Rebecca Rodriguez-Brown still remembers the room where he imprisoned her – the charming man she met and fell in love with while still a teenager. She mapped it out with her hands as she sat in a central Fresno office nearly 20 years later.
“They would have a little microwave there, and they would have a little ice chest right there by the sink,” she said. “I still remember the color of the ice chest.”
Rodriguez-Brown isn’t sure whether the room was in an apartment or hotel. But she does remember that for seven months she was kept in this room under guard and forced to perform whatever sex act the strangers entering the room asked for. The room was punishment for refusing to do the same at her trafficker’s home. Her captors brought her all of her meals. If she defied them, she’d be beaten – sometimes with her hands bound.
The Bee normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, however Rodriguez-Brown agreed to be named.
Her story is not uncommon in Fresno, or anywhere in the world. It is one of cyclical abuse, habitual arrest and unspeakable trauma. Women and children are bought and sold every day in Fresno – online, in street corners, while at school. They are raped, branded and beaten. They are taught that they are the problem, not the people who force them into this life – causing psychological scars that may never heal.
It is what many refer to as “modern-day slavery.”
Human trafficking casts a shadow on the central San Joaquin Valley, with thousands of victims both female and male, young and old, rich and poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian. It’s an industry that thrives on targeting your children. And despite an organized, coordinated response from a coalition of law enforcement and advocacy groups, it’s getting worse.
I’ve had (sex trafficking) victims from every high school in Fresno County – and most junior high schools.
Fresno Police Department undercover detective
High poverty and runaway rates contribute to the problem, as does Fresno’s central location between human trafficking hubs in the Bay Area, Southern California and Las Vegas. It’s not uncommon for victims to be moved even further.
On Oct. 27, a 16-year-old Fresno runaway was found in Fairfield. Police believe the girl had been sold for sex throughout California and as far away as Miami and Atlanta since she was 12 years old.
And the Fresno Police Department wants residents to know the problem extends well north of Shaw Avenue.
“I’ve had (sex trafficking) victims from every high school in Fresno County – and most junior high schools,” an undercover detective with the vice unit said. The Bee is not disclosing his identity due to the sensitive nature of his work.
He continued: “I’d bet every 16-year-old girl in Fresno has received a message that they didn’t know was from a recruiter.”
Just a text away
Once, this was a “south of Shaw” issue, the detective said. But social media has changed that.
“I’ve had girls trafficked from Clovis West,” he said. “Multiple girls from Clovis North.”
“They’re recruited while sitting next to their parents in the living room,” the detective said. “Mom or dad may be reading the newspaper or watching TV while she’s on her phone.”
In 2012, voters approved the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, creating the crime of human trafficking. It carried stiff penalties, including possible life sentences for people convicted of trafficking children.
And in 2016, the California Legislature passed a law that made it impossible to charge children with prostitution. In essence, every child who has sex for money in this state is a victim, no matter what.
Generally speaking, human trafficking involves labor – those forced to work through force, fear or coercion – or sex – what was once broadly referred to as prostitution. Those women standing on the corner are being trafficked.
Children are often contacted by sex traffickers by the age of 12.
The leading local advocacy group has contacted more than 500 victims in the Valley, but the true number of human trafficking cases is well into the thousands.
Sgt. Curt Chastain, head of the Fresno Police Department vice unit, stressed the importance of children and their parents learning and talking about trafficking before the sixth grade, as most kids are first contacted around age 12.
The undercover detective who works with Chastain in the vice unit said he knows of several middle school students who had been performing sex acts for money in their free time because “their moms wouldn’t give them money to go to the mall.” A pimp took notice and attempted to recruit the girls. When they refused him, he paid someone to beat and rob them. He then approached the girls again, offering them protection if they joined him.
“Now he has them,” the detective said, adding that somehow their parents didn’t notice when they came home with stuff from the mall.
For decades, local law enforcement has spent millions on the nationwide war on drugs. Now a similar battle over human trafficking may be needed.
“Gangs make more money on girls than drugs,” the detective said.
In Fresno and throughout the state, law enforcement is changing decades-old tactics as views on human trafficking change.
The Fresno Police Department switched to a new approach in which detectives treat most prostitutes as victims. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of traffickers arrested and prosecuted, but it also left police with an issue: How do we get these women off of the street without arresting them?
So the department and the Fresno County District Attorney’s office have partnered with a variety of advocacy groups that sprang up in the seven years since the police changed their tactics. It is now common for advocates to travel with police during raids of businesses or houses involved in the sex trade, with the police taking the traffickers and the advocates taking the trafficked.
That girl in high school or college will become that crackhead on Parkway, talking to herself, pushing something down the street, turning tricks for $5. That’s what happens unless something knocks them off that trajectory.
Breaking the Chains founder Debra Rush
These advocacy groups have helped hundreds of victims, but providing mental health care, counseling, housing, food, legal advice and more – sometimes for years at a time – is expensive and difficult for nonprofits.
The sex trade victims who do decide to get help still can struggle. Even after their recovery, many have criminal records associated with being trafficked. Some employers view these women as criminals and refuse to hire them.
That has to change, says Debra Rush, founder of the nonprofit Breaking the Chains, which provides advocacy and shelter services for about two dozen women and girls in Fresno. In her eyes, there is no difference between human trafficking and prostitution. She contends that anyone who sells sex is a victim and believes society as a whole is looking at the issue through a backward lens, not unlike how misinformation was spread about HIV during the AIDS crisis.
Even those who work in brothels or escort services are victims, who will, unless they go through a program, end up on the street one day, Rush said. The same is true, she added, for women who engage in sex work to pay for college.
“That girl in high school or college will become that crackhead on Parkway, talking to herself, pushing something down the street, turning tricks for $5,” she said. “That’s what happens unless something knocks them off that trajectory.”
To get help or help others:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
This number can be used to report anyone in need of assistance and does not require the caller to contact law enforcement.
To fight trafficking:
Editor’s note: Human trafficking is a widespread concern that advocates and law enforcement officials say is on the rise throughout Fresno – north, south, east and west. The Fresno Bee has taken an in-depth look inside the world of the sex trade and its victims. Over the next six weeks in a series of stories, The Bee will report what is being done to help victims, target traffickers and prevent others from being trapped.