Twenty-four-year-old Kelly Lacen’s new boyfriend took her on dates. He met her parents. Then he beat her, held her captive and sold her to his friends. When Albuquerque police rescued her two years later, Lacen had lost count of how many men she had been forced to have sex with. Lacen doesn’t fit the common conception of a trafficking victim. The petite, hazel-eyed woman, now 27, was born and raised in Albuquerque. She graduated from high school, attended some college, and had a good relationship with her family.
But her story is not unusual. Experts say sex-trafficking victims are as likely to be from suburban U.S. homes as they are to be young people who were smuggled across the border and forced into sex labor by their smugglers. Lacen found refuge at the Life Link Anti-human Trafficking Initiative, a nonprofit sex-trafficking advocacy group based in Santa Fe that provides a home, counseling and other services for trafficking victims from across the United States.
El Paso has consistently been one of the U.S. cities most linked to trafficking, and several nonprofits in the area are engaged in fighting trafficking and helping victims. One of the most recently launched is the Paso Del Norte’s Center of Hope in El Paso, which began offering services in May last year. “This is happening in our own backyard,” said John Martin, the center’s executive director. “El Paso is considered one of the most intense areas of trafficking in the nation. And unfortunately, the public here knows about this issue but have their eyes shut on how big of a problem it is. And this needs to change.”
One of the first victims to receive help from the Center of Hope was smuggled from Juárez to El Paso under the pretense of working as a maid, said Virginia, a victim liaison for the Center of Hope who asked that her full name not be used because she feared that traffickers could use her to find the people she helps.
After being smuggled across the border, the woman arrived at the house where she was to work as a maid. She was kept in a basement with just a cot and a little table. She took care of the two boys for more than 15 years. Then the family found a new use for her.
“She was 18 years old when they brought her over. Fifteen years later, she was 33 years old. They stole her youth,” Virginia said. “Now that the children were gone, the woman told her to pretty up because she was going to have a visitor. The woman had made arrangements to have men come and buy her. It was a new way for the family to get income from her.”
The victim was able to escape from the home and go to the Center of Hope. The center provided her medical and legal services and a place to stay.
But for the victims, the story doesn’t end when they’re freed from their captors — or even when their traffickers are imprisoned — said Lynn Sanchez, director of the Life Link Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative in Santa Fe. The psychological effects can persist for years after the victims are freed.
“The first 72 hours are critical in building that trust and rapport,” Sanchez said. “Helping a victim understand, first of all, that they are victims. For a lot of them that’s a new term because many of them blame themselves. It might take years before they finally say, ‘I’m a trafficking victim.’ ”
Learn more at Aaron Martinez’s and Amanda Bankston’s El Paso Times article: Trafficked: Victims of sex trade have little in common, except their trust was abused.