Human trafficking: stories of survival

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Somewhere on a street just like yours men and women are likely being held hostage in homes and businesses around Western New York.

“It can be anybody. It can be a child. It can be a man,” Erie County Deputy Sheriff Elizabeth Fildes explains. She’s made it her mission to help these modern day slaves who are victims of human traffickers.

It’s a crime that puts men and women in desperate and dangerous situations.

“People are making lots of money off of human beings. My youngest victim, sadly to say, was 8 years old.” Fildes say the girl was forced in trafficking and abuse by her mother. “When mom didn’t have enough money to sustain her drug habit, [the girl] was handed over to the landlord; she was abused.”

Perhaps, you’ve seen ads like these warning about trafficking. They’re part of a campaign aimed at raising awareness.

Understanding the problem

“We’ve had people trafficked in car washes, in the meat packing industry, [at] construction sites and as domestic servants,” explains Amy Fleischauer, director of victim services at the International Institute of Buffalo.

Some victims are forced into sex. Others are held against their will or forced to labor without getting paid. Fleischauer says traffickers target  Western New York because it’s an easy pass-through between Toronto and New York City. “Because Niagara Falls has so many tourist industries, there really is a lot of opportunity for trafficking there, but they’re also moved pretty quickly throughout the suburbs in sex trafficking cases. Fleischauer estimates her  organization has helped more than 400 victims in the past five years.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was sending a million dollars to Buffalo to fight human trafficking. The money will be split between the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the International Institute.

Tracking the trend

News 4 Investigates started looking into the trafficking trend in 2008. We sent undercover crews into certain massage parlors in Cheektowaga.

In 2008, News 4 was there when agents raided El Caporal restaurant in Cheektowaga. Federal prosecutors say Simon Banda-Mireles and his managers employed and harbored dozens of illegal immigrants. Banda-Mireles was convicted and sentenced to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution.

William Hochul, Jr, U.S. Attorney here in Western New York, says, “There’s no question [some victims] pay to be smuggled into the United States, and they know before they ever get here that there’s a certain debt to pay.” Hochul and his prosecutors head the Western New York Human Trafficking Task Force. “The vast amount of human trafficking that occurs in this country is in the sex industry, and one of the reasons is it’s such a lucrative and profitable industry with a seemingly unending supply of people who are willing to buy access to women for sex,” Hochul says.

Even though sex is involved, Hochul says this is more than prostitution. “At the end of the day, the difference between prostitution and human trafficking has to do with the violence and manipulation component.” Traffickers use force, fraud or coercion.

Hochul points to the case of Kenneth Graham. Prosecutors say Graham used these cell phones to traffic two teens. The feds say, Graham posted ads on the website backpage.com and helped recruit men to have sex with women at hotels in Amherst and Cheektowaga. A jury convicted Graham in January 2013. “That is outright slavery,” Hochul suggests.

Amber Motzer: surviving on the streets

When you first see Amber Motzer, it’s impossible to know what she endured.

She says, “I was basically trapped in a van for almost two weeks.” Trapped and in trouble. Amber says, “My drug addiction had overtaken the rest of my life. I could no longer go to work. I couldn’t be a functioning mother.”

Drugs drove her into debt. Next thing she knew, there was an ad for her services on the website backpage.com. She says “They drove me around in a van. They had bought the clothes that I was supposed to wear. [They] told me how to wear my hair and make up and drove me to where I was supposed to go, and i had to go into these hotel rooms with men and make money.”

Amber was 22 when she became a victim of sex trafficking. We met her at a forum put on by a group called PATH, People Against Trafficking Humans.

U.S. Attorney Hochul hears about cases like Amber’s and struggles to understand. “It really is a matter of stealing the innocence of these young people. To be repeatedly raped, to be repeatedly beaten, to be forced to do these degrading acts at such a young age really just ruins a person’s psyche,” Hochul told News 4.

Fleischauer hopes “…people will pay attention and start believing that this is happening. People don’t want to believe that they are living or working next to a business that’s enslaving people.”

Forced into slavery

It’s important to remember not all trafficking involves sex. Some victims simply come here looking for better lives. News 4 met a survivor we’ll call Karen. We’re protecting her identity. Karen’s story began in eastern Africa. A friend convinced her to come to America to take care of her child. They flew to Detroit and then came Buffalo.

Karen says, “I became her domestic worker. I stayed in the house first of all. For 2-3 months, i didn’t go out. All that i knew was inside that house.”

She became a domestic slave and made only a hundred dollars a month. After a few weeks here, she says she wanted to go home. Karen says her captor refused to let her leave.

In May 2010 officers from U.S. Department of Homeland Security detained Karen. “They came into the house after I had just dropped off her daughter at the bus stop,” Karen recalled.

She had outstayed her visa. Karen cooperated with investigators, but it took her months to tell them the full story. Initially she lied — ashamed of her situation. Eventually, she told them the truth. I’m not afraid of going to jail; I’d rather go there than go back and stay there [in captivity].”

The road to recovery

Fleischauer says victims like Karen often take years to recover.

“They’ve been coached. They’ve been told they’ll be deported; they’ll be told they won’t be believed and that they’ll be jailed.”

She reminds victims no matter how dark things seems, better days are ahead. “It’s like fighting a flood. [Traffickers are] so well funded. They’re so organized. They’re making a ton of money off these people. It’s really sad,” Fleischauer told News 4.

Karen is here on a permanent immigration visa and is working toward her U.S.. citizenship. She’s studying to become a nurse.

Amber Motzer is doing her part to educate others about trafficking. She’s in college studying to become a specialist to help victims. Amber says victims should, “…Hold onto that small glimmer of hope. Even in the darkest moments, if you can believe in yourself, things will happen for you.”

Changing a culture — stopping a cycle of hurt — takes time.

Getting Help

Authorities tell us virtually every human trafficking investigation begins with a tip. You should look for signs of trouble.

Look for houses where a lot of people seem to be living or neighbors who never come outside. Also, experts say you should be suspicious of restaurants where you see the same workers all the time,  perhaps working long hours.

Call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-696-9211, or simply dial 211.

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