The Lost Girls
For the thousands of women who have been trafficked into Houston and forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s underground sex trade, escaping from captivity may be the easiest part of the nearly impossible road to recovery.
UPDATE: Thanks to the tireless efforts of anti-trafficking expert Dottie Laster and David Walding, an attorney with the Bernardo Kohler Center, the woman called Kiki featured in this story was released, after about a year of incarceration, from the La Salle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, on July 20, and is awaiting receipt of her T-Visa. After a brief stop in Houston for Thai food, she has moved to a safe place with a specially trained staff who assist victims of human trafficking. There, Kiki will get therapy as well as help finding a job and creating a new life for herself. She was beaming and beautiful, and when I asked her how she felt, she said, “Excellent!” (If you are interested in following Kiki’s progress, please contact Dottie Laster at [email protected]) —July 23, 2010
There are things that Kamchana doesn’t remember. This would include the period, six or so years ago, when she arrived in this country from Thailand and was moved from city to city so often she could not keep the names straight, much less spell or pronounce them. In “Boustons,” “Atanda,” “Mayarmei,” and other cities, the places she worked all looked the same inside and out, with the words “spa” or “massage” in the name and the neon Open signs always on. The front windows were usually blacked out, and there was often an ATM in the tiny lobby, which was furnished with cheap, overstuffed sofas where the women sat, their arms and legs crossed, dressed in lingerie or bikinis, waiting for customers. When the men arrived, their pick for the hour would walk them down a darkened hallway to a dim room with a massage table and soft music playing. In other rooms they’d wash them with warm, soapy water on a table. They’d finish with some variation of a “happy ending,” the massage parlor euphemism for intercourse, oral sex, a hand job, or whatever else the customer might ask for. Kamchana was then in her late thirties, but she looked younger, a fleshy woman with a persuasive smile and, even in the worst of times, an irresistible warmth. Her boss christened her “Kiki,” because her Thai name was too hard for Americans to remember.
The customers rarely seemed to grasp that the women were captives. They didn’t see the other rooms: the kitchen in the back with the overflowing ashtrays, the overloaded electrical outlets for the rice cookers and frying pans, the washer-dryers and the security cameras. These so-called spas were as tightly run as maximum-security prisons: Without permission, no one got in—or out. Kamchana (her name and nickname have been changed to protect her identity) shared cramped, windowless bedrooms with women from Korea, China, and Thailand, all her belongings crammed into one small rolling suitcase. Every two weeks she was loaded up and moved to another city, another spa, another room that looked just like the one before it. Like so many of the women on the circuit, she was being held until she paid off the debt of tens of thousands of dollars that she had taken on in exchange for passage to the U.S. They had told her she would be working it off in a restaurant, but the job description had changed once she arrived. “It is like sleeping with your husband, that’s all,” Kamchana’s first boss told her. She mostly worked 12-hour shifts, sold by the hour to men of different colors and creeds, rich and poor, grandfathers, husbands, fathers, sons. Sometimes her shifts lasted 24 hours.
Most people who are aware of the existence of human trafficking think that it happens in faraway places, like war-torn countries in the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe. Few can imagine that slaves are brought into the U.S. to work in restaurants, factories, and sexually oriented businesses (SOBs to those in the know). In fact, across the country, tens of thousands of people are being held captive today. Depending on whom you ask, Houston is either the leading trafficking site in the U.S. or very near the top, along with Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York City. There are obvious reasons for this dubious accolade: Houston sits at the center of major highways between Los Angeles and Miami and between the U.S. and Latin America. It has a sprawling international airport and a major international port. It is diverse in a way that allows immigrants to disappear into neighborhoods that are barely policed. It’s also a place with an enormous appetite for and tolerance of commercial sex: From the days of the first oil boom, the city has drawn single men who’ve left smaller towns and poorer countries in search of work and then quick and easy companionship.
It is impossible to know exactly how many women are currently sex slaves in Houston. There is, of course, no census of prostitutes, let alone prostitutes who are here illegally and being held against their will. Terry O’Rourke, the first assistant Harris County attorney, estimates that on any given day, the number is about 1,000, but it could be higher. A 2008 Department of Justice report figured that between 14,500 and 17,500 people were being trafficked into the country every year. A 2004 report estimated that one quarter of all trafficking victims in the U.S. end up in Texas. According to Linda Geffin, the chief of special prosecutions with the Harris County attorney’s office, about 70 percent of trafficking victims end up working in the sex trade.
