MAXWELL:  “We wouldn’t let this happen to dogs’

3/25/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The building is small, windowless, filthy on the outside, squat. Until a few weeks ago, two men, called ticket takers, stood in the doorway and sold condoms for $20 apiece. Inside, the condom buyers had intercourse with the women waiting in dirty, unventilated stalls.

Today, they stand empty, the building boarded up, not a “john” in sight.

Federal marshals shut down this brothel, along with those in four other Florida cities, after learning that 10 women and three girls, all Mexican, were victims in a prostitution ring for migrant farm workers.

This is how the scheme works: Eight male members of the Cadena family crime ring of Veracruz, Mexico, seek women in Mexico and other Latin American regions and promise them jobs as tomato pickers and house cleaners in the United States. After the women are smuggled into this country, however, they are enslaved and forced to work as prostitutes.

The $20 they earn per john goes to their captors. The women can win their freedom only after selling their bodies enough times to pay a so-called transportation fee of $3,000, federal officials said.

Three of the Cadenas, being held in the Palm Beach County jail on federal slavery and prostitution charges, are in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service. Officials in Mexico, Texas and Florida are still trying to find four other members of the crime ring who are wanted on the same charges.

In several ways, the women have been victimized. First, of course, they were tricked and forced into sexual slavery. On top of that, they are pariahs among their own people and are despised in the neighborhoods where brothels are located. And to make matters worse, they have been in jail since the brothel was shut down.

Last Friday, they appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank J. Lynch. He informed them that they would be released today on $25,000 bail apiece. Clad in green two-piece uniforms and white socks to protect their ankles from their leg irons, the women seemed oddly out of place as they occupied two rows of the courtroom gallery.

Nothing about them suggested that they are prostitutes, willing or unwilling. The youngest ones giggled and softly spoke in Spanish. The older ones sat silently. They seemed frightened, disoriented and humiliated as they listened on headphones to translations of the proceedings.

Lou DeBoca, a U.S. Justice Department attorney specializing in indentured-servitude cases, said that the women’s futures look bright for the first time since they have been in America.

In an elaborate process, U.S. Marshals will bring the women to the Mexican consulate after they are freed, then fly them to the Bahamas and back. This flight is necessary so that they will touch foreign soil. Otherwise, they cannot be legally admitted into the U.S.

After being released today, the women will be given jobs in companies near a Miami safe house and will be permitted to come and go as they please as long as they remain in South Florida.

“We’re going to find them good, legitimate jobs, the kind most of them were promised when they were taken to our country,” DeBoca said.

DeBoca’s biggest concern at this point is ensuring that the women will not flee to Mexico before their captors are brought to trial. “We’ve got a pretty good safety net in place,” he said.

Outside the courtroom, a translator said that federal authorities have been slow to go after criminals operating prostitution rings in migrant communities: “It’s like these people don’t really matter. It seems like the only thing they’re good for is picking our fruits and vegetables.

“Who cares about them? These kinds of things shouldn’t happen to human beings. We wouldn’t let this happen to dogs. How can we let men force women to sell their bodies for $20? It makes me sick.”

Federal authorities say that they have no real way of determining how many women are being held hostage in migrant communities but fear that the numbers will grow because more money is needed to hire more agents and to establish networks among local officials in U.S. cities and their counterparts south of the border.

Hector Cruz, a farm worker advocate, said that women such as these are easy prey because they face severe economic hardship in their countries and are desperate to help support their families. “People like the Cadenas can easily take advantage of these women,” he said. “They simply want honest work, but they get sold as sex slaves in America.”