MEADOWLANDS, New Jersey (PIX11) – In the shadows of MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands where the NFL’s two best teams will duke it out in this year’s Super Bowl, law enforcement is already scrambling to neutralize a nasty brew of abuse and exploitation – cooked up by sex traffickers.
For thousands of young women and underage girls who are forced into a life that amounts to modern day slavery the danger is real.
It certainly was for 57-year-old Barbara Amaya – who ran away from home at the age of 12 — and for another much younger sex trafficking victim who goes by the name “Kenya.”
Both women, who came from seemingly normal, prominent families, still carry the trauma from a lost and misguided youth spent on the streets.
“She was selling me to clients, and after several weeks of that, with them – they sold me to a man from New York. A trafficker. Not man. A trafficker from New York,” said Barbara.
“The traffickers have a way of manipulating – they mold you into this person that they want you to be. Understand? So that person that you were before, when you was a little girl at home with your parents, or wherever you was at – doesn’t exist anymore. That person is not there,” said Kenya.
After decades of silence, Barbara – who spent nine years being trafficked on the mean streets of New York City — has only recently begun to speak openly about her troubled past.
Barbara and Kenya’s stories will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale for other at-risk pre-teen girls who help make sex-trafficking a multibillion dollar criminal industry and the Super Bowl, according to law enforcement officials – the single largest human trafficking opportunity in the country.
“All I was was a dollar sign to him. I know that now. It’s all about money, and I was a commodity to him,” said Barbara.
In a matter of weeks, this former Girl Scout went from growing up in what she describes as a suburban hell with her dysfunctional family in Fairfax, Virginia to an urban nightmare on the streets of 1970s, New York City, where she became addicted to heroin – and the property of a pimp.
“He would beat me up, drag me back. Beat me up, search me out all over Manhattan, throw me down stairs, beat me with wire coat hangers – or whatever he did,” said Barbara.
“I was like a walking target for pimps and traffickers who look for young women just like I was. I was all over Manhattan. The first place I remember I was at – um, 57th and Avenue of the Americas,” said Barbara.
A trafficker’s methods for controlling their victims and moving them to various locations according to demand have not changed over the years.
Raphael, a veteran truck driver who we met not far from Met Life Stadium, didn’t know anything about prostitution at the rest stop but told us it’s common knowledge working girls often go looking for customers at the local motels.
“You say, what about the area over here. I say, different motels, and place to park, no it’s only over here,” said Raphael.
The job of intercepting the influx of illegal human trafficking as we get closer to the big game…belongs to New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Tracy Thompson.
“Because this is a cold weather Super Bowl. It won’t be ‘track action’ so to speak. It won’t be girls on the street, perhaps like New Orleans or Dallas,” said Thompson.
Kenya, who met us near the New York Stock Exchange — in the same neighborhood where her former high-powered clients did business — says saving a young sex trafficking victim is going to come down to increasing our awareness.
“It happens in the daytime. It happens in the afternoon, it happens at night. It’s a twenty four hour operation,” said Kenya.
Dorchen Leidholdt is the legal director for Sanctuary for Families – a non-profit which advocates for sex trafficking victims.
“Absolutely. I mean, you see the fear. You also see young people who look numb. It often is going to look a lot like domestic violence. You’re going to see the fear. You’re going to see the fear. You’re going to see some older individual bringing a younger person into place like a hotel. You’ll see the fear, or just the control and the manipulation – and that’s a telltale sign,” said Leidholdt.
But sex trafficking victim Barbara Amaya says much of the trauma she suffered at the hands of her brutally abusive trafficker is invisible to the naked eye.
“There’s stuff I probably never will overcome. I mean, I have multiple health issues I never talk about,” said Barbara.
And there are clearly other scars Barbara – the former all-American little girl in Shirley Temple curls still chooses to conceal not just from the public, but also from herself.
“I mean I can’t go to pieces when I’m talking about it – because I’m talking about it. You know what I mean? Oh yeah. And I know it – it freaks me out when I see films of myself talking. How I sound like nonchalant talking about being raped hundreds of times, or losing count, or being addicted to heroin,” said Barbara.
Barbara’s advice for young, at risk girls?
“I want to tell them that they’re a victim. They’re not – I didn’t know I was a victim, ok? I would tell them, that they are victims, that they’re being used only for money, and they need to get help, and to leave that person somehow – to not be afraid, to reach out to somebody – and get out of that life. And it is called the life. I’m sure you’ve heard that term. No, it’s a nightmare. I call it the nightmare in my head,” said Barbara.