The Modern War On American Slavery
Tracy Cormier is on the front lines of the battle against human trafficking. For many of the tortured victims, she is their only hope for freedom.
(Photo: Tim Tadder)
At 6 a.m. on a warm September morning, Tracy Cormier and her team arrived in a seedy neighborhood in East Los Angeles. In jeans and a jacket, her long brown hair tucked behind her ears, Cormier, 34, looked too young to be a case-hardened federal agent. But during her five years with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), she had risen through the ranks, busting drug networks and money-laundering rings. She developed a taste for the adrenaline of predawn raids and the long, quiet nights of surveillance, clocking 60 to 70 hours a week.
Now she’d been promoted again, her new assignment to hunt down human traffickers and bring them to justice. It was cases like these, in which she could rescue innocent victims and arrest their tormentors, that kept her motivated. “At the end of the day, if you’re able to give someone freedom, it’s very satisfying work,” Cormier says.
Driving past darkened stores, with gang graffiti emblazoned on sidewalks and walls, Cormier and her agents pulled up in front of a small house with tall wire fencing. Gun drawn, she led the way down the long driveway and pounded on the door. A search of the house turned up their fugitive, Maribel Rodriguez Vasquez, 28, hiding in a back bedroom. Vasquez had eluded capture for many months, ever since her aunt Gladys and seven others from her extended family were arrested for luring Guatemalan women and girls to Los Angeles and forcing them into sexual slavery. With all nine suspects in custody and 15 victims in safe houses, this would eventually become the largest prosecution of human trafficking in Los Angeles history and one of the largest in the United States. But on this September morning, Cormier was worried: What if the victims were too scared to testify? Gladys Vasquez had threatened to burn them with acid if they so much as talked to the police. The Vasquez family had even convinced these naive young women and girls that “witches would cast spells on them if they cooperated with us,” Cormier says. And what if the judge showed little sympathy for undocumented immigrants who had been so hideously victimized? What if the entire two-year investigation collapsed in court?
“There’s always that concern,” says Cormier. “Traffickers brainwash their victims into believing that law enforcement will harm them, and some back out.” For Cormier, who began working on the case in early 2007, meeting the 15 young women and girls of the Vasquez case was a pivotal point in her career and in her understanding of the problem of human slavery. “When I started dealing directly with so many innocent victims,” Cormier says, “I saw up close how widespread this horrendous crime is.”
The trafficking of human beings for prostitution and forced labor is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, second only to the movement of drugs and weapons in size and scope. And it is lucrative – a $19 billion dollar industry with as many as 27 million victims. “There are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history,” says Kevin Bales, president and cofounder of Free the Slaves, a nonprofit human rights organization.
Most Americans believe that human trafficking happens everywhere except in their own country. But the State Department estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 men, women, and children are trafficked into the United States every year. They come from 47 nations in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Far East; most of them are women, teenagers, and children.
They live in New York City and Cheyenne, Wyoming, under appalling conditions, often trapped in an insidious practice known as debt bondage – forced to repay never-ending loans to their captors for travel, food, and shelter. Many are imprisoned behind double-bolted doors and barred windows. If they get noticed at all, it is only in glimpses as they are herded back and forth to work at massage parlors, nursing homes, meat-processing plants, farms, and other businesses. Considered property by their captors, the victims are kept in line with constant threats of violence and retribution. They are the slaves next door, hidden in plain sight.
As a former U.S. Customs agent, Cormier knew about narcotics smuggling, and, as a member of the Green Quest unit – the cornerstone of Customs enforcement after 9/11 – she excelled at tracking money that was headed overseas to support terrorism. But when she was chosen by the top brass at ICE to lead a new team specializing in human smuggling and trafficking, she was nervous. “I need to learn immigration issues,” she thought, “and in a hurry.” Her employer was playing catch-up too. The agency was formed in 2003 in the massive reorganization that merged the U.S. Customs Service with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was a clash of cultures, and Cormier’s new team of ten male agents grumbled at the news of her arrival. For starters, she came from Customs, not Immigration like most of them, and she was a single woman who stands five feet six inches in heels.