In Houston brothels can be found near the Ship Channel and in the north and southwest Hispanic neighborhoods, where special cantinas advertise “chicas” and have jerry-built, windowless additions out back and tall wooden fences around their perimeters. Up Interstate 45 and in Precinct 4 along FM 1960 to the north, not too far from some of Harris County’s poshest suburbs, are the massage parlors, most of them run by Asians (since February 2009, 127 citations have been issued against unlicensed massage parlors in Precinct 4). They also ring River Oaks, on Shepherd Drive to the north and south and on Richmond stretching to the Galleria and beyond. You see them in strip malls, where absentee owners don’t care that they sit adjacent to ice cream parlors and storefront churches. Around the fancy “gentlemen’s clubs” near the intersection of Loop 610 and the Southwest Freeway, one short block on Star Lane has at least three places that offer some form of commercial sex. Most of them accept credit cards.
In recent years there have been several high-profile arrests and prosecutions in Harris County, which has some of the toughest anti-trafficking laws in the country and one of the country’s most innovative anti-trafficking task forces. In 2005 police brought down Maximino “El Chimino” Mondragon, who ran one of the nation’s largest sex-trafficking rings, in which young women from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mondragon’s native El Salvador were forced to work as prostitutes. That same year, a sixty-year-old man named Evan Lowenstein was arrested for operating at least a dozen brothels stocked with women from Eastern Europe who had been brought into the U.S. with promises of legitimate work. He got probation and disappeared. In 2009 a man named David Salazar and his mother, Gregoria Vasquez Salgado, were charged with harboring illegal immigrants in what came to be known as the El Gallo case. In their scheme, another man, Gerardo “El Gallo” Salazar, would entice young girls from Mexican towns to come to Houston on promises of romance and then enslave them in cantinas run by David Salazar and Salgado. The pair was busted after a customer, in a fit of conscience, gave a sixteen-year-old victim his cell phone to call the police. (David Salazar and his mother both pleaded guilty in 2009 and were sent to prison; El Gallo was apprehended last month in Mexico.)
But each time a case is made, the business simply morphs and grows in a new way. Case in point: When officers in the FM 1960 area set up a task force and began shutting down massage parlors that did not have legitimate licenses to operate, the traffickers began circumventing state regulations by reclassifying their operations as “tea parlors” and, in a novel twist, “art galleries.” “We could have fifty people doing this 24/7 and still not have enough manpower,” says Skip Oliver, a captain in the Harris County Constable’s Department in Precinct 4. “You can punch a button here and get a girl from Thailand in the pipeline. We’re nibbling at a piece of the problem. We don’t even see the whole picture.”
In the meantime, women like Kamchana live lives that would seem inconceivable to most people. She would probably be working in the spas today had she not been arrested last summer for a crime she most likely did not commit. Since then she has been incarcerated in a federal detention center in Louisiana. She has “no status,” a legal term when applied to immigration law but one that also describes her life in general. If she is deported, she will be sent back to Thailand, where she will most likely face shame from her family and possibly death at the hands of the people who dispatched her to America. But even if she avoids this fate, it may be too late. Freed to return to Houston or any other American city, she might stand a good chance of ending up back where she started, as a prostitute. She may already have suffered too much physical and psychological damage to ever recover fully. In fact, the safest place for Kamchana may be the limbo she lives in right now.
Imagine you live in a country riven by war or poverty or both. There is no work. There is not enough food to feed your family or money for medicine when someone gets sick or injured. Education is nothing but a pipe dream. If you are a woman, your value is even more tenuous; you have probably been beaten or abused in some other way by a father, a husband, or an employer. You’re smart enough to understand that this life promises to be the only one you will get. It will last for another thirty or forty years, with no improvement. And that will be it.
Then one day someone says he can help you escape to the United States, where you can be free and make plenty of money for yourself while supporting your family back home. Well and good, but who has the money to get there? No problem—you can escape on the installment plan. All you (or your parents, if they are sealing the deal) have to do is sign a contract that promises to pay back the money you have borrowed by working for the agent’s connections in the U.S. at a restaurant or a factory. The going rate is about $30,000, which sounds like a lot of money, but in America everyone gets rich. And so you sign, ignoring a clause that says your family will be held responsible for your debt if you cannot pay it.
You get on a gigantic airplane—most likely you’ve never flown before—and land in a brand-new country where you cannot read the signs. If you have any identification documents at all, they are phony ones that you paid a fortune for back home, most likely adding to the debt you are already trying not to worry about. Someone picks you up and drives you away, and leaving the airport, you catch a glimpse of your future: teeming freeways, skyscrapers so tall they block out the sun, shopping malls that would dwarf your entire village. Your new “boss” buys you lunch, and you cannot believe the size of the portions put in front of you. All around you are people who want for nothing.
