In the Magazine: Of Human Bondage

(Photo by Aliyah Jamous)

The nasty secret of human trafficking in South Florida is out—here is one woman’s story, and what local lawmakers are doing about it. 

Cindy Alvarado was actually at a graduation party. It was a rare night that she was not  turning tricks—but she was tired. Empty. Going through the motions. She recalls the exact moment her pimp, “Grace,” rounded the corner of a hallway and stopped in front of her.

“You owe me $5,000,” she said. “And I want it this weekend.”

That small encounter was all it took, after all this time. Alvarado knew in that moment that it was over; she wanted out.

She walked outside and called 911.

“I’m a prostitute,” she heard herself telling the operator.

The operator asked why she didn’t just stop. She told her she couldn’t—she had to pay her friend or she would be exposed. That’s when she heard a word that has stayed with her ever since: coercion. She was directed to the Lake Worth Police Department, where she learned another term: human trafficking.

“That was a very hard moment for me, because for six and a half years, I gave up  everything and every relationship I had because I was ashamed of being a prostitute,” Alvarado says. “And [then here are] people in law enforcement telling me ‘You are not a prostitute. You are a victim of human trafficking.’ That changed my life.”

For years, Alvarado was forced to have sex with up to 20 men every day, then hand over the money. She’s part of a statistic that’s growing in Florida, landing the Sunshine State as the third in the nation for sex and labor trafficking. (California and Texas are in the top  two.)

“[The] 1-95 corridor brings in all kinds of trafficking victims,” says Meghan Carton of  Polaris, a national advocacy group serving trafficking victims and survivors. “It brings them into illicit massage businesses…and commercial fronts, like cantinas/illicit bars, and it absolutely brings victims into hotels and motels.”

I HAVE A JOB FOR YOU

Born and reared in Costa Rica, Alvarado was working at a call center in her early 20s when she met Grace*, a fellow employee. The two of them were struggling young mothers, and they quickly hit it off, eventually becoming roommates. While visiting her family in Virginia, Grace had a job opportunity for Alvarado: Come to the U.S. for 10 days to be a babysitter  for her family. They would pay for her plane ticket and $1,000 for her time.

“I didn’t [think] anything bad since we lived together and everything,” Alvarado says.

Cindy Alvarado (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

When Alvarado landed at Dulles International Airport, she was picked up by Helen*, whom Grace said was her mother-in-law. Soon, Alvarado learned she was not there to babysit.

When they arrived at the apartment, she says Helen gave her instructions on how to talk to the men who were arriving, how to use a condom, and how to accept the money. Helen ripped off Alvarado’s clothes and changed her into a skimpy outfit from a closet filled with high-heel shoes and lingerie.

“She was behind me the first time, because she was making sure for the first date that I did everything exactly how she wanted it,” she says. “She just smiled at him and she told him, ‘Just treat her like the new one and break her [in].’”

That day, she says she saw 10 people. Over the next week and a half, she worked from 8  a.m. to 10 p.m. On the last day, Helen took her to the mall to buy her things for her children, gave her $200, and put her on a plane back to Costa Rica—with a return ticket. When she got home, exhausted and traumatized, the brother of Helen, the pimp whom she had just left, approached Alvarado in front of her house.

He was there to “remind” her that she would have to go back to the U.S. and that she could not tell anyone what had happened. When he opened his phone and showed her pictures of her children at school, she knew it was real and that her family was in danger.

“I totally understood that that was not a joke, and I was already inside this game,” Alvarado says.

* Names of the accused have been changed in this story, as they have not been convicted.

ON THE BOOKS

With Florida, particularly South Florida, ranking nationally for human trafficking, advocates and lawmakers have been working to institute changes. In the 2018 legislative session, Florida State Sen. Lauren Book drafted a bill that would allow victims to sue hotels and motels who “knowingly, or in reckless disregard of the facts, engage in human trafficking.”

With so much of Florida’s business balanced on the entertainment and tourism industries, part of the hotel lobby pushed back. They fought on language in the bill. They  asked how someone is expected to know if trafficking is going on in the first place. According to the Tampa Bay Times, both Disney and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association were listed as agencies lobbying against the bill.

Even so, the bill flew through the Senate and it was thought to be a sure thing, but it was pulled at the 11th hour when Book feared that it wouldn’t pass in the House. Human trafficking advocacy groups were shocked—countless victims had come forward to share their stories to lawmakers. What happened?

A survivor of sexual assault herself, Book founded the nonprofit Lauren’s Kids in 2007 and has been an advocate for children and victims of crime. Her office did not respond to multiple calls and emails from Boca magazine for a statement.

