Sunday, April 10, 2011

Human trafficking: A parent's nightmare (Gaston Gazette)

Human trafficking: A parent's nightmare
April 10, 2011 12:50 PM
Diane Turbyfill

Karla Lopez never required her teenage daughter to work. She only wanted her to be a good student and focus on her future.

Now Lopez fears her 16 year old might be working to stay alive, a victim of human trafficking.

Lopez’s daughter, Stephany Pineda, dashed out the door Dec. 14, late for school. She made it to the bus stop but never arrived at Lincolnton High School. A family friend called Lopez and told her Pineda was spotted riding off in a car with two men.

That was nearly four months ago.

Since her daughter’s disappearance, Lopez has learned a lot about human trafficking. She’s afraid Stephany might be a victim of the crime and that she may never see her again.

A community targeted

The number of Latino victims of human trafficking continues to climb, according to Nancy Newman, director of AVID (Assault & Victimization Intervention & Deterrence).

Predators working in the human trafficking trade often prey on the immigrant community because they see them as easy targets.

Language barriers, cultural differences and fear often keep people in the Hispanic community from reporting incidents to police, or at least delay the process, said Newman.

AVID works with interpreters and local police to make victims feel more at ease with the process, she said.

“Our local police have really worked hard to bridge the gap for them,” she said.

But for people used to a different type of police presence, trust doesn’t come easy.

Many of these girls and women are snatched right off the street, as Lopez suspects her daughter was. Others enter the U.S. looking for a better life, often thinking they’re going through the proper channels, only to end up enslaved.

Many of the immigrants in North Carolina — particularly women and young girls — are lured by traffickers with the promise of a better life. Once they arrive, their identification and travel documents are taken away. They are then forced to work as prostitutes or made to do forced labor with the threat that they, or their families, will be harmed if they try to escape, according to the Charlotte Human Trafficking Task Force.

Money-making industry

Human trafficking often brings to mind sexual slavery. But the billion-dollar industry also includes manual labor and domestic servitude.

North Carolina’s location makes it an increasingly attractive regional hub for human trafficking. It’s an area where multiple interstates intersect with a short drive to Atlanta, said Newman.

The trade of human trafficking often includes the buying and selling of people for as little as $130, according to the trafficking task force. Captives are moved frequently so that they remain unnoticed and confused about where they are.

Women are often locked in rooms with few clothes. They fear being beaten if they try to escape.

According to the task force, brothel operators sometimes keep half of the fees they charge customers and give the women the other half, which then goes to pay off debts owed for helping them get into the country.

A pimp or brothel owner stands to make a significant amount of money off of just one captive.

A $30 “trick” can add up to $75,000 to $250,000 for a pimp, according to an article in the Biblical Recorder.

Endangered and missing

Lopez got visits from some of her daughter’s friends, and enjoyed a complimentary phone call from one of her teachers who said the teen has potential to go far in life.

Lopez describes Pineda, the oldest of her three children, as a good student, a caring sister to her younger brothers and a helpful daughter.

She wants to be a therapist. Lopez just wants her to be safe.

Pineda was listed as a runaway for three months.

Norma Aguilar-Freyre, an advocate with AVID, has been by Lopez’s side, interpreting for her and talking to police and Pineda’s friends in hopes of finding the teen.

Their persistence got Pineda’s status changed from “runaway” to “missing endangered” just last week.

Detective Mark Sain with the Lincolnton Police Department didn’t quickly jump on the theory that Pineda was sold into slavery, but he is following leads in hopes of reuniting the teen with her family.

When Lopez that a local man might know where her daughter was, she got his address and went to his apartment.

Lopez asked Leonardo Guerrero about her daughter.

“Where is Stephany? Where is Stephany?” she asked him repeatedly.

Guerrero attempted to shut the door, but Lopez blocked it with her foot. She said the man then put his hands around her neck and pushed her against the wall.

The frantic woman left the Lincolnton apartment complex and reported the incident to police. When she returned to his residence , the door was ajar and he was gone.

Police have issued two warrants for Guerrero, one for assault and another for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Sain said he hopes the warrants will lead to an arrest, but Guerrero’s whereabouts are unknown.

Stalled investigation

An anonymous call gave hope to the quest to find Pineda. A man said he saw her at a store in Lincolnton.

Surveillance photos showed a woman who looked a little like the teen, but it wasn’t her. Not much more has been revealed on where Pineda might be, said Sain.

“We haven’t had any good leads as to whether she’s still in Lincolnton or not. We don’t know,” he said. “All we know is she’s missing.”

Lopez said there’s been no activity on her daughter’s Facebook page. And she hasn’t called any friends or family.

Lopez is convinced that something bad has happened to her daughter. Nothing else would keep her from letting her family know she’s all right, she said.

Lopez monitors her daughter’s cell phone. Pineda left it behind the day she rushed out the door to the bus stop.

In January, Lopez got a call on Pineda’s phone. The person spoke English, so she couldn’t understand what was said. Detectives traced the call. It was from a prepaid phone

Holding onto hope

Tears fall from Lopez’s eyes. She drops her head and expresses her sorrow through sobs and Spanish words.

She wants to hold onto hope that her daughter is alive, but she fears that something terrible has happened.

Whether the 16 year old has endured a horrific experience or merely lost her way, her mother believes they will be reunited one day.

“I have faith in God that, regardless, I will see her again. I just want her to still be alive,” said Lopez.

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