By Traci Tamura and Thelma Gutierrez
The pursuit of the American Dream was what brought Soo (not her real name) to the United States from South Korea. It was 2001, when she befriended a group of people who offered her the chance to invest in a business opportunity in California. Soo jumped at the chance to live and work in the U.S. Shortly after Soo arrived in the States she realized that her friends were operating prostitution-related massage parlors. They took her ID and passport after bringing her up to San Francisco, where they told her she owed them $15,000. Her dream was slowly turning into a nightmare. She was left at a massage parlor and forced to prostitute herself to pay off the debt. The pain of having to sell her body against her will, and the treatment she received from clients, are still fresh in her mind. "They would like to choke me and people pulled my hair and hurt me. When I scream nobody hears and nobody comes," Soo remembers.
Soo tried to refuse prostituting her body but without her legal documents or English language skills, and not knowing where she was, she was vulnerable to their threats of being reported to the authorities and sent to jail. So she says she complied and was even beaten into submission if she tried to flee or seek help from the patrons. Soo and 30 other women were forced to work around 20 hours a day selling their bodies for the repayment of debts. If they didn't, there was a price to be paid. "In the beginning, I said no all the time and I got beaten a lot. Even with all of my bruises I still had to work. Sometimes, I would plead to my customers, even though I don't speak English. I'd try my best but I'd just plead with my customers. But they would just tell my manager and then I'd get into more trouble."
It's been five years since Soo was able to escape from her situation with the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, but the memories are just as vivid as if it was yesterday. When we sat down to talk to her about her experience, the anguish and pain are evident. The reason Soo decided to come forward and tell her story was to help others in her situation and give them hope that there is help out there. And her message to the men who are customers of these types of establishments: think of the women you are dealing with. "We are humans. We are not animals. I want to tell them we are not machines. It's so hard for me to live my life. It's very hard to live. Please think of us as your child. Just once think of us as your child."
Soo is still pursuing the American Dream but it's been altered now. The trauma she suffered being forced into sex slavery has taken its toll on her emotionally. Everyday continues to be a challenge for Soo, but she finds solace in her tiny apartment filled with rescue cats and dreams of having her own pet grooming business someday. For now, she is thankful for her freedom but is still held hostage to the memories.
CNN's Natalie Allen went with an adventure-philanthropy group to explore Vietnam. She ended up building a new playground for the children of the Catalyst Foundation in the coastal town of Rach Gia. Children in this area were previously living and playing around a large trash dump. Families around the border of Cambodia and Vietnam frequently have to worry about the harsh reality that their children could be sold to the sex trafficking industry.
By Natalie Allen, CNN
Twelve-year-old Dieu wears a bright-green top sprinkled with yellow flowers as she squats in a pile of garbage with her mother.
The two talk and laugh while their hands work quickly, sorting plastic from the discarded food and waste.
A full bag will bring their family just pennies. But this is their life’s work. They live on a dump in Rach Gia, Vietnam, part of the Mekong Delta.
Dieu’s little sister, one of nine siblings, watches from the family’s two-room shack. One of her brothers sits on a nearby tombstone with his dog. The dump lies on an abandoned cemetery, and the above-ground tombs are the only places to sit that aren’t covered by trash.
Some 200 families live on this and one other dump in Rach Gia. They are three generations of Cambodians who fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. It’s the only home they have ever known.
What they eat and what they wear is often from what they find in the trash. For the longest time, the children didn't even know flip-flops were supposed to match.
But there is a danger here far worse than filth or poverty.
Human traffickers prey on these poor people’s desperation. Children are bought and sold here, some for as little as $100. The parents sell because they are tricked into believing that the buyer has good intentions, that their children will have a promising job and a promising future. They so badly want to help their sons and daughters escape poverty.
Oftentimes, however, the children end up as sex slaves.
“The trafficker looks like your mom, (the trafficker) doesn't look like a bad guy," said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, who founded the Catalyst Foundation to help Dieu and other children in Vietnam's poorest communities.
The kids are sometimes stolen, too, when they make their long walk into town to sell lottery tickets.
“When we started, we knew of a house that was at the entrance of the dump, and we know girls were being taken in there by traffickers and being raped,” Ticarro-Parker said. "If they screamed, then they were let go. If they didn't scream, then they were taken. And the girls were as young as 4."