Cormier’s team soon learned the depth of her dedication. “My cell phone rings 24/7, and I answer it 24/7,” she says, adding that her job has scared away more than one boyfriend. During her 15 years in law enforcement, she has crashed into the bedroom of a suspected terrorist at four in the morning and led her agents into a smuggler’s compound where 30 people were held for weeks in a filthy, airless room. She has learned to decode the captives’ desperation in the sweat marks left on the walls of these rooms. And she has rescued a young man from El Salvador who was beaten, starved, and tortured because he could not make the last payment on his smuggling fee. But nothing had prepared her for the brutality that these young Guatemalan women had suffered.
Rosa, Yasmeen, Maria, Lydia, Kathy,* and ten others had arrived in Los Angeles over the previous two years, wide-eyed newcomers in a foreign city who were unable to speak English and who were told they had no rights as illegals. Most were under 20, and a few were just children – as young as 13 years old. They came from rural villages where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. The lucky ones had worked in a local banana factory – earning $3 a week. So when a kindly older woman named Gladys Vasquez spoke of a chance to get to America, where they’d find good jobs as nannies and waitresses, the women and girls didn’t hesitate.
“But once they got here,” says Cormier, “they realized there was no way out.”
Their journey to Los Angeles was a 2,200-mile, two-week ordeal of hunger, heat, and near suffocation. The women and girls were forced to hide for hours at a time, locked in car trunks to avoid detection at border crossings. Gladys met the new arrivals in a parking lot near downtown Los Angeles and ferried them to several shabby apartments, where the doors were locked behind them and the windows were barred. Then she dropped the bombshell. There were no waitress jobs or families needing nannies. They would immediately begin work as prostitutes to repay their smuggling fees, which Vasquez had doubled – to $10,000 each. Go to the police or try to escape, Vasquez told them, and you will be deported. Back in Guatemala, she would track them down and kill them and their families. “We were all just so afraid,” Rosa told me. “We felt we had to do what they told us.”
Then they disappeared into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles, hidden away in four ordinary-looking stucco buildings. Each woman was forced to have sex with up to 20 men a day, men who paid as much as $100. A half-mile away, in a bungalow patrolled by guards and secured by wrought-iron gates, the minors were sold to men during the day and locked in their bedrooms at night – except on the nights that they were loaned to gangs in exchange for protection. “They were brutalized,” says Cormier, “beaten, gang-raped, returned the next day bruised and sobbing.”
“We worked every day, even if we were sick,” says Lydia, who protested when Gladys Vasquez ordered her to have unprotected sex with certain johns. “No one can imagine how terrible this was.” To keep her sanity, Yasmeen says that during sex, “I thought about my brothers and sisters and told myself that by doing this, they wouldn’t get murdered.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
(Photo: Tim Tadder)
After months in Los Angeles, the victims’ despair deepened as their debts to the traffickers escalated. Every expense went on their tab – food, rent, clothes, taxi rides, even condoms. Then, out of the bleakness emerged a Good Samaritan. Cabdriver Joaquin Huerta, who shuttled the girls to and from their apartments, had seen enough. “I went to various police stations and talked to detectives,” Huerta testified. “Nobody was really interested or paying attention to me.” So the cabbie took a different route, repeatedly phoning a reporter at the Spanish TV station Univision, who heard his story and set the bust in motion with a call to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, which then contacted the Los Angeles Police Department’s 24-hour Task Force on Human Trafficking Hotline. The task force shared the tip with ICE.
At six in the morning on December 20, 2006, a small army of 75 officers from ICE, the FBI, and the LAPD, armed with guns and search warrants, swooped down on the five locations identified by Huerta. “I heard about the case from one of our agents who was on the team that morning,” says Cormier. “My first thought was, How could these people be so cruel? To their own people? And how could women do this to other women? Two months later, I got the call to take over the case.”
Even with the victims’ accounts of their ordeal and a wiretapped phone conversation of Gladys ranting at Lydia to bring in more money, Cormier’s team needed further evidence to make the trafficking charges stick – specifically the victims’ birth certificates and their families’ testimony that promises of good jobs were made. So in February 2008, Cormier and two other federal agents landed at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. After a meeting with the Guatemalan minister of the exterior, they were assigned a security team for their journey to the countryside.
It took six hours to reach the isolated villages of the women and girls. Many of the roads were washed out or blocked by trees. The agents’ first stop was Yasmeen’s home and then Rosa’s, dwellings that Cormier calls huts, “and that’s being kind,” she says. These single-room shelters with corrugated metal walls and roofs had no electricity or running water. Beds were a few blankets on a dirt floor.
