the sex trade

Prisoners of the brothel

Thousands of women are trafficked into virtual slavery Only a fortunate few manage to find a way back to normal society

A sex worker waits for clients in a brothel in Girona.
A sex worker waits for clients in a brothel in Girona.PERE DURAN / EL PAÍS

One morning, Marcela woke up in a different bed. It had clean sheets. She stretched and thought back over the last few hours. She remembered calling the emergency number in the middle of the night. She couldn't leave the club because it was in the middle of nowhere. The volunteer workers from the association came to get her in their car. When she walked out of the brothel, she could still feel the sting of the blows she'd received from the pimp. "The violence is over," she thought, as she shut the door behind her.

She spent six months at the shelter apartment. "I finally began to feel like I was in the company of other people. Before that, I'd been living with 50 women but feeling very much alone. I depended on alcohol and drugs to carry on," she recalls.

It had all begun a year earlier, in 2005, when Marcela, who is now 34 years old, arrived from Brazil. A neighbor had told her about a job in Spain that would enable her to save money to complete her law studies.

"They told me I was going to take care of kids. The trip was from São Paulo to France, then Vigo, then a van ride to Portugal. When I got there they took my passport away and told me that I owed them 5,000 euros. They made me work as a prostitute at clubs in Portugal and later in Seville, all owned by the same man. They taught us to say that we were there voluntarily and they threatened to attack our families. So I didn't say a word, and when I got out of the hole [after police raided the club], I went back to the same place to do the same thing. I saw no alternative."

During this personal journey, Marcela had her first contact with APRAMP, an association that helps victims of sexual exploitation. "At first I didn't trust them, but they offered me healthcare and we started to talk," she explains in a telephone conversation.

On the day that this story begins, Marcela received a beating. "I told myself: 'This is as far as it gets.' And I made the call."

News reports tend to end with a pimp in handcuffs, but the women stay trapped

It was the beginning of another long journey, in some ways as tough as the one that came before it: living side by side with other hurt, nervous women; dealing with humiliating memories; finding a job despite a deportation order hanging over her head. The psychological healing process lasted three years. "When I saw that I could talk about it without crying, I realized that I'd assimilated it all," she recalls.

Her first job was caring for elderly people. Now, after five years of training as a social mediator, Marcela goes out with APRAMP's mobile unit to patrol the industrial parks, clubs and apartment-based brothels, talking to the victims of human trafficking and showing them how to walk away from that life.

The sophistication of the sex trade has created a global market of 11 million exploited women, according to the United Nations. A Eurostat study released last week holds that between 2008 and 2010, there was an 18-percent rise in the number of victims. News reports about police raids against sex trafficking in Spain - one of the main recipients of women brought here under coercion or deception from the poorest corners of the planet - usually end with the photo of the pimp in handcuffs. But this movie ending is absent from women's lives.

Most, like Marcela after the raid on her brothel, return to the club the very next day. They are out of their depth in a world whose rules they do not understand: Where to look for a job? What will the police do to me if they find me without residency papers? Who is going to help a whore? are some of the questions they ask themselves. Others embrace their newfound freedom, fearlessly jumping over the administrative hurdles.

Spain is one of the main recipients of people-trafficking victims

Fear is preventing important witnesses from speaking out after the police busted a network that exploited 400 women in Andalusia. The operation yielded 52 indictments and the closure of six clubs. The investigation reveals a twisted and violent universe, a business that deals in flesh and has its main commercial branch in Brazil. At the end of the chain there were women, some without residency papers, who were forced to sleep with their bosses, work 12 hours a day and pay their employer 50 euros for each day of rest caused by their menstruation. Leaving the premises had a price tag of 150 to 200 euros. Despite all these horrors, the protected witnesses have begun to hesitate, a common occurrence in these cases.

The prostitutes that Marcela manages to convince usually end up at the association, which has a workshop in downtown Madrid where women learn to sew for local boutiques. On a recent day in March, a social worker was helping the students, one of whom was 14 and the other 16, evidence that the mafias are exploiting very young victims. "That's what's in style right now," says Marcela. "Back in my day it was Brazilians, but now this is what the flesh market is demanding."

Social worker Ana Delgado explains the women come from very different backgrounds. "Some have a lot of training, but others have to learn everything from scratch. They have lived in isolation, and when they break out of that, they find a country, a language and a life that is alien to them."