Lessons for survival
After leaving Dieu’s dump, I arrive at another one just as a sanitation truck leaves behind a fresh pile.
People scurry with picks and bags and start sorting. They work day and night alongside their children. At 1 a.m., when the last truck of the day arrives, they all don headlamps to work in the dark.
I follow a mother who carries her baby to the family’s shack. One could barely call it that; it is nothing more than tarps strung together for shelter. Bowls of discarded food are covered in flies. Clothes dry on barbed wire.
The mother lays her baby in a net strung up as a hammock. After rocking the baby to sleep, she heads back out to work in the dump.
Another parent offers me his baby when I arrive. He is cradling a little boy, months old, wearing a colorful striped hat. The father swats flies away from the child’s face. He mistakenly thinks I am here to buy his baby.
Ticarro-Parker’s family fled Vietnam when she was a child. She returned as an adult to give back to her homeland, bringing clothes to the poor. But when she stumbled onto the families of the Rach Gia dumps, she knew much more had to be done.
She went back home to Minnesota, started raising money and eventually opened a school for the children of the dump.
Lesson one: Arm the children with cell phones so they can call for help.
“It sounds weird, but we gave the prettiest girls the cell phones first,” Ticarro-Parker said. “They’re most at risk.”
Lesson two: Teach the children to read so that if they are taken, they can read city signs and call the school to let them know where they are.
That happened in 2008. Four girls were taken, but the traffickers were caught because the girls had a cell phone and knew how to read a road sign to give their location.
Lesson three: Teach the children to run if strangers approach.
That’s exactly what 13-year-old Hanh did when men, presumably traffickers, chased her and her brother as they walked home on the last day of school in 2010. She did what she was taught and ran. But while getting away, Hanh fell into a canal and drowned.
Ticarro-Parker fights back tears recalling the tragedy: “She died doing what we asked.”
Before she died, Hanh was interviewed for the school’s first brochure. Next to her picture is a quote of what hope meant to her: “Hope is my school.”
School is the only hope for these children, Ticarro-Parker says. It strengthens the entire community.
"When we started it was 99% illiteracy,” she said. “None of the parents (at the dumps) knew how to read and write, the children had never been to school.”
They are now down to 40% illiteracy.
“The children are understanding that they could be the generation that doesn't work in the dump,” Ticarro-Parker said.
The school also teaches parents the cold hard truth: what will really happen to their children if they sell them.
In 2006, before the school opened, more than 37 girls from the dumps were sold to traffickers by their parents, Ticarro-Parker said. In 2011, only four were sold.
'A catalyst for change'
Inside one of the school’s two classrooms, a boy writes in his notebook. He clutches a blue pen with fingers covered in dirt, black under all his fingernails. The children are dirty, but their maroon-and-white school uniforms are crisp. Across their backs reads, “be a catalyst for change.” And they all wear shoes that match.
Outside is the sound of a power saw. Volunteers are here to build a playground for the school, which was built on a rice paddy on the edge of the town.
It will be the first real playground these children have seen.
One Vietnamese woman helps the volunteers with sanding and toting wood. She is working to pay off a debt to the school. She sold her teenage daughter to traffickers – twice – and the school helped get her back both times. Now the woman works to pay off her debt.
When the playground opens, the children are waiting. They swarm. Up the climbing wall, down the slide, over the monkey bars, onto the swings. They have to be taught how to pump their legs and pull the ropes to make the swings move. They don’t have any idea how it works. They learn quickly, however, and are soon flying high.
Dieu, on the seesaw, screams with joy as a row of girls fall like dominoes onto the sand in hysterical laughter. Seeing their smiles and hearing their joy, it is hard to believe these children live on a garbage dump.
"Over the last year and a half, the boys and girls have been happy,” Ticarro-Parker said. “They want to be singers and teachers and doctors and architects. Suddenly they have a career in mind. …
“We're not going to eliminate trafficking. We are not going to change this whole culture of girls feeling unworthy of themselves. But we're going to change this group of girls. We're going to change 200 girls. It's going to happen, one girl at a time."
In June, Thelma Gutierrez brought us the story of a police bust in Oceanside, California, where gang members were operating a sex trafficking ring out of a Travelodge hotel. Today, Thelma brings us an important update about a CNN viewer who saw the original story and went after Wyndham hotel chain, which owns Travelodge.
