General Resources

Comments, questions, or info. can be directed to:

  • Image Hosted by

Translate this site into the language of your choice:

American/English German Japanese Italian Portuguese
Spanish French Korean Chinese
Powered by...

January 31, 2006

"I stare at the ceiling. That's how I handle it"

Sex rings prey on immigrant women.
Human traffickers trap hundreds of female Hispanics into prostitution
Posted on Sun, Jan. 29, 2006
The Charlotte Observer

The corner bungalow on Weldon Avenue looks like any other house on the quiet street in northeast Charlotte. But for a while in 2004, police say, it cloaked a secret brothel.

At night, men, mostly immigrants, lined up outside to wait their turn with young Latino women held as sex slaves. A typical session lasted 15 minutes, police say, and cost each customer about $30. Some women had sex with dozens of men a night.

Police shut down the brothel in July 2004. But authorities say many more dot the city.

In neighborhoods along North Tryon Street, The Plaza and South Boulevard, criminals have turned small, unassuming homes into illegal houses of prostitution, holding women against their will. Police shut down two last week, but declined to give details because of ongoing investigations.

Hundreds of Hispanic women are brought in and out of Charlotte every week to work at more than a dozen brothels connected to sex-trafficking rings on the East Coast, according to FBI and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigators.

Most of the women are in the country illegally and are reluctant to report the crimes. Often locked in rooms with few clothes and no telephone, they fear being beaten if they try to escape.

To keep a constant cycle of prostitutes in Charlotte, traffickers exchange the women with other pimps and handlers in cities such as Raleigh and Greensboro, often for as little as $130 each. The women are moved so frequently that some no longer know what city they're in.

"No one thinks of Charlotte and human trafficking," said Capt. Bruce Bellamy, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police vice and narcotics unit. "But it's a far greater issue than people realize."

`Supply and demand'

The sex trafficking rings exist because of the influx of illegal immigrants in the Carolinas, FBI officials said. More than 300,000 immigrants are estimated to live illegally in North Carolina. Most are men who left their wives and families to find work in the U.S."It's about supply and demand," said FBI agent Kevin Kendrick, who heads a local campaign to help victims of human trafficking.

In a recent meeting with the Observer, FBI agents and members of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police's vice and narcotics unit and criminal intelligence unit detailed the Charlotte area's role in a burgeoning international problem.

Human trafficking often begins with someone paying to be smuggled across the border. The situation changes when smugglers increase their prices or add fees the person is unable to pay. Smugglers then force them into work to pay off the debt. For women, the work is often prostitution. [...]

A haunting picture

In Charlotte, the brothels appear to be typical homes, according to undercover police who investigate local prostitution. But after hours and on weekends, they turn into busy night spots, protected by security guards.

Lines are so long at some that house managers must serve as hosts, entertaining their restless customers with food and television. The Weldon Avenue brothel set up a burrito truck outside, police said.

"They don't miss an opportunity," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Eddie Levins, head of the criminal intelligence unit.

Police believe that Francisco Romero Piña, 37, known as "El Gallo" or "The Rooster," ran two Charlotte brothels with trafficked women, the Weldon Avenue house and another on North Tryon Street, until July 2004.

Romero was never charged with human trafficking, but was sent to prison on related weapons and fraud charges stemming from the investigations. Police said their human trafficking case was hindered because alleged victims were too scared to cooperate.

Romero, like many brothel owners, advertised by word of mouth, authorities said. He passed out business cards with directions to the houses he operated, police said.

Customers paid a house manager who gave them a ticket, a playing card or a bead. The men then gave those items to women inside as proof of payment. According to police, brothel operators usually kept half the fees, giving the women the other half, which often went to pay off debts.

"It's very sad," said Maudia Melendez, leader of a Charlotte Latino advocacy group, who is working with the FBI to locate and help trafficking victims. "These girls are in a situation that they don't know how to get out of. They're so afraid to talk with anybody."

Last month, a Wake County brothel operator pleaded guilty in federal court to trafficking women and girls as young as 14 to work in at least three brothels.

Valente Chavez Sanchez, 33, was charged, along with two other men, with bringing women from New York, New Jersey and Maryland to service brothels in Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina and Lillington over a seven-year period, according to prosecutors. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, who assisted with the federal investigation, said those same women also worked in Charlotte.

One undercover detective investigating six brothels in Charlotte said the women are "disgusted" by the work.

"The last interview I had, I asked the woman, `How do you handle 30 guys a night?' " he recalled. "She said, `I stare at the ceiling. I stare at the ceiling. That's how I handle it.' "


To fight the growing problem, the FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and advocacy groups launched a campaign last week to draw more attention to the issue and help trafficking victims.FBI agent Kendrick, who heads the campaign, said various law enforcement agencies will work more closely to shut down trafficking rings.

The effort marks a shift for police, who previously had focused on arresting and prosecuting handlers and women.

The push is part of a national effort funded by $15 million in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, signed by President Bush on Jan. 10. The law also provides assistance and immigration benefits to trafficking victims.

The FBI does not intend to arrest or deport victims, Kendrick said. Instead, the agency will help them escape their captors and inform them of their rights. The agency also will help them secure special visas to remain in the country legally in exchange for their cooperation in prosecuting their handlers.

"It's a vicious cycle of people being victimized," he said. "People can (now)come forward and don't have to worry about their immigration status."

-- staff researcher Sara Klemmer contributed.

-- Franco Ordoñez: (704) 358-6180

To Report Suspicious Activity Call:

- The FBI at (704) 377-9200

- Crime Stoppers at (704) 334-1600

Women Trapped in Neighborhood Brothels Unusual activity offers clues

Authorities say prostitution houses run by human traffickers typically exhibit some of these characteristics: - Stringent security at homes of migrant workers.

- Presence of armed guards.

- Fences with locked gates.

- Employees living and working in same building.

- Workers are never seen alone or without supervision.

Tips for the FBI

Investigators welcome tips. Call the FBI at (704) 377-9200.

El FBI Pide su Ayuda

Si tiene información sobre incidentes de tráfico humano, llame al FBI en Charlotte al (704) 377-9200. Tambien puede llamar a Crime Stoppers, al (704) 334-1600.
[HT], [SS]

Image Hosted by , , ,