While you are in this state—dizzy, disoriented—your boss takes you to a place that isn’t a restaurant or a factory and tells you to unpack your few belongings in a dingy back room. He tells you that this is where you will work to pay off your debt. You will be a prostitute, he explains, and by the way, you will be charged for room and board while you are paying off that $30,000. When you protest, he beats you, starves you, or keeps you awake for days on end. Then, just to make himself clear, he holds up a picture of your son or your parents or your sister and tears it in half. Or maybe he just says, “We hear your father has a bad heart.”
At that point, your predicament becomes very clear. You do not speak or read the language. You do not have a cent to your name. You have no idea where you are in this vast country, and you have no way of finding out because no one lets you go anywhere alone. What do you do? Most likely, you do what you are told.
This scenario is as common as it is surreal. The people who work with trafficking victims hear it all day, every day, from women and children brought to Houston from Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, Latin America, and Africa. And this is what happened to Kamchana. In her case, there were some variations. At 36, Kamchana was older than most trafficking victims, and she had grown up in Bangkok in a family that was middle-class by Thai standards. All went reasonably well until she married a man who beat her. She stuck it out through the births of two daughters and a son and held down a job as a secretary in a manufacturing company. But the burdens were excessive. She was helping to support her relatives while submitting to frequent beatings that left her dazed, damaged, and in fear for her life. “I wanted to go start somewhere else and forget about him,” she told me. Who could blame her?
When she met a job recruiter who offered to get her to the United States, it seemed like the answer to her prayers. The recruiter seemed very professional. Kamchana was smart and resourceful. The job he spoke of in America was in a restaurant, a step down, but the money promised was so much more than she was making in Thailand. The recruiter gave her an airline ticket and a false passport, and in February 2004, she landed in Los Angeles. A U.S. Customs officer grilled her about why she was traveling alone and whether she intended to work in the U.S. as a prostitute. Kamchana spoke very little English, but she gave the answer that she had been taught: “Not everyone comes to be a prostitute. A Thai woman like me also has money to travel to the U.S. too.” They let her through.
Outside Customs, she was met by a Thai woman who said she would escort her to a place called Philadelphia, where she would be working. Suspicious, Kamchana challenged the woman, who took out her cell phone on the spot and called the recruiter back in Thailand to confirm her identity. In Philadelphia she was given a few days to rest, and then her new boss, a Korean man, told her she would be working as a prostitute. Kamchana was aghast. She explained that there had been some mistake, she’d been told she would be working in a restaurant. The boss snorted. If she didn’t work as a prostitute, how could she pay off her $60,000 debt?
“Sixty thousand dollars?” she asked. She’d had no idea she was taking on such a huge sum.
“I bought you for twenty thousand,” he explained, “but you are going to pay me back in installments, which take a long time, and I have to make a profit. If I was not going to make a profit, I would not have bought you.” (The “debts” that women like Kamchana are forced to pay often reflect nothing more than the amount their traffickers think they can get.) He had another woman who would teach her how to be a prostitute, he said, and there were videos she could watch for further instruction.
Those who wonder why Kamchana didn’t cut and run at this point do not understand the cultural, psychological, and economic pressures she was carrying. Very often women are second-class citizens in Thailand, but they are also financially responsible for their families; one reason the sex trade has thrived there is because some families have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy if a daughter’s earnings keep food on the table. Also, debts are taken very seriously: To renege on an agreement is to bring dishonor to the family, no matter what the deal stipulates. Finally, traffickers use the threat of violence if all else fails. In other words, Kamchana felt she had no choice but to become Kiki. “I had to do, because I signed the paper in Thailand,” she told me. “This was a big deal for my family in Thailand.”
And, of course, she was being held against her will. The massage parlor was open 24 hours a day. Kiki lived there with between eight and ten other Asian women. “I tried to work the hardest I could,” Kiki said. “I worked very hard without much sleep, but I did not complain.” She was sick for a month with various sex-related infections. “My body was in so much pain, but the pay was very good. I made about eight hundred to fifteen hundred dollars a night.” Soon, she was on a circuit: Houston, Atlantic City, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. She had become an integral part of an organized Asian crime ring that was run more efficiently than many global corporations.
The massage parlors all had similar layouts—like franchised restaurants—and the routine at each one was the same: Customers paid from $40 to $60 to get in the door, and then a girl could charge whatever she could get in tips, usually about $120. Out of that she paid the spa owner for her daily expenses and her transportation to the next spa in the next city. Sometimes workers even had to rent the sexy underwear the customers liked so much. A manager controlled all the money. Often, when Kiki arrived at a new parlor, she would notice that the previous girl had scratched a tally above the bed, to make sure she wasn’t cheated out of her tips. (In order to keep track of the number of customers they have seen, some women save their condom wrappers.)
