Shandra Woworuntu once paid $3,000 to a broker expecting to get a job in a Chicago hotel and her ticket to the American dream. Instead, the then 25-year-old from Indonesia got sold into prostitution, literal sexual slavery.
Now, at 36, she spends her free time talking about the dangers of human trafficking.
“Forgetting is not the solution,” Shandra told me. She wants to make people aware that this crime is happening, often right under their noses.
Talking about such a horrific experience is one thing, last week she actually took me to one of the many places where she had been locked up.
Her captors trafficked her to several locations in New York and Connecticut over the course of a month in 2001. This was the last one, the apartment building she had escaped from.
It sits on a corner in a neighbourhood known as Sunset Park, New York, home to many recent immigrants, where many of the storefronts bear Chinese lettering. The building she took me to looks like any other Brooklyn tenement building. For Shandra, however, it was living hell.
She pointed out the wrought iron bars covering all of the first floor windows, ostensibly to keep intruders out but also serving to hold her and two other Indonesian women in.
A bouncer slept in front of the door. Whenever they changed locations – the customers like variety – they travelled with an escort who held a gun to their backs. But soon after arriving at this location she discovered a possible way out: a small bathroom window that didn’t have a lock or bars covering it.
It is bricked over now, but you can make out where it was thanks to the different color of the bricks, about three metres off the ground. Shandra had screamed for a shower and so the women were allowed into the bathroom. They turned on the water to disguise any noises and Shandra climbed up and, at barely 100 pounds, wriggled through. The window was so small that one of the other women didn’t make it out.
The two who escaped promised to come back for her – and they did – but it took over a month of living on the street to find help from law enforcement. When Shandra first tried telling their story, the police either didn’t understand her broken English or didn’t care. Her captors had taken all of her identification. Finally, Shandra met someone who put her in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Human trafficking is not a crime typically associated with the United States, even though it is estimated that half of international trafficking victims end up here. Like Shandra, the victims are generally looking for a better life and get trapped.
One recent federal bust involved a dozen individuals who are now charged with trafficking Mexican women to the greater New York area. Many of them were wooed into romantic relationships with their captors and then, once far from family and all that is familiar, told they’d have to sell themselves to help pay the rent.
“The women were sometimes beaten, threatened with violence both sexual and physical and their families were threatened,” explained James T Hayes Jr, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ New York office, adding they were forced to have sex 20 to 30 times a day. Ultimately many were threatened with deportation.
“It’s a really heart-breaking ordeal.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance notes there has been a shift in the way law enforcement handles these cases. In the past, the women might have been charged with prostitution. Now, there is greater recognition that the women are generally unwilling participants.
Vance has created a special unit in his office to handle human trafficking cases, combining experts in sex crimes and money laundering. He has also begun working with banks to identify financial clues that could serve as red flags for investigators looking for evidence of human trafficking.
“The way to attack sex trafficking and human trafficking is to understand that what we are dealing with here is a business,” Vance explains.
And it is a growing one. The Polaris Project estimates 14,500 to 17,500 men and women are trafficked into the US from other countries. Tens of thousands more Americans, primarily children, are also trafficked.
Such evidence could help prosecutors rely less heavily on the testimony of traumatised victims.
Shandra had to tell her story over and over again to the investigators who ultimately put her captors behind bars, a feat many victims are not up to. Their road to recovery is long. Shandra still receives counseling and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Visiting Sunset Park was not easy for her. Seeing the room with the bars on the window brought back lurid memories – but it was only after our cameras stopped rolling that her composure cracked.
She wondered out loud why no one ever told the authorities that men – no women or children – were coming in and out of the building at all hours. The window with the bars is barely a metre from the street.