Social workers and police officers in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia (DC) have detected at least nine child prostitution rings since 2009. Most of these networks -- some of which have already been dismantled -- are run by the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13.
The gang and other human traffickers recruit young Central Americans who have recently arrived to the US or those who have run away from their families. Employees of social services in the area believe youth who have recently fled the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala), many of whom have experienced sexual abuse in their home country, are the most vulnerable. (The names in this story, which the author accessed via personal interviews, court files, or from social workers in Montgomery and Prince George's County in Maryland, as well as Fairfax and Falls Church, Virginia, have been changed at the request of the lawyers of the individuals.)
Marcos, the father of Vanessa, arrived at the police station in Fairfax County, Virginia, on November 9, 2010, to report the disappearance of his daughter. At the end of a long interview, Marcos, who is Salvadoran, confessed that his daughter had run away from home after several domestic disputes, and that he had a strong suspicion of where she had gone: to the house of Alexander Rivas, alias “Casper,” a US citizen and a member of the MS13.
That same night, several police officers rescued Vanessa from Casper's house. Before handing Vanessa over to her father, the Fairfax police interviewed her. What the young teenager -- Vanessa was just 14 at the time -- told police is a story that goes far beyond the parameters of an adolescent escape. This is the story of one of the child prostitution rings run by the MS13 in the DC metropolitan area.
Vanessa told the officers that she had escaped from her father's house three weeks prior in mid-October, and that she had gone to live with her boyfriend, who was known as "Lagrimas" (Tears). It was during this time that Vanessa met Rivas in a park. At times, Vanessa went to sleep in Casper's apartment. She was just 14.
“[The witness] declared that Rivas used her as a prostitute during a period of four months. She said Rivas brought her to various places in Virginia, DC, and Maryland; she had said that she had vaginal sex with various men,” reads the transcript of an interview the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had with Vanessa the night she was taken back to her father's house.
In the same interview, Vanessa said that she met at least seven other young girls, more or less her age, that “worked” with Rivas. He obtained the clients by telephone, arranged the meetings, and brought the girls to the houses of other gang members, individuals or motel rooms in the DC area. For each meeting, the clients paid between $100 and $200, Vanessa said. Casper kept half.
“These types of cases always deal with minors, generally girls that have left home and that are forced into prostitution,” explained a source in federal law enforcement in Washington, who has investigated prostitution rings in the area. “The groups are usually made up of between six to eight girls.”
The prostitution ring run by Alexander Rivas is only one of the at least seven networks of Central American youths -- many of whom are either Salvadoran or Honduran -- that were operational between 2009 and 2012 and that were detected during this Revista Factum investigation. Two additional networks were later discovered.
On November 30, 2012, Jose Adonay Fuentes, alias “Cheesy” or “Crazy Boy,” and a member of the MS13 in Virginia, pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor; on March 1, 2013, Fuentes was sentenced to ten years in jail. The Crazy Boy network, according to testimonies from two of the girls he trafficked, was small: no more than four girls worked for him at any given time.
A convenience store in Falls Church, Virginia, allegedly used as a meeting place by MS13 to run prostitution rings
Adonay Fuentes was just a link in a chain that, according to judicial documents, culminated with Rances Ulises Amaya, alias “Murder” or “Blue,” leader of the Lokotes Guanacos “clica,” or clique, a reference to a gang cell. Amaya is a “palabrero,” or leader, in Virginia and in charge of sending extortion money to Salvadoran prisons, according to two testimonies collected during criminal proceeding number 11-CR-56 opened against Amaya in 2011 for charges of conspiracy to traffic a minor and three charges of sexual trafficking of minors.
On June 15, 2012, Judge Anthony Trenga sentenced Amaya to 50 years in prison.
Following the sentences of Crazy Boy and Murder there has been little news about the participation of MS13 leaders involved in child prostitution rings. Nevertheless, the problem remains: social workers, politicians and some recent police bulletins in the area (mostly in Maryland) have raised the alarm about this criminal activity.
The MS13's Evolution From Violence to Business
Child prostitution rings run by gang members, or criminals associated with gangs, ensnare Central American youth that arrive to the United States with a history of sexual abuse or who have run away from home. The family members of victims are also subjected to this type of violence, according to judicial documents, witnesses, police, and social workers that track these cases in the DC metropolitan area.
“These cases exist, and we are beginning to hear other testimonies of girls that have left their homes, and upon being found, tell us that they were in the houses of gang members that we suspect serve as brothels,” says a government official in Maryland that spoke with Factum on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss publicly ongoing investigations. “Some [of the girls] say they have gone to similar MS13 houses in New York.”
“When they saw that [prostitution] was working well for a few clicas or a few gang members, the word got out.”
In June 2013, months after the sentencing of Adonay Fuentes in Virginia, a Maryland police officer, who has followed the evolution of the MS13 since the first clicas arrived to the region at the end of the 1990s, declared in court that child prostitution had become one of the principal activities of MS13 in the area.
“Now [the MS13] is more focused on business activities, in networks dedicated to earning money like human trafficking and prostitution,” said Sergeant George Norris, head of the police's anti-gang unit in Prince George's County, one of the most violent areas in the region.
