She was just 14 years old, barely a teenager, who had run away from home and was in desperate need of support, food and a place to sleep.
She was approached by a man who offered to take her in, give her a hot meal, a roof over her head and perhaps, a shoulder to cry on. She didn't know that this man's offer would come with such a price.
At her most vulnerable, this young girl was lured into the vile world of sexual slavery, enduring unconscionable horrors, night after night, for weeks and then months as she was prostituted for profit by the MS-13 gang. She was plied with drugs and alcohol, sedating her through the repeated and often brutal sexual encounters she suffered at the hands of her "clients" and the men who trafficked her throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Today, January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. While most people think sex trafficking is limited to third-world brothels and remote places you ponder just long enough to change the news channel, the reality belies that myth. According to the International Justice Mission, each year, nearly 2 million children worldwide are exploited in the global commercial sex trade; 27 million men, women and children are held as slaves; 1 in 5 women is a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. We cannot pretend that this is a problem that only occurs across our oceans. With the globalization of the internet and the international reach of 21st century criminal networks, the commercial sex trade has spread from the back alleys of far-off countries to our neighborhood cul de sacs. Criminals know no borders, and that is especially true with regards to sex trafficking. It is happening here in the United States, and is an emerging threat right here in our communities.
Just in the last two years, my office, which covers the area of Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Tidewater region, has prosecuted 48 defendants; helped 34 juvenile victims seek justice; and secured substantial sentences, to include 40-, 50-year and life terms in prison. These cases involve young girls approached by traffickers at the Metro, at bus stops or even at school, luring them with empty and false promises. These predators have adapted for the modern technological era- using Facebook and other social media outlets to prey on young victims, from all walks of life. Victims have ranged from runaway teens to girls on the high school honor roll, but they all have one thing in common: they need our help.
The mantras to 'be aware' and 'be vigilant' are perhaps overused in law enforcement parlance, but here, it can truly make a difference. Traffickers often pull up brazenly to convenience stores or shopping mall parking lots, shouting that they have "fresh girls" available. These girls often live in groups together in their trafficker's apartment or house, living in suburbia along-side unaware neighbors. They post the girls' pictures, advertising them on websites, exploiting their innocence in perpetuity on the internet.
We, in the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Department of Justice are working hard to put these predators behind bars, but we also need help from the eyes and ears of the community. If only a shopper at the mall would call in a license plate number. If only a neighbor who saw something amiss would call the police, instead of turning away. If only a motel owner would report the line of men outside a motel room to the authorities.
Thankfully, the 14 year old victim I speak of did not become an "if only." Her trafficker was caught, brought to justice and is currently where he belongs -- in federal prison. With your help, we can prevent more young girls from becoming "if onlys" and stop the scourge of the commercial sex trade on our communities.