Putting a Stop to Modern-Day Slavery
The Vasquez-Valenzuela family held two young girls inside this apartment when they weren’t
Putting a Stop to Modern-Day Slavery
The girls—some as young as age 12—were smuggled into the U.S. from their village homes in Guatemala. Their impoverished parents were told that their daughters would be working in restaurants and jewelry stores in California and would earn good wages that could be sent back to their families.
Instead, upon arriving in Los Angeles, the girls were taken to have their eyebrows tattooed and their hair colored and then forced to work the streets as prostitutes. It was one of the biggest human trafficking cases we’ve ever investigated, and when it was all over last year, nine defendants known as the Vasquez-Valenzuela family went to jail—with the ringleader receiving a 40-year sentence.
Human trafficking—nothing less than modern-day slavery—often involves the most vulnerable populations and takes the form of forced prostitution, forced labor, and domestic servitude. The FBI is the lead agency for investigating violations of federal civil rights laws, and human trafficking is one of our top civil rights violation priorities. We established our Human Trafficking Initiative in 2005, and we take this international problem very seriously from both a criminal and a human perspective.
In the Vasquez-Valenzuela case, the traffickers duped the unsuspecting families, and when the girls—none spoke English, and they had so little education they didn’t know their birthdates or how old they were—arrived in Los Angeles, they were told they had to pay off debts of as much as $20,000 for being smuggled into the country. If they objected to paying off the debt through prostitution, many were told their families in Guatemala would be murdered.
A Guatemala dwelling where one of the girls lived with her family before being smuggled to the U.S.
There was less subtle coercion as well. “These girls and women were physically beaten and were held in apartments so they couldn’t escape,” said Special Agent Tricia Whitehill in our Los Angeles Field Office. “Members of the Vasquez-Valenzuela family would sleep by the doors with knives,” Whitehill added. “So not only were they physically held captive, but they were also under constant threat.”
Part of our success in working human trafficking investigations like the Vasquez-Valenzuela case comes from the cooperative efforts of our law enforcement partners domestically and internationally. The Los Angeles Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking—whose members include the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Los Angeles Police Department—was instrumental in bringing the Vasquez-Valenzuela family to justice. In all, the Bureau participates in approximately 30 task forces pertaining to human trafficking.
|This apartment building was one of several used for prostitution by the Vasquez-Valenzuela family.|
In fiscal year 2009, we opened 167 human trafficking investigations and made 202 arrests. During that same period, 121 informations/indictments were filed and 93 convictions were obtained. We also rescued 13 minor victims of trafficking and dismantled seven trafficking organizations.
Another important component of our human trafficking program is our work with victims to enlist their help in prosecuting their captors and to make sure they get the support they need after being rescued from abusive situations.
In the Vasquez-Valenzuela case, Agent Whitehill said, “With the help of ICE, prior to making any arrests we actually helped two of the girls escape, which obviously aided the victims but also helped us build our case. It’s satisfying to know we were able to help protect people who were unable to protect themselves.”