INVISIBLE

The Sex-Trafficking Victim Next Door

When Annika was 13, she was snatched off the streets of Atlanta and forced into prostitution, one more victim in America’s ‘capital of sex trafficking.’

01.22.16 5:15 AM ET

ATLANTA — “I got snatched two days after I turnt 13,” she says. “I guess I got numb, ’cause I couldn’t feel nothing no more.”

Annika sucks on the butt of a Newport, lets the smoke fill her chest and then exhales a perfect stream from her nostrils. “You ain’t gotta say it,” she tells me. “I smoke like a man.”

She’s 17 now, the mother of an 8-month-old baby boy, and she has the demeanor of a woman twice her age. I watch her carefully—taking in the hard lines in her face, the pockmark scars running up her frail arms and the deep, serious brown eyes—wondering how much of the truth she’s finally willing to tell me.

The first time we met over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 2015, in the parking lot of an extended-stay motel just off I-85 in northeast Atlanta, I noticed how she leaned against the car and never left her back open. She was cautious about strangers, she told me. “I need to see what’s coming.”

It would take months to earn her trust. “Who you say you with?” she kept asking.

It’s just after the New Year now and Atlanta is celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. “I seen’t you on TV,” she says of the speech I delivered from Ebenezer Baptist Church. “You talk real good.

“My mama watch him for me when she get off work at night,” she says of the baby sleeping in the next room, as she extinguishes the cigarette. “I guess I shouldn’t be smoking.”

She says she’s cutting back. There are fewer cigarettes and less time out with friends. “I still smoke a little weed,” Annika confesses. I am immediately suspicious about what “a little” means, which she notices. “Just when my nerves get bad,” she assures me.

She tells me the baby sleeps “real good” and that her mother keeps asking when she is going to get her GED. “I ain’t thinking about no school, right now,” she says. She assures me that she wants to go back to school and get a good job so that she can take care of her son.

“I know how to get money,” Annika says, “but that ain’t the right kind of money.”

Until last year, Annika was a prostitute traveling with a “white girl” she still calls her “sister” and a pimp named “Prince.”

“It happened fast,” she explains. Annika cut class and left school early that day, she admits. “I was talking to this white girl up at the MARTA station and she tells me her dude coming to pick her up and that they going to Lenox.”

When the little silver BMW showed up, the “white girl” went to talk to the driver, then offered Annika a ride home. “He was real chill,” she said.

In the back seat, Amy the “white girl” poured some Red Bull and vodka into two Styrofoam cups. Annika took a sip and immediately felt dizzy. “I’ont remember nothing after that. I blacked out.”

She never made it home.

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Hours later, Annika woke up naked in a motel room somewhere in Tennessee. “Prince” was hovered over her face, stroking her hair. She felt a throbbing between her legs. Her back was hurting.

“You’re mine now,” he told her.

Sex trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, second only to the drug trade, and according to the FBI, Atlanta remains one of the largest sex trafficking hubs in the country. Young boys and girls are bought and sold there in the name of big profit, with some pimps reportedly raking in $33,000 a week.

Atlanta’s Jackson-Hartsfield International Airport is the busiest in the world. Experts say the flight routes make it a hot spot for the sexual exploitation of children. “Clients” fly in and sometimes never leave the airport. They pay a waiting pimp, sexually assault a child in a public bathroom stall or another secluded area, and then board an outbound flight. Airport officials and at least one airline, Delta, have begun training employees to spot potential victims.

“If you see… a number of young females walking behind one older male who looks like he’s in charge and not letting anyone speak, or if you try and approach the young lady or just say hello, but they won’t answer to you or they’ll look at the male first before speaking to you, those are some clear signs that you might want to pay attention to, and just alert any nearby officer that something just doesn’t look right,” Atlanta police Sgt. Ernest Britton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Arrests at the airport are routine. The city launched an advertising campaign at the airport and transit stations across the city to raise awareness. Required by a new Georgia law, the signs include a toll-free number for the National Trafficking Resource Center. In addition to a city task force, the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has created a statewide human trafficking commission.

The average age of recruitment into the sex trade is between 11 and 14 years old. Life expectancy in the United States is around 78 years. However—due largely to illicit drug use, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, and homicide—children forced into prostitution can expect to live a mere seven years on the street after they first become victims.

Annika is lucky to be alive.

In Georgia alone, an estimated 200 to 300 girls are trafficked each month. Atlanta’s underground economy is estimated to be at least $290 million annually and a federally funded study (PDF) has called the city the “Sex Trafficking Capital of the U.S.” The Urban Institute found that “pimps travel in circuits and utilize social networks to facilitate the transportation of employees to different locations for work.” Various types of coercion are used including “feigning romantic interest, emphasizing mutual dependency between pimp and employee, discouraging women from ‘having sex for free,’ and promising material comforts.”

The 339-page study included crime statistics, as well as interviews of victims, convicted pimps, and law enforcement officials over a five-year period beginning in 2003.

Sometimes they are runaways looking for the love and stability they cannot find at home and sometimes “friends” trick them into the trade with the promise of quick and easy money. Others are “trunked” or snatched from the street and dumped into the back of a car. The average age of recruitment is 14, with most never seeing their 18th birthday. The truth is, these children are slaves and often they are hidden in plain sight.

While it is not known how many children make a successful escape, “squaring up” or challenging their pimp can have deadly consequences. Family reunification can be tough and there aren’t enough community-based resources for long-term therapy and other necessary support.

Annika was “sold” in a process called “choosing up” a year after her capture. After her second pimp, a man she calls “Romeo,” caught a case on a run in Florida, he was held on multiple charges in a north Florida county jail without bond. Annika, pregnant with her son, was turned over to child protective services. Romeo was a “gorilla,” Annika says, using the parlance for a pimp who uses violence to control his stable. In the end, she was too scared to testify.

“I got out-of-pocket with him one time,” she says, raising the back of her shirt to reveal two long thin keloid scars. “He beat on me with a belt until the sweat dripped off his chest.”

She’s been back home for almost a year, she tells me. Tired of the streets, tired of “tricking,” tired of the beatings. Annika says she was forced to service eight to 10 “clients” a day and sometimes more. She saw almost none of the money. Prince, she says, advertised on the Internet and took everything. He decided when and what she ate and what clothes she wore. He took them to get manicures and sometimes to a beauty salon to get their hair done, Annika said, so the girls would look decent for the Johns.

Prince never left them alone. Not in a beauty salon, not in a grocery store.

The baby is awake now and he’s hungry. I watch Annika toss him onto her hip and move methodically through the small kitchen, as she makes a fresh bottle of milk with a single hand.

“I can hold him,” I say.

“I got him,” she says.

Annika signed up with a local nonprofit last year. The social worker helped her register for public assistance and that includes a small monthly check, food stamps, Medicaid, and a WIC voucher. The center, which I have not named for the sake of her privacy, offers GED classes, employment services, and counseling. Atlanta is home to several such facilities and the city launched a multi-jurisdictional coordinated response aimed at ending the sex trade.

Coming home to her mother’s small bungalow-style house on Atlanta’s far west side wasn’t easy. Her family, Annika says, blames her for everything.

“My mama help me any and every way she can,” she says. “She know I ain’t wanna do that.”

The baby has large brown eyes like his mother and chocolate skin as smooth as cake batter. He looks like Romeo, Annika says warily, right down to his “fingers and toes.”

“Does his father come around?”

“I ain’t heard from him since he got out,” Annika says without looking up. “He say my baby ain’t none of his and, you know what, I wish he whatn’t.”

Author’s Note: To protect the privacy of the victim, I have used the pseudonym “Annika” and all other names have been changed.