Cormier had brought gifts – toys and chocolates – for the victims’ younger siblings. When the team arrived at Lydia’s house, her parents insisted the Americans stay for dinner. They had slaughtered their lone pig for this special occasion. “My heart was breaking,” says Cormier of their generosity. “This is what they had to feed their family on for months.” The agents took a few bites, then politely said their goodbyes, leaving behind enough cash for the family to buy another pig.
The women had begged Cormier not to tell their parents what had happened to them in America, and she kept their secrets. “I had a soft spot for the girls,” says Cormier, who suffered anxiety like theirs when she moved from small-town Maine to the big city of Los Angeles. “It was a huge change coming from a place where everyone knew one another to knowing absolutely no one,” she says. “Driving the 405 Freeway for the first time, I was literally freaking out. I thought I was going to die.”
After ten days in Guatemala, Cormier located most of the women’s and girls’ birth certificates, and the agents were able to confirm that, contrary to statements made by the traffickers’ defense team, the families had not wanted their daughters to go to the United States, even with the promise of jobs and money. There were repeated tearful scenes in which the parents told the agents how much they missed their daughters and recalled the sadness they heard in their children’s voices when they occasionally called home. Cormier took their hands and told them she understood.
The Vasquez case dragged on for nearly three years, during which time Cormier worked with prosecutors to help prepare the young victims for trial. Most of them were adapting well in the care of social workers. A few had found work in fast-food restaurants and garment factories. Lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, like Daliah Setareh, began filing for their T visas, which allowed the victims to stay in America for four years – with likely full visa status – as long as they continued to cooperate in the case.
But the years of delay, not unusual for such a complex prosecution, were excruciating for some of the women, who suffered panic attacks and bouts of depression as they wrestled with the prospect of confronting their tormentors in court.
Finally, in January 2009, the Guatemalan gang went on trial in federal court, charged with various counts, including conspiracy; sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion; and importation of aliens for purposes of prostitution. For five weeks, the victims were sequestered in a hotel and kept under 24-hour protection. On the witness stand, they recounted the ghastly details of their ordeal – the gang rapes, weekly beatings, and death threats – and stood their ground, providing the testimony that Cormier had hoped for. The verdict: guilty, guilty, guilty …
At the sentencing hearing, on a sweltering day in August 2009, Cormier sat in the back of the federal courtroom and prayed for justice. These criminals deserved long prison sentences, she believed, but she worried that U.S. District Judge Margaret M. Morrow wouldn’t agree. Until recently, human trafficking sentences tended to be light – as little as two months.
As Judge Morrow spoke, Cormier’s eyes welled up with tears. The judge gave the five key traffickers 30 to 35 years in prison. Ringleader Gladys Vasquez got 40 years.
Today, Rosa, Lydia, and Kathy have adjusted to their new lives. “These were amazingly strong young women,” says Cormier, “and they were determined to get past their horrific experience.” The women work in fast-food restaurants, a clothing factory, a dress shop. A few are enrolled in English classes. Rosa lives with the father of her new baby, while Yasmeen juggles two boyfriends. All 15 victims, having cooperated with the investigation, are on their way to becoming U.S. citizens.
And on a sunny spring day last year, a group of the Guatemalan survivors gathered in a Los Angeles park for a special graduation ceremony. In pretty terra-cotta pots, the women planted flowers and then added soil, a simple act to signify their remarkable passage from slavery to freedom.
Across town, at ICE headquarters, Tracy Cormier was wrapping up another investigation. She laid out stuffed animals and coloring books for a frightened four-year-old girl she’d freed from a smuggler’s drop house an hour before. The little girl had been drugged at the U.S.-Mexican border and kidnapped by the smuggler, who’d held her for $11,500 in ransom and let his son sexually assault her. Tears streaming down her face, the little girl told Cormier about her recurring nightmares.
In the next few weeks, Cormier’s team tracked down the smuggler, who pleaded guilty and received an 18-month sentence. At Cormier’s insistence, the man was also ordered to pay for the girl’s psychotherapy. “I wanted to see him punished for what he did,” she says, “but ensuring her happiness was my main priority.”
Then, as she’d done many times before, Cormier finished the job, cutting through layers of red tape and bureaucracy to help expedite visas for the girl and her family so they could begin a better life in the United States.