There are many faces of human trafficking.
There are the victims...
And those who try to break up the connection between them - the investigators.
In the U.S. state of California, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force's main mission is to fight forced prostitution. It's a problem that has spread all over the world.
Read more about their mission here.
As part of CNN's ongoing look at the problem of modern-day slavery, the CNN Freedom Project went undercover with the Task Force, to see how the team is fighting the flow of human trafficking in their area. The team was there as the squad made "sting-style" arrests on pimps and prostitutes, and learned why police consider the prostitutes to be the victims of these crimes.
"Police in Orange County, California, discover alleged sex traffickers can be found pretty much anywhere"
"Officers in California scour online dating ads looking for possible human trafficking victims, and then arrange a date"
"Officers in California continue their sting and as CNN's Martin Savidge reports they're not looking for prostitutes"
"Police officers in Anaheim, California, conduct an undercover sting aimed directly at underage prostitution"
"California undercover cops try to catch the men who they say are forcing women to sell themselves"
Traci Tamura, CNN Producer
In April of this year, the Oceanside Police Department in California led an 18-month multi-agency investigation that resulted in the indictment of 38 suspected Crips gang members, their alleged associates and two hotel owners. The indictment asserts that the Oceanside Crips organization was “engaged in a variety of illegal activities, including but not limited to the prostitution of minors and adult females, attempted murder, robbery, and narcotics trafficking.”
After hearing about this case, Thelma Gutierrez and I set out to delve into the world of traditional street gangs moving into the world of prostitution and sex trafficking as part of the CNN Freedom Project’s initiative to End Modern Day Slavery. And what we found was eye-opening.
We headed to the coastal community of Oceanside,California to talk with some law enforcement officials who were part of the investigation. They described the Oceanside Crips gang as a sophisticated "enterprise" that brought formerly warring Crips gang members together in the business of prostitution and sex trafficking. Authorities say the gangs were drawn in by the potentially huge profits from using the Internet to exploit their female victims – some of whom were minors – and from forcing the women to sell themselves online for sex.
According to law enforcement, the Internet has become such a portal for sex trafficking that it’s moving prostitution off the street corners to the underground world of cyberspace. One local police official told us how challenging this type of crime is to enforce when you can’t visually see it. Also, with the budget constraints most cities face, police simply don't have the staffing to dedicate officers to just sit on a computer and monitor the activity on a daily basis.
When reporting our story, we spent some time with "Jessica”, who is a former prostitute, who had a gang member as her pimp. She told us her "Guerilla" pimp - one who controls his prostitutes by intimidation and physical abuse – raped her when she first came into contact with him and that she was treated like a modern-day slave. "Jessica" revealed how she lived in constant fear for her life and was forced to prostitute herself just to survive. She told us how she was made to post ads selling herself online, and how all it took to book a "date" at a local hotel room was a simple click of a key and a phone call to a prepaid cell phone. It's all done anonymously. The women never even having to leave their hotel rooms to make their average quote of $1,000 to $3,000 dollars a day. But the girls never saw a penny of the "donations" they earned. Instead, they simply worked to be fed, avoid beatings and stay alive.
Luckily, "Jessica" finally escaped with a couple other girls, after convincing one of their "customers" that their lives were in danger. The customer finally agreed to help them. He kept his word to take them to another hotel, but he still got his "payment" in sex before he allowed the girls to call the police. "Jessica" is now free from what she describes as a life of being a sex slave. And with the help of support groups – like the San Diego-based Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition - she is currently rebuilding her life and her relationship with her mother. But “Jessica” says still worries about all the other vulnerable women and girls who remain enslaved by their pimps.
Sara Sidner's shocking report for the CNN Freedom Project introduced us to a young Bangladeshi boy who was approached by a local gang and ordered to beg on the street for profit. When the child refused, the gang beat and mutilated him. But, tragically, he's not alone. As Sara learned, it's an all too common occurrence for street children in southeast Asia. Michael talked with her about her reporting.
Sara Sidner brings us the stunning story of a young boy who helped uncover a criminal gang that, for years, has been maiming children and forcing them to beg for money on the streets of Bangladesh. When the gang approached the small child, he refused, and paid a heavy price for his denial.