The manager would hold her identification under lock and key, telling her if she were arrested without it, she would be deported immediately. The manager might also do the laundry and cook the food on the premises, holding down expenses and keeping the women from the outside world. Usually security cameras were posted inside and out, to be sure the women performed and that violent customers and police were denied admission. (In Houston many massage parlors have a book with photographs of cops.)
Kiki’s traffickers moved her frequently to prevent her from bonding with customers or other women—the better to keep her isolated and helpless while providing variety to the buyers. And when she was moved, either by plane or bus, she was never alone. “When I was working, I did not have any freedom, because I had to go everywhere with my boss or someone would have to follow me,” Kiki told me. If there was ever an opportunity to escape, she, like so many of the women working with her, wouldn’t take it because she was terrified for her family in Thailand.
It took Kiki six or seven months to pay off her debt, along with the extra fees she had been charged for food, shelter, and travel. By then she had made almost $200,000 for her trafficker. But she was free. The moment should have marked the end of a horrible ordeal and the beginning of a fresh start in a new country. Instead, she was locked out of a massage parlor in the middle of the night in Philadelphia. She still had no money and no identification. She knew no one, except, of course, the people inside.
She banged on the door, and they let her back in.
Legal or illegal, immigrants find it easy to slip seamlessly into the fabric of Houston, particularly in its ethnic neighborhoods, where the American dream is alive and well. It is an article of faith that hard work will be rewarded, which is what Enrique Aguilar and his family had discovered after living on the city’s edges for decades. Enrique came to Houston in 1991. His mother, Teresa, had immigrated to the U.S. by herself from Torreon, Mexico, in the sixties, and over the years most of her children had joined her. Now in his thirties, Enrique has one sister who is a public school teacher and two others who, along with his mother, work at a printing business in the southwestern part of the city. Some members of the family have papers and some do not (Enrique’s own application for citizenship is pending; for this story, his name and his mother’s name have been changed). They all live near one another in the myriad apartment complexes that were built to accommodate Houston’s swinging singles and then, after various economic busts, started offering frantic move-in specials to immigrants. The apartments are small, but most have a pool, a laundry room, and a dishwasher.
The youngest of nine, Enrique was indulged and adored. He got as far as tenth grade before dropping out and joining his sisters and mother at the print shop, but he continued to teach himself English by reading the dictionary at night. At work he was conscientious and cheerful; at night, in the southwest Houston clubs frequented by immigrants from Latin America, he was in demand. He moved with grace, his smile was open, his skin was pale, and he wore his thick black hair brushed off his high, unlined forehead.
One fall night in 2004 he stopped at a bar called Fandango’s for a beer after work. He started playing a game of pool with another customer, a woman who wasn’t like anyone he had ever met before. She had long, glossy hair and wore a tight dress that showed off her curves. They couldn’t talk much because she didn’t speak English or Spanish. She told him her name was Kiki. “She started kissing me like we had known each other,” he recalls today, with a wistful, amazed grin, but then he had to move on. “Man, I have to go home because I have to work tomorrow,” he told her at the end of the night, but she wouldn’t let go.
It was, in a way, a classic meeting for this part of town, immigrant to immigrant, not too many questions asked. He took Kiki home with him because she seemed to have no place to go. The next day he returned from work to find the apartment thick with the aromas of fried fish, steamed rice, and hot peppers. His mother, who had been skeptical of the smells coming from her kitchen at first, was eating the Thai food with relish. “I started liking Kiki then,” Enrique said. “She was very beautiful.”
Over the next few weeks, there was a semblance of a courtship. Enrique took Kiki to the Hong Kong Food Market on Bellaire Boulevard, where she clutched deliriously at all the Thai products. He bought her a cell phone with minutes, which thrilled her. Some things were lost in translation, if translated at all: If Enrique understood what Kiki did for a living—he told me he did not—he still amenably drove her to work at spas all over town, and they both laughed when she got turned around trying to find her way. Enrique was crazy about her. Kiki was up for anything at all hours, and, he said, she could cook like a Mexican. She made him laugh and drew him out of his dutiful ways. Sometimes she wept when she talked about her children, especially her son; she longed to make it back home for his initiation ceremony at the Buddhist temple, but how that would be possible, she wasn’t sure.