Michael Haggard

“To act like there wasn’t some sinister plot to kill the bill, it’s outrageous. It’s really  outrageous to do it to those type of victims,” says Michael Haggard, an attorney and the president of the advisory board of the National Crime Victim Bar Association.

During session, survivors of human trafficking recounted their stories of being raped multiple times a day in hotel rooms, some as minors. Many times, staff knew or turned their backs to the crimes, they said. When asked if the motel workers knew what was going on, Alvarado says in her experience, they did, then names off a list of hotels and motels where workers were given instructions not to bother them or were paid to turn away.

 


WHO ARE THE BAD GUYS?

Contrary to popular belief, traffickers aren’t hiding in the shadows and abducting people from alleyways. It’s a lucrative business that generates an estimated $150 billion-plus a year, more than half from sex trafficking. Traffickers come in all forms. The professionals at Polaris, an organization that combats trafficking, have seen traffickers of all races and backgrounds.

“I would say most people assume traffickers are international or not American citizens, and they would assume that they are sort of involved in all types of crime, which sometimes isn’t the case,” says Polaris’ Rochelle Keyhan.

In illicit massage parlors, many of the traffickers are women and Asian—however, Florida is an outlier, with many Hispanic illicit massage parlors.

Also, many traffickers hide their dirty secret while giving off the facade of living seemingly normal lives, working regular jobs or running legitimate businesses. However, most of this is based on anecdotal experience. More detailed information is not available because studies haven’t been conducted—with so few prosecutions, the information hasn’t been available.

“You get access to that information when the investigations happen and you get on the inside,” Keyhan says. “It will be more feasible the more we focus on these types of traffickers.”

But there is one common thread: human traffickers take advantage of the fact that when selling humans, they can be sold over and over again.


 

“She instructed [employees] to leave the towels on the side if [they] didn’t see the door  open,” she says. “My traffickers talked to the receptionist to tell her to not disturb [us], and she would give her a very good tip. So they knew. All the hotels I worked in, my traffickers talked to the receptionists and the people who cleaned it. They knew.”

Haggard notes that if a hotel’s managers can be held responsible for a customer slipping on a puddle in the lobby, they should also be keeping their eyes open for the telltale signs of  trafficking—payments in cash, lots of men going in and out of a hotel room, requests for an extended period of time without housekeeping visits.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” Haggard says. “Why would any responsible business want this going on in their property?”

Thankfully, some businesses are not waiting for a law to be passed. Countless companies in the tourism industry have signed the ECPAT Code of Conduct to combat the sex trafficking of children. Last year, Marriott Hotels made human trafficking training mandatory in all of its hotels. In an opinion piece for USA Today, Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, recounted how a 12-year-old boy was saved from a New Orleans hotel when an employee saw him with two older men, one of whom said, “I might take this one home.”

“It is an unfortunate reality that traffickers sometimes use hotels to exploit victims and commit their crimes. But rather than wish it were otherwise, we decided to make our 6,000-plus properties worldwide part of the solution,” Sorenson wrote.

Human trafficking hot spots in Florida and the United States. (Courtesy Polaris)

Polaris has been tracking bills like Book’s throughout the country. The successful ones  specifically include language about the business profiting from the trafficking and that it knew or “should have known” what was going on. These laws also hold accountable commercial-front brothels and illicit massage parlors—there are at least 1,000 in Florida, the second-highest in the nation, according to Polaris.

“We were excitedly awaiting Florida joining the very few states who have this law, so we were pretty bummed that it didn’t pass,” says Rochelle Keyhan, director of Disruption Strategies at Polaris. “[People think] that it should basically be all on law enforcement, but landlords are signing leases and managing properties where this stuff is happening. They should be on notice.”

SOLD FOR $300

Alvarado was flown back and forth between the United States and Costa Rica. The lives of her children, their father and her family were threatened if she informed the authorities. She ended up giving up custody of her children and didn’t tell anyone what was happening.

In the trafficker’s apartment were women and girls of all ages, including a minor and her mother. To “sell the fantasy,” as Alvarado was told to do, she took advantage of her youthful looks and told customers she was 18. She could see 20 men in a day, and the word “no” was not allowed. If she didn’t meet a quota, she wasn’t allowed to go on trips outside with the rest of the group. Cell phones weren’t allowed. Food couldn’t be eaten between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. The victims weren’t allowed to speak to one another. Their passports, wedding rings, and other personal possessions were kept from them.