The courses offered by the association (Spanish language, caregiving for the elderly, sewing...) serve the dual purpose of training and therapy. "They learn not to get frustrated and they get used to following a discipline and a schedule, which is sometimes very hard for them," says Delgado. "Since we're familiar with their situation, we know we need to be flexible."

Witnesses disappear after seeing videos of their friends getting raped

Around 40 associations work with victims of the sex trade in Spain. Their services are confidential and free of charge, and they include housing, psychological treatment, assistance with the job search and legal advice. The process lasts as much as a year and a half. Women get sent here by the social services, the police, hospitals, and, very occasionally, by clients of brothels who realize that its workers are being exploited.

The way the police identify a victim of sexual exploitation follows a routine procedure: after raiding a road club, for instance, a specialized unit called UCRIF interviews each prostitute for three to four minutes. Besides fear and compulsive lying, one of the most visible outward signs of abuse is "difficulty walking or sitting down, wounds, bruises in the sexual organs, irritation of the anal and genital area," and, in underage women, "conduct and sexual knowledge beyond their years, such as sexually obsessive or seductive behavior."

Still, identification is very difficult if the woman denies the facts. In 2011, 14,730 women were considered potential victims of the sex trade, but only 1,082 were positively identified as such, according to the Interior Ministry. And of these, many refuse to file a complaint. Whether they do or not, the law offers every victim a period of reflection (one month, extendable to two) to decide whether she will cooperate with the police. Since the vast majority are foreigners, by filing a complaint they are automatically entitled to residency and work papers. Even so, of 763 periods of reflection offered in 2011, only 98 women accepted the deal.

Because reporting abuse opens up more possibilities for social insertion, non-profits tend to recommend it, but not always.

Of thousands of girls I have worked with, about a dozen got out of the trade"

"Sometimes it's not the best thing. We provide advice about the pros and cons, and some women decide that it's not the right thing for them," says a worker at the Catalan association SICAR. Cooperating with the police can mean not just a long series of interrogations and emotional relapses, but also actual danger to the relatives who stayed behind in the country of origin, where the mafia's local tentacles operate.

The efforts to encourage women to report abuse suffer a setback every time the media publicizes cases like that of José Manuel Pulleiro Núñez, the violent owner of La Colina Club and a defendant in the Carioca case, which involves a corrupt local network of pimps and law enforcement officers in Lugo, Galicia. Pulleiro spent his four months of parole personally visiting all the women who had testified against the network, the judge in charge of the case found. And he was not even the first to do so. Many witnesses ended up returning to their countries of origin, and others to club life.

Luis has run into more than one story like this one. Luis is the pseudonym for a member of UCRIF in Madrid. His job has taught him the full extent of the word frustration. He has seen mentally disabled women sold into slavery by their families; he has learnt that pimps prefer vulnerable women who can be more easily kept in check - poor women, those with a sick child in their care; he has found out that Chinese and Nigerian women who have been threatened with voodoo will never report abuse, no matter how egregious; he has seen colleagues lose witnesses after the mafias sent them videos of their friends getting raped; he has participated in raids on clubs with as many as 200 women and come out with no witnesses at all.

Luis talks, and his words ring of disappointment. "And that's now that I'm feeling more upbeat; there are times when this gets really tough," he notes. "Some courthouses avoid these operations altogether because they require lots of wiretaps and warrants, and it collapses the court."

Living with some of the women was hard for me: the smells, the attitudes"

This officer agrees with the other experts interviewed for this story in that Spain's witness protection law is inefficient, but he feels that the major reason why most women will not cross the threshold of their open cage is fear and emotional attachment. "Love makes them vulnerable too. Many were brought here through romantic deception, or else pimps keep them on a short leash that women believe to be affection, and sometimes it's really the closest thing to it they've ever known."

The raid in Andalusia would appear to prove him right. Wiretaps captured conversations between pimps and women with whom they maintained romantic relations. In one, the man threatens his girlfriend, telling her what she needs is a few blows to make her "soft as a glove," and "a dick stuck in her mouth and a few slaps in the face." After hanging up, the pimp received an affectionate SMS from another prostitute that he was also sleeping with.

Despite a sadness that makes him slouch as he talks about it, Luis tries to stay positive: "Of the thousands of women I've worked with, around a dozen have managed to get out of this."

It's a disheartening figure, but for someone who has seen the horror of the sex trade up close, to have helped 12 people escape is a personal achievement. He does not expect to achieve much more. Sometimes, the raids help improve conditions at the clubs, or inspire some women to leave and ply their trade as self-employed workers, which he views as a small improvement.