Kiki was still on the circuit, though now she had some freedom to come and go. She had chosen Houston as her base. It was cheap, there was a large Thai population, and the balmy weather reminded her of home. And business was booming. Like many cities in America, Houston has long regarded prostitution as a victimless crime. For most of the city’s history, it has been a man’s town, rough-and-tumble, contemptuous of rules, filled with wildcatters and blue-collar workers who resist the constraints of civility that women can bring. This is the city where the lavish “gentlemen’s clubs” were invented in the seventies, a decade after the breast implant was born there. Another local invention? The lap dance. By 2006, Houston had more sexually oriented businesses than any other American city. An unspoken agreement seems to hold that prostitution is good for business, particularly convention dollars. It was no accident that one of the city’s most renowned brothels operated for many years in the shadow of the George R. Brown Convention Center.
In the past few decades, certain actions taken by police and city officials unwittingly contributed not just to the growth of prostitution but to trafficking. During the administration of Bob Lanier, in the nineties, for instance, vice cops going undercover to arrest prostitutes were prohibited from taking off their clothes, which made their jobs virtually impossible. In general, the city has cared more about cleaning up street prostitution than whatever occurred behind closed doors, so the massage parlors were allowed to thrive as long as they were in compliance with sexually oriented business ordinances and weren’t too close to churches or schools.
Thirty years ago, there were only about 5 modeling studios/massage parlors in Houston; by 2004 there were more than 100, according to Steve Jett, who has worked for more than three decades with the Houston Police Department, including a three-year term as captain of the vice squad. Today there are 150. Over that same period, the number of vice officers assigned to prostitution shrank from 50 to 24. The situation is similar in Harris County, where only a handful of officers work prostitution. And they know they are up against organized crime rings. When law enforcement officers bust an operation, they turn up lots of cash. A thriving business can make up to $15,000 a day. The money goes back to various Asian countries, but beyond that, ownership is difficult to trace. “There seems to be an infrastructure,” said Ron Hickman, the constable of Precinct 4. “How does a girl from Bangkok find out about the Green Haven Spa in Houston?”
Sex trafficking cases are also very hard to prosecute, and the state attorney general’s office has attempted few, if any. The women who are rounded up rarely speak English and are hesitant to provide information on their traffickers if they do. They know the danger to themselves and their families, and most come from places where the police are as corrupt as the people who sold them into slavery. “The girls become trapped,” one longtime HPD vice officer told me. “Especially the Asians.” In a world where women’s rights are slowly becoming a part of the global agenda, it is not surprising that the women trafficked are those from not just the poorest countries but the ones where women are still extremely subservient to men.
And so sexual slavery takes place right in front of us, its victims hidden in plain sight. The brothels don’t limit their business to our city streets; you can find them in the back of alternative papers in ads for massage parlors, many of which promise a “grand opening,” because as soon as the police manage to close one shop, another opens down the road under a new name. And, of course, there are Web sites where you can sort through dozens of Houston massage parlors and spas, looking for the one that’s most convenient, perhaps, and selecting a girl that perfectly fits your specifications—height, weight, breast size, hip size, body type, along with the type of sex acts she will perform—and then, after the fact, rating her, just like a product on Amazon.com.
Kiki was working at one of these spas when she met Enrique. It was a small box of a building on the Southwest Freeway with no windows and one glass door at the entry. Men paid a $60 door fee to come in, and Kiki could keep her tips. She was still sending money home, large amounts of it. She attended the Buddhist temple regularly, where the monks said prayers for her, and she was falling in love with Enrique. Maybe her life was finally taking a turn for the better.
But like a lot of people, Kiki mistook Houston’s affability for safety. In December a taxi driver picked her up from an outcall at three a.m. and took her back to his apartment. He raped her, holding a knife to her back. When Kiki finally got free, she called the only person in Houston, or the country, she trusted: Enrique.
For the next few weeks, Kiki could not speak or get out of bed without help. Teresa cooked her food, fed her by hand, and encouraged her to shower before she got back into bed again, where she stayed for 22 hours a day. The only word she would say was “Enrique.” After about a month, the Aguilars decided Kiki needed more help than they could give. The family had been in Houston long enough to know which organizations might provide free services: First, they took Kiki to the public psychiatric hospital, the Harris County Psychiatric Center, where she was admitted immediately, with a diagnosis of severe depression. In the meantime, Enrique’s sisters looked for more help at the Thai embassy, the United Way, and the mayor’s office of refugee assistance. Finally, through the mayor’s office, they met a woman from YMCA International Services named Dottie Laster who was the coordinator for the Trafficked Persons Assistance Program. The lack of papers and the fact that Kiki was from Thailand suggested to the mayor’s representative that she might be a victim of smuggling or, maybe, trafficking. (Smuggling victims are free to go where they please when they reach this country; trafficking victims are not.) When Dottie heard where Kiki had been working—a spa on the Southwest Freeway that Dottie had been begging the police to close for months—she knew what kind of case she had.