In April 2015, local police in Reston, a city in Virginia adjacent to Washington's Dulles Airport, detected another network that used Salvadorans and other Central American girls as child prostitutes.
A good amount of time has passed, according to police sources in Reston, since the last time the MS13 made news for acts of violence. But at the beginning of November 2014, a minor was sexually assaulted following an MS13 initiation ritual in Manassas, a nearby city. Following that incident, a three-month investigation ended in the arrest of three MS13 accused of human trafficking and child prostitution.
“We realized that in recent years the violence in northern Virginia has diminished, but the gang members are still here; we asked ourselves why, and we discovered that they have gone from violent crime to sex trafficking, an activity that offers them more money and less risk,” said Fairfax County detective Bill Woolf following the arrests in Reston.
One of the first to explore this avenue for the MS13 was Rances Ulises Amaya, the head of the Lokotes Guanacos clica in Virginia. In 2010, Amaya began his business (with a heavy dose of violence) in the southern suburbs of Washington.
The Machete is 'My Wife'
It's hot in Baltimore, the largest and most important city in Maryland. In one of the federal buildings that houses the immigration courts, a lawyer who represents migrant Latinos in Maryland -- who asked to not have his identity revealed -- waits to talk with his client, a Salvadoran who is in the process of being deported for having stolen headphones. The lawyer says that in recent months they have encountered various cases of undocumented Central American minors that were forced into prostitution soon after arriving in the United States.
“Not long ago, I heard testimony from a young girl. She was Honduran and requesting asylum, and she said that when she came to Maryland she went to live with her cousins. The “coyotes” [migrant smugglers] found her via some gang members, and they told her she must do what the gang members ask in order to pay the debt she owed to the coyotes for having brought her to the United States,” the lawyer said.
The lawyer said the gang took the Honduran girl's passport, raped her, and made her work as a prostitute.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Trafficking
This type of violence was the trademark of the prostitution ring established by Amaya in 2009 in cities in Virginia and Maryland, according to judicial files.
When he began, Amaya was not a palabrero in charge of the illegal operation; he was, according to a fellow gang member that later testified against him, the “muscle.”
Alisa, a Salvadoran girl who was 15 when she was forced into Amaya's prostitution network, remembers Amaya was in charge of bringing the girls from gang neighborhoods in Fairfax and Falls Church to the apartments and motel rooms where the transactions took place. He was also the one who gave the girls marijuana and liquor before they entered the room with the clients; the one who kept guard while the sexual transaction took place; the one who made sure, machete in hand, that the clients paid immediately and didn't make too much noise. This all happened in 2009.
“While working for his bosses, he [Amaya] always carried a machete that he called 'my wife,'” Alisa said.
The descriptions of Amaya that can be gleaned from the pages associated with the judicial proceeding against him, as well as in witness testimonies and news reports, evoke images of a thug with a square face; someone big who can intimidate with his demeanor alone. And indeed, in one of the photos attached to Amaya's file he has a disheveled face with two braids that give him a macabre appearance, with his gaze fixed on the camera lens, shirtless and with his hands crossed on his lap, showing off his tattoos. But, based on these photos, Amaya is a small man, and it's likely he was very small-time in 2009: when he started the MS13's first large prostitution ring in the US capitol, Amaya was just 21 years old.
But it's not the physical description of Amaya that evokes terror. Rather, it's Amaya's story, told by the girls who worked for him, that creates that sense of fear.
According to Jane, one of the Central American girls who served as a prosecutor's witness, Amaya took complete control of the prostitution ring, and of the girls. He bought the condoms, gave the instructions -- “you have to screw, bitches, you have to screw,” he told them -- and was constantly looking for more clients. He also abused them: it was almost a rule, Jane says, that Amaya had sex with at least one of the girls after the clients had left.
“Jane remembered the day in which, after having attended to various clients, she went to the motel room where Amaya was...He was drunk, and he slapped her because she tried to leave the room,” reads the prosecutor's interview with the witness.
At least once, according to the allegations, Amaya forcibly raped one of the victims. Alisa, another of the witnesses, said Amaya used to tell her that he raped them in order to “prepare them,” and so that they were ready for the clients. At times, Jane said, Amaya and other gang members that accompanied him subjected the girls to gang rape: “They made us do the train, which means one of them grabbed us while the others waited, who followed afterward.”
Amaya, two other victims recall, had his own version of the Ten Commandments, oral instructions that he would repeat to the girls:
- The client must use a condom.
- The girls must never reveal their real names.
- The girls must never reveal their true ages.
- The girls must shout loudly during sexual intercourse so that the clients ejaculate quickly, so that the girls could attend to various clients in the same night.
- If the clients want the girls to take off their shirt or do unusual acts they must pay extra.
- The time each client had with the girls was limited to 20 or 30 minutes.
The FBI recognizes Amaya's prostitution ring as one of the most emblematic in recent years due, above all, to the intersection between an important crime in the DC area -- 260 such victims received attention in Virginia in 2013 -- and a well-known criminal brand, the Mara Salvatrucha.
