MINNEAPOLIS -- Human trafficking - a crime many people say happens in the shadows - is getting more attention in Minnesota from law-enforcement officials and community groups who say the Twin Cities has become a major hub in a modern slave trade.
"It's been a problem here (since) before I was born," said Joy Friedman, a 47-year-old who said she was forced into prostitution when she was 15.
"You're told what to do. You're told how to do it. You're bought. You're sold. You're traded."
Friedman said she spent more than two decades working the sidewalks in the Twin Cities and was too frightened to walk away from a pimp who controlled her life.
"He told me he'd cut my mother's head off and serve it on a platter," she said. "I believed him. Mind you, I'm 15. I didn't want to tell my mom about it. I was scared to death. I didn't know what to do."
Despite its name, trafficking doesn't always involve moving a person from one place to another. Nor does it always involve people from other countries. Many of the victims, like Friedman, are U.S. citizens.
And trafficking doesn't always involve the sex trade. Many are forced to work as domestic servants, construction workers or farm laborers.
"It's happening here," said Claude Arnold, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Bloomington. "It's happening everywhere."
Arnold's agency, ICE, investigates cases that involve international trafficking. But he said all trafficking cases, whether victims cross international borders or not, have something in common: Traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control their victims.
Last fall, ICE began a campaign using public service announcements and billboards to raise awareness about trafficking in 14 cities including St. Paul.
The agency said the problem is widespread, but no one can say for sure exactly how many people are being trafficked.
"We don't know how big the problem is," Arnold said. "All we know about is the cases we find out about and end up investigating."
Local officials also struggle with numbers. In January, a trafficking task force led by the Saint Paul Police Department said it was investigating 19 different cases of sex and labor trafficking in the Twin Cities. But it's not clear how many people are involved.
The highest profile case in Minnesota happened when ICE agents broke up a prostitution network of eight brothels in 2007, mostly at houses and apartments in Minneapolis.
"We got information that there were women, both adults and juveniles, who were being smuggled across the international border," ICE special agent Stacy Burrows said. "It involved 30 states, in the United States, and 15 countries abroad."
Video from 18 months of surveillance showed alleged "johns" taking 15-minute turns at one of the brothels, in the 3100 block of Northeast Tyler Street in Minneapolis.
In a taped phone call, the "madam" overseeing the operation, Marisol Ramirez, was thrilled to learn one of the brothels had 80 clients visit in one day.
"How many came in?" Ramirez asked in Spanish. When she was told 80, she stammered. "Wha-wha-wha-what?" she laughed.
"And then there would be a gasp of air - what?" Burrows said, recalling the taped conversation. "Eighty men? Wow, that's fantastic."
Burrows said it is too hard to gauge how many women were forced to work in these brothels, where the johns paid $40 for each 15-minute visit.
For the women, running away wasn't an option. Investigators said Ramirez and her 24 co-conspirators - all of whom pleaded guilty - kept the women's passports while they forced the women to travel from state to state and work in a prostitution "circuit."
"As soon as they were done working the circuit, that's when their documents were returned to them," Burrows said.
For Burrows and other investigators, trafficking cases are difficult to find, let alone prosecute, because the victims worry about what will happen to them if they come forward. That's especially true if the victims are in the United States without authorization, because the agency that fights trafficking is the same one that deports undocumented immigrants.
Arnold, the special agent in charge at ICE, said trafficking victims "know right away" there's a difference in the way they treat trafficking cases.
"Once we make contact with victims, then they understand that we're there to help them," he said.
The victims, like the women working at those brothels, immediately are given visas that let them stay in the U.S. If they want, they can apply for permanent residence.
For someone like Joy Friedman, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, the problem was not knowing where to turn.
"If someone would have stopped me on the streets, had someone stopped and assisted me, had there been more programs that talked about prostitution when I was younger - when I was first in - would I have been in it as long as I was? There's no way."
Today, other women come to Friedman for help. She is a manager at Breaking Free, a St. Paul non-profit that teaches women how to escape prostitution.
"I really, really thought my life was going to be real," Friedman said, recalling her days in the sex trade, "like the white picket fence and big nice house."
She said the streets, and the people who ruled them, stole 23 years of her life.
Now, she said Breaking Free counsels as many as 700 women in the Twin Cities every year - women who are still trapped in the life Friedman escaped.
She said she has been out of prostitution for a decade now. But the memories still haunt her.
"That stuff will never go away."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement anonymous tip line - to report suspected cases of people being forced to work against their will: 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "Hidden in Plain Sight" campaign
ICE trafficking and smuggling tip sheet
U.S. State Department 2009 "Trafficking in Persons" report
Upcoming events at Breaking Free
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