For many survivors of human trafficking, it starts with a promise of a better life. For a Winston-Salem woman, it started when a family friend in Mexico offered to bring her to the United States so she could finish high school.
“He said he just wanted to help because I was like a daughter for him,” Jenny said, now 21. “When we got to the apartment, it wasn’t what he said it was obviously.”
For the next two or three months, Jenny says the man basically made her his prisoner and sex slave.
“I didn’t speak English back then, so I didn’t understand anything,” Jenny said. “He said I couldn’t leave because he did something for me so I have to stay there and do whatever he asked me to do.”
According to Deputy Special Agent in Charge Joseph Gallion with U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that type of manipulation is a common strategy for human traffickers.
“They take the victimization out of what they’re doing and they tell you, ‘You’re the criminal because you’ve been smuggled into the United States,’” Gallion said.
According to local survivor advocate organizations, the Piedmont Triad is ripe for both labor and sex trafficking because of its location and major events, including the High Point Furniture Market and the ACC Tournament.
“It is slavery. For those of us who thought slavery was gone, it’s not. It’s just taken on a different form,” said Andrew Timbie, director of World Relief High Point.
In mid-April, agents released information about Operation Ayúdeme or “Help Me,” which led to the arrests of 30 people in Winston-Salem accused of running nine brothels in the city.
Deputy Special Agent Gallion said four women and one minor were forced to have sex with men for years before they could be saved.
“These types of criminal organizations and activities really deteriorate the under pinning of the community,” Gallion said. “The public needs to be aware of what’s going on. If they see those businesses where there are a lot of people and traffic and it doesn’t seem to be your usual run-of-the-mill business, don’t be afraid to call the tip line or local law enforcement. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. You haven’t wasted anyone’s time.”
Jenny finished high school and is currently waiting for a Visa so she can begin looking for work. She is no longer angry at her captor but still struggles with fear.
“You never know if they’re looking for you or trying to do anything because they’re mad because you got away from them,” Jenny said. “It’s hard to start building your life, but it’s good there are people who actually care.”