U.S. News

05.31.14

Somaly Mam, This Is What a Real Trafficking Victim Says

She was starved in New York with her baby and forced to have sex with as many as three dozen men a day. Why a Mexican teen is still terrified, even as her captors go to prison for life.

The windowless room where she and her infant son were held had no lights other than a small TV by whose glow she could see huge rats that bit her and caused her to protectively clutch her starving child as the two went for days without food.

When she was sufficiently broken and terrorized, she was forced to have sex with as many as three-dozen men a day. She was beaten if she dared to protest.

And that is just part of the horrific reality that the woman known only as Victim 1 recounted in a statement at the sentencing of a monstrous sex trafficker in Manhattan Federal Court on Friday.

This is a reality to remember when you hear about Somaly Mam’s shameful posing as a victim as she sought celebrity while supposedly campaigning against sex trafficking.

The danger of the Cambodian charlatan’s trafficking in lies is that it might make people forget the millions of actual victims around the world.

One of them is the young single mom who submitted a victim’s impact statement  at the sentencing of Bonifacio Flores-Mendez, who came to New York from is Tenancingo, the small Mexican town that prosecutors have called ”the sex-trafficking capital of the world.”

This genuine victim didn’t wish to be identified at all, much less to become famous. She hoped only for justice.

Victim 1’s statement begins, “My horrible nightmare began as a teenager when I met Bonifacio’s brother, Isaias Flores-Mendez. He owned a bar in Puebla and when I would pass by it to and from my work as a nanny, he would come out to talk to me. We became friends and I began to trust him. Eventually, we started dating.”

She was a teenage single mother in a place bereft of options and Isaias spoke to her about a land of promise.

“The United States—where I could have a better life for my infant son and myself,” she says. “He told me he would help me to get a good job and would arrange everything for our trip to the U.S.—he would set it all up with his brother, Bonifacio, who was in New York.”

A few days later, Isaias brought her seemingly wonderful news.

“I was forced to take different types of birth-control pills, often at the same time so that I wouldn’t get a period. If I did menstruate, I was forced to put paper towels inside myself so that I could still be sold to buyers.”

“Isaias told me that he and Bonifacio reached an agreement—Bonifacio would loan me the money for the trip and be waiting for me when I arrived. I was just 17 years old when my baby and I entered the U.S.”

She landed at La Guardia Airport in New York. Bonifacio met her and drove her to a house in Queens, where she got her first inkling that the reality would not meet her expectations.

“There, me and my baby slept on the floor under a table with nothing more than a sheet.”

She was told she would have to pay $200 a month for rent and $50 as week for food on top of the cost of her flight from Mexico.

“But I had no money. I told Bonifacio that I wanted to work and he laughed and told me I could go dance in nothing but my underwear. When I said I didn’t want to do that, he laughed, so I thought it was a joke, but I later learned that it wasn’t.”

She set out to earn what little she could by selling flowers on the street. But Bonifacio had other plans and took her to a house in Yonkers.

“There, he locked me in a room with no lights and no windows. I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know where I was or what was in the room except for a couch and a television that lit only a small area. I couldn’t see my way to the bathroom and there wasn’t enough light to change my baby’s diaper. I was terrified.”

She then heard a skittering sound.

“The room was infested with rats, huge rats—I could hear them around me. They bit me and I could see them when they ran in front of the TV. For two weeks I sat awake at night, afraid to sleep, clutching my baby in my arms so the rats wouldn’t bite him.”

Bonifacio’s brother-in-law arrived every morning and unlocked the door.

“I came to understand this was my signal to come out. On some days I was given money to buy milk for my baby and some food for myself at the bodega in the building. Most of the time there wasn’t enough money to feed myself.”

She was brought up to the third floor during the day and back down to the room at night.

“Bonifacio only told me that I had to wait for Isaias, and that when he came I was going to ’work very hard.’”

She had nowhere to go and no contact with her family and she was forbidden to talk to other people.

“I was completely isolated.”

Bonifacio then suddenly stopped giving her money to eat. She and her son had gone three days without a morsel of food or a drop of milk when she emerged from the room and gazed out a window to see a familiar figure. Bonifacio was standing by a van with the man who had wooed her and promised her a wonderful new life in America.

“It was the first time I had seen Isaias since Mexico. I was starving, I had no money, and my baby hadn’t eaten in days. Isaias called me over to him. I learned what “work” I would be forced to do. Bonifacio and Isaias made me buy high heels and skimpy clothes, and if I refused to do what they said, Isaias beat me.”

Bonifacio presented her with a cellphone and Isaias gave her a notebook containing telephone numbers.

“When I asked them what the numbers were for, they told me I had to call and ask if anyone ’needed a girl for the week or for the weekend.’ I thought about what Bonifacio told me about dancing naked, so I lied and told them that no one answered or that the phones were off.”

Isaias replied that he had gone ahead and found customers for her.

“Bonifacio added that I had to work because I owed him a lot of money.”

Bonifacio would drive her and several other of “his women” to men who had called to ask for sex and to various brothels in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Philadelphia.

“I was forced to have sex with 15 to 35 men a day, seven days a week… Isaias never let me keep a cent. No matter how much money he took from me, he said it wasn’t enough and would beat me, telling me I still owed Bonifacio money.”

The one time she tried to hide a portion of the money, she was caught and Isaias beat her.

“He told me I had to smile more and lift my skirt up higher… I was forced to take different types of birth-control pills, often at the same time so that I wouldn’t get  a period. It was a very dangerous method that did not always work, and if I did menstruate, I was forced to put paper towels inside myself so that I could still be sold to buyers.”

She reached a limit on a wintry night.

“I decided that I could not take the abuse from the men who raped me for money and told Isaias that I was not going to be sent out for prostitution anymore. It was nighttime; Isaias grabbed me and my baby and shoved us out of the apartment into the cold winter air. I did not have a jacket or warm clothes for myself or for my baby, and I thought that we would freeze. Finally, afraid that my baby would die, I broke down and went back to be sold to men as Isaias had ordered.”

She was riding in the van when Isaias falsely decided that she was pregnant.

“He grabbed me by the neck, slammed me against the side of the van that Bonifacio was driving, and beat me repeatedly.”

She was forced to take some pills that Bonifacio and his girlfriend purchased.

“The pills caused me horrible pain and made me bleed.”

She finally managed to escape with her child, but the terror continued.

“One day, Bonifacio and Isaias were driving in Queens when they saw me crossing the street and tried to run me over. They pointed the vehicle in my direction and accelerated toward me until I jumped out of the way. I was terrified. I looked back and they were laughing.”

The brothers had her phone number. Isaias kept calling her.

“Incessantly, threatening to kill me, and repeating that he would always know where to find me. He would say to me, ‘Even if you hide, I will find you and kill you. No matter what rock you hide under, I will find you.’”

She remained in a waking nightmare.

“I lived in constant fear that I would be killed. I am haunted to this day. Rather than appear in person, I chose to write this letter, because I am still afraid. I am scared for me, my family, and for my family in Mexico.”

She ended her victim’s impact statement with an entreaty to federal Judge Katherine Forrest.

’Your Honor, please make sure that Bonifacio Flores-Mendez can never hurt me, my family, or anyone else ever again.’

She had made the same plea in a similar victim’s impact statement at the sentencing on Isaias Flores-Mendez on May 14. The judge issued the same sentence on Friday that she had back then.

Both brothers are now serving life terms.

“I want to forget all of this and just have peace in my life,” says Victim 1, who seeks anonymity rather than celebrity and offers truth, not lies.