 


PLACE OF HOPE

When Laura Cusack does trainings with schools, corporations and religious groups about human trafficking, two numbers make their mouths drop: Up to 60 million people around the world are being trafficked, and that Florida is No. 3 in the nation.

“They’re shocked,” Cusack says. “It makes me realize how much awareness training is needed to continue to not only educate them of the problem but empower people to do something about it.”

As human trafficking education and prevention coordinator at Place of Hope, a foster care placement agency serving Vero Beach to North Broward County, she provides training as well as hits the streets to help law enforcement find missing children. While foster children and runaways are especially at risk, children living otherwise normal lives are also targeted.

“It really comes down to what makes you vulnerable and how that trafficker is able to exploit that,” Cusack says.

It can be as simple as reaching out to teens on social media, then escalating to an in-person relationship. Part of Cusack’s training is also in schools, to talk to students about how pimps recruit victims, and the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Every month, bearing pictures, Cusack and volunteers appear at the front desks of hotels around town, asking receptionists if they’re seen the victims. So far, staff has been eager to help; some employees even have reached out requesting training.

“We’ll see more hotels that will want that training in response to that bill,” she says of Book’s trafficking bill. “It’s motivated many hotels to get on board.”


 

After a year of being passed through different traffickers—including being thrown out on the street when she started telling clients she was there against her will—Alvarado ended up in Florida working directly for her friend, Grace. The rule was she would tell her where to be and what amount she would owe her.

If Alvarado didn’t show up, Grace would expose her. In 2012, she was arrested for  prostitution.

“I had to bail myself out,” Alvarado says. “I didn’t say that I was working as a prostitute for somebody who was forcing me. I just kept quiet.”

Over the years she was trafficked, she tried to take her life five times. She was constantly in debt to this or that trafficker. Each time, she would hand over $1,000, or $3,000, or $5,000. It was at that party, in 2016, when she went face-to-face with Grace, that Alvarado hit rock bottom. No one there knew what was going on between her and  Grace, or her instructions to bring her $5,000 for a weekend’s worth of “work.”

She had had enough.

“I was not talking to anybody about what was going on. No one [understood] why I was  such a bad mom to leave two children like that in another country to come and pursue her dream in the United States. [Grace] helped [build] that image of me,” she says.

Even after she called 911 that night to turn herself in, after the operator told her she was  not a prostitute, Alvarado couldn’t shake the shame. She was safe with police, but she tried to kill herself.

“For me, my whole life just crushed in that moment,” she says. “I was a slave. My best friend sold me for $300.

“That was the time, the moment, I realized I wasn’t a prostitute.”

In the emergency room, she was moved by the patience and care given by a nurse. He listened to her tell her story, and reaffirmed that she was a victim. He brought to her a list of local organizations and mental health professionals to help. One of them was Hepzibah House in Boynton Beach.

“It really takes a long, long time to completely move beyond the trauma and to live adaptively, to begin to see their mindset change from ‘This is who I am, this is all I am, my life is over, I have no value now,’ to begin to see that shift to where, ‘OK, I do have a future, I can move beyond this,’” says Becky Dymond, the founder of Hepzibah House.

The charity provides mental health counseling, trauma therapy, life and job skill training, and case management. Alvarado’s story, Dymond says, is common among the human trafficking victims who come to her for help—someone being promised one thing, and instead finding themselves in sex or labor trafficking. However, she says, most of the cases she comes across involve local women.

“Most of the women we work with are domestic abuse survivors, and we estimate  somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 women are being commercially sexually exploited in Palm Beach County. That’s just with the data that we can verify,” she says.

Today, Alvarado is working at a call center; her goal is to attend school to become a sonographer. She doesn’t speak with her children—she says she doesn’t feel safe doing so until her traffickers are in jail. Her traffickers are currently under investigation—victims of human trafficking often have a hard time finding justice since their cases are complicated, involve multiple jurisdictions, and can face a statute of limitations.

Even so, she’s more confident these days, and she’s learned to speak up about her  experience.

“They should be the one hiding, not me,” Alvarado says. “They should be the one fearing me.”


GET HELP

Place of Hope: 561/775-7195; placeofhope.com

Hepzibah House: 561/386-0031; hepzibahhouse.org

No More Tears: 954/324-7669; nomoretearsusa.org

Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches: htcpb.org

South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force: sfhumantraffickingtaskforce.org

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888/373-7888; humantraffickinghotline.org

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 800/843-5678; missingkids.com

Polaris: polarisproject.org


This story comes from our January 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.