By Astrid Goh on January 22, 2014—
When Marelyn Garcia met the man who would become her boyfriend, little did she know he would become the trigger to her heroin addiction, and eventually her pimp, after he coerced her into working the streets to fund their addiction.
It was in a Chicago club one night in 1996 where Garcia was first introduced to him.
“It was a dating relationship to begin with, until we became drug addicts,” Garcia said. “Once he established that we were a couple, I did it out of so-called love.”
Human trafficking incidents in the U.S. have been increasingly steadily, with a cumulative total of 2,515 known incidents by mid-2010. A 2003 New York Times article signaled Chicago was fast becoming the “national hub of human trafficking.”
Amy Alvarado, a human trafficking specialist at the Cook County State Attorney’s Office, said this is because Chicago is a large “convention city” with a “huge international airport.”
Recent hotline statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) show Illinois had the fifth highest call volume, falling behind only New York, Florida, Texas and California.
Sex trafficking victims are typically solicited in Chicago suburbs in places such as massage parlors and gentlemen’s clubs because locations downtown are heavily monitored by the police. Gangs, especially those on the West Side, also use human trafficking.
- —Graph shows percentage of respondents, all ex-pimps, who identified with the distinct household characteristics. Source: Northeastern University.
- The situation has worsened over the past five years, particularly because of the Internet—“Traffickers or predators can [now] sit anonymously behind computers,” said Joanne Bieschke, Deputy Director of the Cook County Youth Services Department. Online traffickers typically form cyber relationships with young teenagers, steadily gaining their trust and making them feel like nobody but the [trafficker] can empathize with their struggles.
Those especially vulnerable to these deceptions are individuals experiencing conflict in school or at home, who are seeking escape from their current situations.
Popular websites frequented by johns, men who pay for prostitution services, include classifieds sites like craigslist and backpage. Johns also use online forums to share their ‘adventures.’ “They have sex addiction,” said Mary Bonnett, director of a play on sex trafficking in Chicago. “They have a distorted view of sexual relationships.”
An unimaginable detour
While in the John F. Kennedy International Airport for a supposed transit to Chicago, never in her wildest dreams did migrant worker Shandra Woworuntu anticipate being kidnapped to a brothel by traffickers.
Amidst the 1998 political turbulence in Indonesia, Woworuntu lost her job as a banker. Because her husband had passed away, Woworuntu accepted a Chicago hotel job advertised in a newspaper — it turned out to be fabricated.
Although she had spent $3,000 to secure the job, Woworuntu never made it to Chicago, and the cost paled grimly in comparison to the price she would have to pay once she was trapped in New York City, forced to sell her body against her will.
Although Chicago is the apparent “national hub” of human trafficking, with stop-offs en route, some people like Woworuntu are intercepted on their way to the city.
“I flew to [New York City],” she said. Someone picked me up, gave me to someone else, [and] said there was no place to stay before we went to Chicago, where I was supposed to work in a hotel.”
Woworuntu was not alone in having been duped by a false job offer — she was kidnapped in a group of other unknowing foreign women who were hopeful for new lives in the U.S.
“We were [being] sold to another trafficker… [it] was an organized crime with traffickers of about five nationalities: Malaysian, Indonesian, Taiwanese… Chinese, [and] American.”
Prior to writing the script for Shadow Town, Bonnett conducted 18 months’ worth of interviews with players in the Chicago sex trade, including victims and pimps.
“I realized what a powerful tool theater was … I saw that it really created change,” she said.
The play, which portrayed sex trafficking through the eyes of a pimp, “allowed for [the audience] to see how he does what he does, and why those girls are so drawn to him.”
Bonnett said she wanted people to understand sex trafficking did not only affect “the poor black kid on the West Side,” but rather that the impact was universal.
Cmdr. Michael Anton of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office agreed, saying, “It’s going on everywhere … [people] don’t realize how close it is to home. It’s happening right here.”
Bonnett also wished for the audience to understand the depth of suffering experienced by the trafficking victims.
Garcia had watched the play and found it “on point.”
“Now I was getting paid for it, so why not?”
Garcia was sexually abused at the age of seven, and it continued for seven more years. Her childhood experiences made [sex trafficking] “so much easier.”
“I had already lost my virginity and had been exposed to things,” she said.“Now I was getting paid for it, so why not?”
Many pimps as well were once victims. According to a 2010 study on ex-pimps by Jody Raphael, a senior research fellow at DePaul University, and Brenda Myers-Powell, co-founder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, the majority of respondents had experienced physical abuse and domestic violence growing up.
While interviewing pimps, Bonnett said she “always had to remember they were human beings,” that she was obtaining facts and to “not judge them on anything they did.””
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