In the world of modern-day slavery, there are traffickers, victims, and the people who try to save them. Before she met Kiki, Dottie had already been involved in several high-profile cases in Houston, including the El Gallo case. She was then 41 and giving in to middle age, her only concessions to vanity being sparkling blue nail polish and the flowing, brightly colored jackets she threw on for official occasions.
Nothing infuriated Dottie more than when law enforcement officers complained that they couldn’t find trafficking victims. She saw them everywhere—in restaurants, discount stores, factories, and, of course, massage parlors and spas. Trafficking victims, she says, have a look of hopelessness about them and sometimes have scars or bruises from beatings. They tend to be frightened of police and never seem to know where they are geographically. They have trouble with time. Often they seem incapable of speaking for themselves. They rarely have identification. “First nobody believed it was happening,” Dottie says. “Then we got one hundred cases and it was like, whoa, this is really messy.”
After taking a Department of Justice seminar to train law enforcement to recognize trafficking victims, she tried to get the HPD to make officers carry cards to help them spot the signs. The department declined, which made Dottie livid. It shouldn’t be up to the victims to save themselves, she believes; like rape victims or victims of domestic abuse, the women often blame themselves for what has happened to them. “It was my choice,” Kiki told Dottie, talking about her work in the massage parlors. “What was your second choice?” Dottie asked her.
She did not think the problems of her newest client were a result of the taxi driver’s rape alone. Kiki was hospitalized for a month—a nearly unheard-of length of time for a person with no money, and a clear indication of the severity of her illness. She was almost paralyzed with depression and shock and had so many gynecological and urinary infections that she had needed powerful IV antibiotics. “I saw trauma that was hard to describe,” Dottie says. “The woman I saw hadn’t had just one bad night.”
Rescuing women had been Dottie’s job since she joined YMCA International, in 2004. Before that, she had devoted much of her life to rescues of various kinds: As a teenager growing up in Houston, she had eased the pain of her parents’ bitter divorce by saving and rehabilitating abused horses. Her daughter suffered a serious head injury at a young age, resulting in brain damage, and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Tending to her with the help of her husband, a long-haul truck driver, Dottie took decades to finish college and get a master’s degree in international relations. She is one of those rare people who meet calamity with an almost eerie equanimity; Dottie prefers gentle persuasion to raising her voice, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t relentless in helping the people she serves. She believes in the old-fashioned idea of arresting men who frequent brothels, because it seems to be the only way to really hurt business. In general, she thinks society’s ideas about prostitution are wrongheaded. “I haven’t found any willing prostitutes in my life,” she says.
Many rescuers know that women who wind up as trafficking victims were usually abused earlier in their lives, often by a family member or a spouse; that’s what makes them so vulnerable to the traffickers’ feigned affection and false protection. But the repeated rapes that captive prostitutes endure can turn someone with low self-esteem into someone with a serious psychiatric illness. Many suffer from severe dissociative identity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder is usually a given. Some are bipolar. Many of these conditions have similar symptoms: extreme highs, harrowing lows, paranoia, drug or alcohol abuse as self-medication, and various forms of self-destructive behavior, including self-mutilation. On the surface, however, the women can be seductive. They shop and spend maniacally, are sexually insatiable, and are always ready for an adventure.
Yet on a deeper level, they are on the run from themselves. Their old lives have been obliterated. Usually trafficking victims are profoundly ashamed of what they have been doing or believe they have failed at it, disappointing the families who depend on them for survival. Like battered spouses, they often return to their abusers. Many have no other way to make a living. Another survivor that Dottie had helped tried to get a job as a cook or janitor in various Houston restaurants, only to find herself in another form of slavery. The businesses willing to pay her off the books were also the ones that ultimately refused to pay her for her labor at all. They knew she had no recourse.
“They break people beyond repair,” Dottie says of traffickers. “If I shattered a glass and then put it back together, it wouldn’t hold water.”
Over the next few months Dottie helped Kiki get a passport through the Thai embassy. With psychiatric care, Kiki began to talk about her ordeal. She moved into an apartment with another trafficking survivor and started to find her way around Houston, taking field trips and learning how to ride the bus. She aced her English classes. When she and Dottie drove home after school, she would proudly recite the street names. Most important, Dottie had started the paperwork to get Kiki a T visa. Created as part of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the T visa allows people who can prove they are victims of human trafficking to stay in the U.S. for four years, after which they have to apply for permanent residency. Dottie had reported Kiki’s situation to the Department of Justice’s human trafficking hotline and started working with a private attorney named Marcela Ortiz-Taing to fill out the required forms.
