; she later had a miscarriage.
Girls who tried to escape were brought back forcibly. An unknown number made it to freedom, but most were trapped in the rural brothels where phones were scarce and police patrol cars infrequent. Unsupervised contact with the outside world was rare.
Cloistered, the women formed their own insular societies within the walls of the brothels. Sarah, older than many of the girls, quickly took on the role of mother-protector, volunteering to take the drunk or abusive customers to shield the terrified young girls.
“They called me Mami,” she said, with a haalf-smile. “They were younger than me and if I couldn’t save them from this life, then maybe I could protect them from some of the worst parts of it. When I would see a new girl come in, my heart would sink because I knew what was going to happen to her.”
But the Cadenas were clever, offering the women just enough hope to keep them compliant. If they paid their debts, they were free to go. And some did leave.
But most found themselves at the mercy of the bosses’ accounting methods. Many of the girls and women kept tally sheets of their own, painfully noting each customer.
“I would take careful notes of everything so that I would know when I paid off my debt,” Sarah said. “After four months, by my count, the debt was paid.”
But when the time came to collect her belongings from another brothel, Rogerio Cadena decided to accompany her.
“Of course, when he took me, I wasn’t really free to go at all,” she said. She would spend nearly six months more in the brothels.
Abuse was frequent, the women said.
“They would do whatever they wanted to do to us–beat us or rape us,” Sarah said. “But I wouldn’t keep quiet, I would talk back to them, and so I would get a lot of beatings….Rogerio hit me many times.”
One beating she received at his hands sent her to a clinic, her face battered into a bloody mess. “I told them I was in a car accident,” she said. “I was afraid of what would happen to my family if I told the truth.”
Rosa recalled a day when Alberto Cadena pulled her back into the brothel by her hair and hit another woman in the face with his fists when she insulted him. Another time, she saw him shoot at a girl’s feet after she sneaked an alcoholic drink. He missed, but the point was made.
Hope was a precious commodity in the brothels, nurtured with clipped out magazine pictures of a better life, carefully kept tallies of earnings toward freedom–and friendships, forged late at night, while the guards slept.
“At night, after all the customers would leave the brothel, the girls would get together and talk,” Rosa said. “A lot of girls were scared to sleep alone. We would try to encourage each other.”
At her worst moments, when she felt the abuse would never end, she would think of home and her mother’s words. “She would say to me: ‘Think about your future, the good things your future will bring. I love you more than anything in the world.’ And when I would think of that, I would be able to get through another day.”