“The prostitution operation... was closely linked to the MS13... The accused (Amaya) and his accomplices used their affiliation with the MS13 to keep their clients and victims in line through fear...What's more, the prostitution ring recruited new clients and news girls through MS13 networks," prosecutor Neil H. McBride stated in written remarks as part of the accusation he presented against Amaya. “Some of the earnings are used to sustain the gang.”
New Girls, Same Danger
Jacquelyn, a Honduran, arrived to the United States in 2014. She was 14 years old -- the same age Vanessa was in 2010, the year an MS13 in Virginia forced her into prostitution -- when she began to attend a high school in Maryland.
Neither Jacquelyn nor two of her friends, who were also Honduran, spoke a word of English when they started classes, which was not necessarily a problem since the school had a high percentage of Latinos, most of whom were from Central America. The three girls, who soon began to fall behind in their studies, did not lack for friends or, at least, people with whom they could communicate.
What the young teenager -- Vanessa was just 14 at the time -- told police is a story that goes far beyond the parameters of an adolescent escape.
Soon, bilingual social workers from Montgomery County began to notice, via their body language or the idioms they used, that Jacquelyn and her friends were displaying “sexually open behavior,” as one of the social workers called it. The school began to conduct preliminary interviews.
“One of the girls, who was 14 years old, told me she was taking birth control pills, and we discovered she had a very active sex life,” reads one report that Montgomery's government council heard during a meeting in January 2015.
The session was dedicated to discussing the challenges social service agencies faced in attending to the needs of the thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied minors who had crossed the United States' southern border the previous summer and had ended up in Maryland.
During the fall semester of 2014, a student at Jacquelyn's high school told a counselor that Jacquelyn, “one of the new girls that doesn't speak English,” had offered to provide sex in exchange for $25.
The social workers at the school determined that Jacquelyn had made the same offer to other students. During an interview with a counselor, Jacquelyn admitted to everything. After listening in silence for a moment to the counselor, Jacquelyn responded: “Ma'am, thank you for your advice, but I don't know what the big deal is. I have done this with men since I was a girl. That's how I have lived. For me, it's not a problem.”
A follow-up investigation left open the possibility that Jacquelyn has been subjected to sexual abuse since she was very young in Honduras.
“It is very possible, based on what we have seen, that the abuse, which began in Honduras, has continued in the home here in Maryland. This is a girl with profound trauma, who has symptoms almost of post-traumatic stress,” said one social worker familiar with the case.
Jacquelyn's physical description, above all the way in which she dressed, matches that of other Central American youths, who have been interviewed by social workers in Maryland after having escaped from their homes. “Some of the girls talk of having been in houses where there is prostitution in Wheaton -- some 20 kilometers from downtown Washington,” one social workers said.
One of the social workers consulted for this report -- who has attended to at-risk youths in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey over the past decade -- believes that the arrival of thousand of girls to the DC area that have been exposed to the worst forms of sexual abuse has created a sort of “perfect storm” for the expansion of prostitution rings of Central Americans.
“It is not just the gangs. There are also other individuals who take advantage of these girls that leave their homes. In many cases the girls are continue being raped and sexually exploited,” the social worker, who agreed to talk on this subject under condition of anonymity, explained.
Jacquelyn, the Honduran, has been the victim of abuse and rape.
Vanessa, the Salvadoran, had been raped before ending up in the prostitution ring run in Virginia by Alexander Rivas, alias “Casper,” a member of the MS13.
At least two of the adolescents who served as witnesses in the judicial cases against Amaya and Adonay Fuentes had also been abused before being forced into prostitution.
Between 2009 and 2012, the period of time in which the federal courts in Alexandria, Virginia prosecuted Amaya, Rivas, and Fuentes, the MS13 began the evolutionary process referred to by officers George Norris and Bill Woolf, in which the gang transitioned from a culture focused on territorial control and use of violence to one centered on profit-making illicit industries. In the United States, extortion operations are more complicated than in El Salvador. This is why prostitution became an important source of income for the gangs, according to two federal agents consulted for this report.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profiles
“When they saw that [prostitution] was working well for a few clicas or a few gang members, the word got out,” explained one of the agents.
When asked about the prevalence of prostitution rings linked to the MS13 in their jurisdiction, police sources in Prince George's County, Maryland declined to comment about specific cases “in order to not interfere with open investigations.” That means there are currently open investigations into these types of cases.
In any event, the figures show a sustained increase in the number of sex trafficking cases reported in Maryland during this decade. The number of reported cases doubled between 2012 and 2013, and that figure remained stable in 2014. Last year, according to statistics compiled by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), authorities in Maryland responded to a sex trafficking case every four days; during the first three months of 2015, it became every 2.5 days.
Victims of sex crimes represent around 70 percent of all human trafficking cases in the world, according to the NHTRC. In Maryland, between January and March 2015, one out of every two victims was a foreigner, like Vanessa, or Jane, or the other girls who belonged to the MS13 in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. Or like the girl prostitutes who worked in motels and apartments that, according to thug rules, are raped after a long day of work attending to their clients.