One day, Dottie heard someone calling her name from the parking lot of her office. She went to the window and saw Kiki jumping up and down and laughing like a four-year-old. She had ridden the bus, alone, from her apartment to the YMCA offices. Watching Kiki, Dottie felt a lightness in her heart, but she also knew that saving women who had been bought and sold was very different from making them whole again. Just a few months later, she began to worry that Kiki had gone back to the spas. She discovered a tight, flesh-colored dress in Kiki’s closet. “Not a good idea,” Dottie told Kiki calmly, but she knew there was only so much she could do. In order to find her freedom, Kiki had to make her own mistakes.
Enrique was more ambivalent. He knew that Kiki was working as a prostitute, and he didn’t like it, but at the same time, she was helping support his family. She repaid their kindness with a big-screen TV, a new refrigerator, and cash for their monthly expenses. He took her on trips to meet the rest of his family, and they all fell in love with Enrique’s gorgeous Thai girlfriend. She seemed, somehow, more alive than anyone else, more intense and more passionate.
On the other hand, she couldn’t sit still. She spent like crazy. She once blew $500 on panties at Walmart. “I’d say, ‘Kiki, we don’t have money to eat,’” Enrique told me. She would come home at all hours and beg him to go out dancing or suddenly disappear for two or three days. Then he’d get a call from New Orleans or Washington, D.C., or even Hawaii. She would deposit $300 in her account one day, $400 a few days later, $900 after that, and then, broke, she’d call Enrique for money to get back home. “Baby, take care of your money,” he’d tell her, “because you’re not gonna have it forever.” But Kiki didn’t listen. “Se fue donde ponía su nariz,” Teresa said—she went wherever the wind took her.
By the fall of 2005, about a year after Enrique had first brought Kiki home, the women in the Aguilar family had begun to question their decision to take her in. Enrique’s bills, and his sisters’, started running past due as they tried to cover Kiki’s spending. Enrique was drinking heavily, and the two fought bitterly whenever she came back home. They went to couples therapy, and the psychologist told Enrique to let Kiki go. “Open your mind,” he said. “She’s going to kill you. Leave her alone. You’re going to lose your family.” Dottie told him to let go too, but he couldn’t give her up. One night he took her passport and set it on fire. He just didn’t want her to disappear.
In September 2005 Dottie left the YMCA because of political infighting. She took a temporary job in California as the administrator of the Orange County human trafficking task force but kept her old cell phone number, in case her Houston clients needed her. In early 2006 Enrique began to call. Something wasn’t right, he told her. Kiki was in trouble. As the weeks passed, the calls became more frantic.
“Decompensation” is a fancy psychiatric term for when a person falls completely apart, which is what happened to Kiki in March 2006. She took an overdose of pills and landed back at the psychiatric hospital, where this time doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. According to the application for emergency detention, Kiki was paranoid and claimed that she wanted to die. When one of the nurses tried to talk to her, she just said, “People are mean in America.”
Kiki spent three weeks in the mental hospital, got out, and went back to work on the spa circuit. Meanwhile she waited for her T visa. Ever since she had learned she might qualify, Kiki had pinned her hopes for survival on getting this document. But while a fair amount of T visas have been granted, obtaining one can be difficult. Approval can take up to a year, a long time for a woman with a mental illness. (In the Mondragon case, just 67 out of 120 women had received T visas three years after the bust.) And success is also often contingent on cooperation with law enforcement; a supplemental form showing the support of police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or the FBI is usually submitted with the application. Dottie knew that the HPD hated to take trafficking cases, much less sign the forms, so she began to look elsewhere for authorization.
The idea of providing information about her traffickers was terrifying to Kiki, but she loved Dottie and did not want other women to suffer as she had. She agreed to help and in May 2006 met with an agent from the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance, a local group that includes the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, ICE, YMCA International, and others. Kiki provided the agent with information about the places she had been, the names of her “bosses,” and how much money she had been paid. According to her lawyer, Ortiz-Taing, the information was passed on to the FBI, which seemed most interested in her years in Philadelphia. Kiki traveled there at her own expense to show agents where she had been held; she waited at the appointed time, but the agents never showed.
