Ruth seems happy enough as she rattles on in her native Spanish: though I have to wait for her interpreter, Claudia Poncelet, to restate her words, I can sense animation in her voice. But sometimes she develops a haunted expression. Sometimes tears run down Ruth’s face as she speaks of a 9-year-old daughter she hasn’t seen in years.
Ruth is putting a new life together in New Bern, overcoming a past in which she lived in a nightmare of human trafficking that started in a Mexican village and continued across the state of Florida where she was driven from town to town and john to john, kept in line by threats to her daughter’s safety back in Mexico.
Ruth’s story began in a small town in southern Mexico, “A very specific town,” she said, “where the vast majority of people are traffickers.
“That’s what they were good at,” she added. “They would go to different places and look for girlfriends.”
She was 16 when she met the man who would traffic her. “He was very good in talking to me and treating me right,” she said. “When I was at his house I was like, ‘Wow! This is perfect!’” He moved her to Tijuana where, she said, she woke up from the dream. “The dream became a monster.”
The man she’d first seen as her protector fathered a daughter through her, but in 2008, while the girl was still a toddler he sent Ruth with another woman to be trafficked in Florida. She was now 22.
In Mexico she was kept in line through beatings, but in Florida the physical abuse was mainly replaced with threats. “Once we were in the US then my daughter’s father, he wouldn’t hit us… he would use my daughter (whom she’d been forced to leave in Mexico) to threaten me. She was leverage.”
Ruth referred to being trafficked as “work” – but never without adding the phrase, “If you can call that work.”
Like many trafficked women, she lived in apartments and houses, never in one place for very long. Monday through Saturday she was forced to turn tricks with strangers and on Sundays a man who worked with her original pimp put the women in a van and drove them to their next destination, “like a delivery of pizza,” she said.
Her johns were mostly Hispanic, she said, “a little bit of everything.” Normal, working men, she described them. It never seemed to enter their heads that she was a slave.
“The customers would think that we’re going it of our own free will because we liked it,” she recalled. “A lot of them would ask us, why didn’t we get a job? I would stay quiet. I wouldn’t say anything, because I was not allowed to. And they would say, ‘It’s because you like the easy money.’”
Her escape from trafficking came through one of her drivers, a man, she said, who was aware they were prostitutes, but who thought they were working of their own free will.
“He saw me crying one day,” she said. “He kept asking me why I was crying. I couldn’t tell him. I was not allowed to tell him anything.”
But he kept asking.
Two weeks later, she said, “he kept on asking me. He knew there was a reason why. Then he said, ‘You can trust me because I have daughters your age.”
She broke down and told him her story.
“He told me that he was going to give me a place to live, and that if they asked about me, he was going to do like he didn’t know anything.”
It was a hard decision for Ruth. “I knew that, once I did that, I could lose my daughter.”
When she “stopped working – if you can call that working,” she met people who were working in Georgia. She joined them and took a restaurant job in Savannah. Later she joined others she’d met who came to Craven County.
Ruth said she had seen pictures of her daughter and spoken with her about a year ago through her school but, when the father’s family found out, they pulled her from the school and she has not been located since. While the father is currently in prison, his family still has the daughter.
Promise Place’s Monica Kazan has been following Ruth’s case closely and said she has completed counseling and is working through the Salvation Army to establish legal status in the country. Other organizations, she said, are working to reunite her with her daughter.
She said that Ruth’s case was not at all unusual. Promise Place is dealing with a number of trafficking victims, most who were taken up and down the East Coast via the interstate highway system. She said she knows of at least “two or three” trafficking cases that have taken place in the local area.
She pointed out that American-born girls are subject to trafficking as much as girls from other countries. “It’s the same way Ruth was trafficked,” she said, being groomed by a man who approaches them as a boyfriend who cares, who buys them gifts.
Often the traffickers will target girls who are in difficult relations with their parents. Often, though not always, the men are connected with gangs. “They eventually skip out and stay with him,” she said, “and before you know it the beatings begin. They get them hooked on some kind narcotics or drugs, there’ll be some threats against her or her family, and the next thing you know, she’s in.”
The girls are then trafficked up and down the East Coast, kept in constant motion to keep them from establishing relationships or from being too easily recognized. Those who escape usually do so because “somebody ends up feeling for them and helping them out,” Kazan said. “They can’t escape on their own.
“If you sell drugs, once the goods are gone the drugs are gone. But sex trafficking is sustainable. It just keeps going and going, because you continue to hold onto the goods, which are the poor girls, and you keep making money. It’s become one of the most lucrative, illegal ways of making money.”