When the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho published The Demons of Eden in 2004, the governor of Puebla, Mario Marín, had her arrested and tortured for revealing the involvement of some of the country’s most powerful businessmen and politicians in a pedophilia network. When she tried to sue him, the case was thrown out of court despite the existence of tapes of Marín talking to gangsters about taking revenge on Cacho. In her new book, Slavery Inc. (2014), Cacho shows how sex trafficking functions as an international industry. It is just not possible for 1.39 million people to be kidnapped, bought, sold, and forced into prostitution without the complicity of governments, immigration officials, police, mafia groups, businessmen, casinos, banks, and often the families of the enslaved girls. Insofar as it is possible in a journalistic book written for a popular audience, Cacho traces the connections between the different players in this international, multi-billion dollar industry.
In Slavery Inc., the first of her books to be translated into English, Cacho introduces us to some of the same villains who have made her life miserable in the past. She walks us through the clubs and brothels of Raúl Martins Coggiola, which even the governor cannot close down because he is protected by federal judges. The four women Cacho meets there say that Martins’ lawyers are holding their passports and visas until they work off the debt they owe him for bringing them into Mexico, while he takes half of their earnings. Martins’ own daughter filmed him engaging in illegal activities but he is still at large. One Venezuelan girl Cacho interviews who was br0ught to Mexico to work as a high class escort apparently owed her trafficker over $10,000 for travel, lodgings, food, and plastic surgery before she escaped. When she visited Mexico’s National Institute of Migration with Cacho, this girl could identify every immigration official in the building by name because she had seen them as clients in the clubs where she worked.
Most of Cacho’s best sources are women who have escaped their traffickers or who are still working as prostitutes with no choice in the matter. One 18 year-old American girl from a conservative Christian home tells of being kidnapped and raped by scores of Yakuza gangsters after the owner of a club where she was singing sold her to them without her knowledge. A Syrian woman explains how she was kidnapped at 16 years of age and taken to work in Turkish brothels for four years before she was rescued and taken to London. The woman who ran the brothel got her addicted to opium, which is a common element of these girls’ stories. Cacho comments that the traffickers do not want to “damage” the girls they inject drugs into, meaning that they introduce the drugs into their bodies in some of the most barbaric ways imaginable. One girl rescued from a brothel in Cambodia tells of a young Vietnamese girl “who looked like a doll or the fairy in a children’s book” who was sold into slavery by her father. When this girl escaped, the brothel owners starved the other girls for two days before feeding them “chicken curry with rice.” Then they told them that “we had just eaten the girl doll’s body and if any of us wanted to escape, they would chop us into pieces for the other girls to eat.”
Cacho’s stories focus on Turkey, Israel, Japan, Cambodia, Burma, and Mexico, but the phenomenon she describes is an international problem. She ignores some of the biggest trafficking countries, such as Eastern Europe or the United States, but this book aims to alert people to the fact that such problems exist, not to document the industry in detail. Westerners appear in the book primarily as consumers of sex slaves, but Cacho does mention that the 150,000 to 200,000 Korean “comfort women” who the Japanese forced to work as military prostitutes during the Second World War was dwarfed by the 400,000 women exploited in U.S. military brothels during the Vietnam War. She also describes the back-room deals that take place at events such as America’s annual Adult Entertainment Expo. While the legal side of the pornography industry sells its products in the exposition halls and activists talk about free speech and the right of women to participate in porn, dealers meet behind the scenes to arrange snuff films and to discuss how to avoid legal problems. Sex slaves work in the same brothels as independent prostitutes, and the legal side of the business hides the trafficking. Snuff films and child pornography flourish because the rest of the industry is culturally accepted. Men who consume pornography are not just pathetic, Cacho argues, they are participating in the denial of basic human rights to women and children all over the globe.
One point that Cacho makes repeatedly in this book is that the root of the problem lies in a sexist patriarchy that treats women as objects. “Although all forms of human trafficking are rooted in the search for economic power,” she writes, “sex trafficking encourages, creates, and strengthens a culture in which slavery is normalized and considered to be a viable answer for the millions of women, girls, and boys who live in poverty and lack education. The power of the international sex trade lies in turning the human body into a commodity, to be exploited, bought, and sold without the owner’s permission.” Men will treat women as lesser humans as long as they see them as such. Buying and selling women and children is possible because in many countries they have so few rights and even fewer options.Often victims who escape find themselves returning to slavery because their families reject them as “dishonored” and they have no-where else to go. Girls who go to the police are maltreated, humiliated, and sometimes raped. In a good case, the police will interrogate them for days, forcing them to give graphic details of their ordeals before providing basic medical and psychological care.
It should come as no surprise that so many of the people who Cacho meets rescuing girls in these situations are Christians. NGOs face an uphill battle against traffickers, the authorities, the mafia, and sometimes the girls themselves, and Christian aid workers are often the only ones with the emotional and spiritual resources to wage this battle. Sex slavery is so dehumanizing, Cacho writes, that escaping requires the victim to effectively be born again. She describes how “the girls become convinced that they belong to an undesirable caste and that the only way to survive economically and emotionally is by returning to sexual slavery. The traffickers’ greatest triumph is the transformation of their victims into outcasts: nobody, except their captors, wants them.” The evil involved here is so great that only extraordinary good can stand against it. And stand it must.