Early in 2007, Kiki got the news: Agents had not been able to make a case from her information and, as often happens, had declined to support her T visa application. Inexplicably, the FBI had deemed her noncooperative. “To me,” said Ortiz-Taing, “someone who meets with the FBI three or four times to give their statement and travels to another city to pursue that, and someone who is open to their interrogations—to me, that defines someone who is cooperative.” Feeling the situation was hopeless, Ortiz-Taing never submitted the application.
It was the beginning of another self-destructive cycle of hurricane force. Kiki continued to work and spend frantically and was careless with her own safety; at one time Enrique received a call from someone in Oklahoma City urging him to retrieve her before she ran into trouble wandering around in bad neighborhoods at night. Back in Houston, Kiki tried to get mental health services at the county hospital but was turned down, the first time because, the form letter said, she needed to change her visa status and then later because there were no slots available. She married a client, hoping for a green card, and then sunk deeper into depression when it didn’t come. She began spending more time and money at casinos in Louisiana, believing they helped her relax. In August 2008 she was accused of trying to use a fake ID to enter one and was arrested. Enrique sold his car to make her bond, but the U.S. government had taken note: A Louisiana judge scheduled a hearing on her immigration status.
Kiki looked for jobs in Houston, hoping to stay put. She tried a massage parlor near River Oaks; she had known the woman who ran it in Bangkok. But the woman had heard that Kiki had appeared on a news program about trafficking and thought she was with the police now. She wouldn’t even speak to her. Kiki was paralyzed with fear—if the people who had trafficked her to the U.S. also thought she was working with the police, she believed they would kill her the minute she was deported. Even her attempts to land honest work failed: She found a job at a legitimate massage parlor run by Thais, but they fired her, figuring she was bad luck.
Once more, Kiki took solace in the casinos. In July 2009 she got into an argument with a valet, who accused her of stealing a car. (She says the valet wouldn’t allow her to go inside to find her friend, the car’s owner.) She was arrested and sent to jail. As frantic as she was, Kiki knew that missing a court date would put her on the fast track to deportation. The guards at the jail were not sympathetic. “I want . . . help about phone call to know about my court day today and what going on,” she wrote on an Offender Request Form the day she was to appear. Five days later, she got a response: “[Kamchana], Allen Parish [where the charges were brought] will let us know when you have a court date. Since you are an escape risk you will stay in your cell.”
In late October, she was transferred to the LaSalle Detention Center, in Jena, Louisiana. By December, the Thai embassy was readying the paperwork for her deportation. An ICE officer visited Kiki and told her that they were ready to deport her and asked for her signature on an official document. For one crucial moment, Kiki’s depression fell away. She refused to sign. “I am a victim of human trafficking,” she said, and then she gave him Dottie Laster’s phone number.
Dottie had returned to Texas and was living in New Braunfels. She was teaching law enforcement officers to recognize trafficking victims and making ends meet by training horses and substitute teaching. After the call from ICE and several more calls from Enrique, Dottie spent the 2009 holidays trying to piece the story together. For Kiki, services from the YMCA were exhausted; Dottie would have to find her a lawyer who would work for free. In December, she went to Louisiana to visit Kiki for the first time in four years. Through the glass, Kiki beamed and pressed her hands to her heart. “That’s the person I have to believe I’m saving,” Dottie told me.
On February 23, 2010, a federal immigration judge ruled that Kiki’s case should be reopened but gave her only until March 9 to prove that she was a victim of trafficking, a very tight deadline. As this story went to press, Dottie was optimistic, hoping that once all the paperwork was filed, the judge would grant a continuance if more time was needed and eventually allow Kiki to stay.
Meanwhile Kiki tries to make the best of things. I saw her on a recent trip to the detention center in Jena, where even in a baggy orange jumpsuit, she radiated warmth and beauty. Despite the prison diet, her dark hair is still shimmery and thick. She wore it in a jaunty ponytail off to one side, which made the guards laugh. The day I was there, she kept them in stitches, cracking jokes with her nasal voice, which sounds like a cat yowling and purring at the same time. She was unfailingly polite, ending most conversations with “teng yew.”
Kiki busies herself cleaning tables in the prison’s lunchroom for $1 a day and tries not to remember when she used to bring in $1,200 a day, even if the traffickers allowed her to keep only a little of it. Her eyes lit up with pride at the memory, and she pronounced the word “muh-nee” wistfully, as if her riches were candies that had dissolved too quickly on her tongue. She spends her free time coloring pictures of Disney characters and sending love letters to Enrique. “I be back to be good wife, okay baby,” she writes, trying to make amends. Enrique wishes she could get out and come live with him; Dottie wishes she would go to a restorative residential program. When I asked Kiki what she wished for herself, she struggled with the word: “What do you mean, ‘wish’?”