JACKSON HEIGHTS, Queens – Up to 30 million people are estimated to be victims of human trafficking – 80 percent of which are sexually exploited.
Thousands of women are brought to New York from Mexico to make millions of dollars for their pimps. They are living in fear that their family back home will be murdered.
For six years Carmen lived an unthinkable life. She was forced into prostitution in Queens under threats that her family would be killed. Carmen had to have sex up to 70 times a day.
Her pimp kidnapped, raped and illegally transported her from Mexico to the U.S. when she was just 14.
Shortly after she was living the life of those swept up in human trafficking. She was controlled by a man who beat her, raped her and starved her if she didn’t work. She is just one of thousands of women estimated to be living like this, hidden victims in a bustling neighborhood.
Their pimps hand out “chica cards” with images of scantily clad women or fruits, promising 24-hour delivery via livery cab to anyone who calls.
People whisper offers of “massages” in different languages; the invitation will take them to a brothel hidden amongst neat row houses or in an apartment on busy Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.
For the price of a beer, a man can have a sexily dressed woman sit and drink with him; dance to the pumping Latin music or get so physical with her it would bring criminal charges.
“They see a woman, a girl, like a bank,” says Carmen, who asked to not have her last name used.
Carmen was a sex slave for five years while her captor made more than $500,000 in cash off of her and other women he allegedly kidnapped and brought to New York. Carmen said she never saw any of that money.
She believed the only way out was suicide.
“What if I kill myself? Then he will not do anything to my family," Carmen said. "He will be done with me.”
Attorney Lori Cohen has worked with these victims of human trafficking and other women who suffer social and sexual violence with Sanctuary for Families. She says it’s a brutal business.
“Just as if you were going to order a pizza, you order a woman,” Cohen said. The going rate is $35 for 15 minutes. It's $50 if you negotiate in English, according to Cohen.
PIX11 found one Jackson Heights bar advertising “sexy pretty women” for “company” for the price of just a beer.
Our producer buys a beer and sits down. Within minutes a scantily clad woman comes over; a waitress is right behind her asking if the gentleman would like to buy the lady a beer.
She chats amiably while other women sit nearby, along a wall, waiting for their turn.
“It not only gives the man the right to drink with her but the man are encouraged to fondle them, pull them into their laps and be very sexually aggressive with them" Cohen said. "The more beers they buy the more advances they can make on them.”
Cohen said some of the victims answered ads for waitresses or kitchen help, but are told the job has changed. If they complain, the women say they are beaten, and their families’ safety threatened. The night doesn't end with an intoxicated customer.
“In many cases it ends up in outright prostitution where the woman is being sold for sex at the end of the night.” Other women have said bar owners give them cocaine to keep them “awake” while consuming so much alcohol during the night.
For years State Senator Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) has fought to end the human trafficking in this section of Queens.
“Kind of like what City Hall with Times Square with past administrations, has done. We need to do to that Roosevelt Avenue," Peralta said. "It has become our very own old Times Square.”
Peralta said he’s been beating down the doors of city administrations for 14 years, sending letter after letter to mayors, the NYPD and New York State Liquor Authority.
“They shut down a location and another one opens up. Just like a game of whack-a-mole, that’s what it is,” Peralta said.
Carmen eventually escaped, running out to a virtual stranger in the middle of the night after the woman noticed bruises on her body and promised she would help her. She eventually helped with the U.S. Attorney’s case to prosecute her oppressor and three others.
“We all want to see it end,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Taryn Merkl said.
Merkl said her office has prosecuted some 65 traffickers in recent years, including busting the ring from Tenancingo, Mexico four years ago responsible for kidnapping Carmen. Her attacker is now behind bars for 18 years.
These traffickers are making millions in cash and Merkl said it’s part of their prosecution.
“We see hundreds of thousands flowing through banking and link it in court,” Merkl said. But it’s so lucrative, the tide of Mexican traffickers isn’t stopping, even as they fight on.
“Every victim is an inspiration,” Merkl said.
For help to escape from abuse, violence or sexual harm, reach out to Sanctuary For Families or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888.