Before the crisis, after 20 days they were working; now it can take a year"

"It's a world of abuse. You see them at age 40 and they're in horrible shape after years of paying back the debt they've been burdened with. Addictions, suicide attempts, diseases... In my experience, the younger ones who still have some hope are the ones who can try to get out. For the others, it's nearly impossible."

Sònia Martínez, mayor of the Catalan border town of La Jonquera - one of the Spanish municipalities with the greatest incidence of prostitution because of the giant brothels that serve Spanish and French clients alike - says she has come up against women's refusal to leave their pimps time and again. "They never accept. We suggest another job, but in this region the only jobs for them are as cleaners or at restaurants, putting in many hours for small wages, and they tell us that with that kind of salary they can't do it. Sometimes they don't have enough to cover their needs if they have children, or else they're in debt."

Isela (an assumed name) managed to leave this world behind. This 26-year-old Romanian lives in a Madrid apartment provided by the non-profit group Proyecto Esperanza, and she is already in phase two of the recovery process, which entails less supervision from the association. For four months she has been looking for a job "doing anything," although she favors the restaurant industry. Back in Romania she studied Romance languages, and she dreams of becoming an educator, a lawyer or a journalist.

It was the police who brought her here seven months ago. She didn't speak a word of Spanish then. At first she communicated with the other women, who hailed from Africa, China and Latin America, "a little bit in English, in Italian or with my hands." Those were horrible days for this hyper-active young woman. "I didn't know anyone, my head was in bad shape, I was very worried about my family, I was in hysterics. I have a very strong character and living with some of the women was hard for me: the smells, the attitudes... I spent many hours indoors because I didn't dare go out, but I didn't understand the rules of the apartment." Isela's experience illustrates the difficulty of bringing together women of different origins, ages and sociocultural backgrounds, many in a state of shock. But Isela slowly opened up.

"After these last months, I feel like myself again. And I've made friends who are very important to me." They are her only social support in Spain for now. In her free time she goes for walks in Madrid and reads novels by Jules Verne and Federico Moccia. "I like love stories, although with men I am..." she says, making a gesture to show how tough she considers herself to be.

Despite her college training, Isela will have to be patient before finding a job that statistics show will not be well paid. Studies by Proyecto Esperanza among the women they help show that 62 percent of those who find jobs do not make as much as the minimum legal wage. "Many are doomed to house cleaning work," says Iris Rodríguez, coordinator for the association. "Bureaucratic hurdles and the crisis are prolonging the personal independence process. Before this, in some provinces, after 20 days they were already working and getting training. Now, they are staying at shelter apartments for over a year."

And there is an urgent need to find a job. Many women still need to send money to their families back home. Relatives ask them for financial help, unaware of their real situation because the women are reluctant to explain the truth - sometimes because of the stigma associated with sex, others because, even though they knew they were coming to Europe to work as prostitutes, they didn't know it would be as slaves, and they don't want their families to worry about it.

"For a time we accept that they're going to work in very precarious conditions, in the underground economy, because at least it takes away some of their anxiety and gives them self-confidence," explains Beatriz Lorente, of SICAR.

The lucky ones with residency and work papers often end up in the legal economy, although companies do not always offer them the best conditions to begin a life on their own. They then find themselves in a state of semi-dependence, relying on state subsidies or on their partners for subsistence. Ekaterina, a 31-year-old from Russia, explains that she has been working for three months as a store clerk in Barcelona with a "special" open-ended contract, which she describes enthusiastically as "a great opportunity." "It's 590 euros a month for 30 hours a week. I only get Sundays off, and they can call me at any time." Back in her country, she worked as head of a store, and she wants to do the same here. But for now, she is still living at a SICAR apartment with her son. Asked what she wants from life, she straightens her back and says confidently: "An apartment of my own. And a daughter."

Marta González, of Proyecto Esperanza, says it is hard to know how much money is being spent on victim support programs because it is mostly regional governments that are in charge of it. The state provides two million euros a year for specialized non-profit groups. The quality of the aid determines to what extent women who escape the sex mafias will manage to build a balanced life for themselves.

Ekaterina, Marcela and Isela broke their invisible chains. A few women out of thousands manage it through a combination of luck, courage and support. Statistically, they are negligible. People like Luis the police officer know it, and they want that to change. "I remember one girl," he says. "I remember how beat up she was when we found her, and how changed I saw her after a while. Just for that, all this is worth it."

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