- Associated Press - Monday, December 29, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A Mexican woman who said she was forced to work as a prostitute in New York City 15 years ago says she now wants to make sure other Latin American immigrants don’t suffer the same fate.

“I was very naive and I had no self-esteem,” said the woman, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in order to protect her identity because she has been the victim of sex crimes. “I would like to help other women, but it is hard. I don’t want them to be in danger.”

The woman, now 37, said she was young and impressionable in 1999 when her boyfriend at the time helped her move from Mexico to Queens with the promise of a better life together. Instead, she said, she was brought to a house full of other immigrant women, driven to Brooklyn and the Bronx and forced to work as a prostitute.

Advocates and law enforcement officials say hundreds of women from Mexico and Central America are similarly victimized each year.

Lori Cohen, director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative for Sanctuary for Families, said that Queens is the center for sex trafficking in New York. Pimps and drivers deliver the women to clients’ homes and then split the profits between them, denying the women a cut of the money, she said.

“In some cases, some buyers will give a tip to the victim, which she can try to hide,” Cohen said. “Some indicated that they were successful in hiding the tips. Others, however, were caught, the tips were confiscated and they were beaten.”

James Hayes, the special agent in charge of New York’s Homeland Security Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said about 60 percent of his unit’s 147 human trafficking arrests in the past two fiscal years had been for sex trafficking.

“It’s something we have a tremendous focus on,” he said, noting that sex-trafficking organizations are based in the city of Tenancingo and the state of Tlaxcala of Mexico and operate mainly in Queens, Long Island and New Rochelle.

But the cases are difficult to make.

International trafficking organizations are savvy and communicate with cellphone applications that are harder to track.

Getting victims to speak up also is challenging, experts say. Women fear retribution from their captors and worry they will be deported if they go to authorities.

“We have been teaching our partners here that this is a big issue and that it is more prevalent than we originally thought,” said Alexandra Patino, the executive director of the New York City Family Justice Center in Queens. The four Family Justice Centers in the city have helped more than 120 sex trafficking victims since 2008.

The woman who spoke to AP said she was able to escape after one year. She ran to a girlfriend’s home in Manhattan but continued working as a prostitute, this time alone, managing her own proceeds.

After her last prostitution arrest three years ago, she ended up in the Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where she was offered counseling in exchange for having her charges dismissed. The woman also helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in their sex trafficking investigations and obtained a work permit.

Now she cleans homes and says she’s looking forward to the future, though she still can’t think back on that time in her life without breaking down in tears.

“Sometimes at night, I think ‘Why did this happen to me?’” she said. “I never imagined I would become who I was.”

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