After three years dealing with “sore and exhausted” bodies caused by forced sexual encounters with 10-20 men each day, women victimized by a commercial sex ring in Sterling escaped their captors in summer 2018, but more than likely are back at it again elsewhere—involved in the often-misconceived world of human trafficking.
To many, the phrase describes a fantastical underground world where vulnerable teenage girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution, like the one portrayed in the 2009 blockbuster “Taken.” But here in Loudoun, that world is just as much a reality as it is anywhere else on earth.
According to an April 2019 statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, 33-year-old Luis Bonilla-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, coerced Hispanic women who spoke little to no English and were struggling to pay their bills to have commercial sex encounters with 10-20 men each day between 2015 and 2018 at his home in Sterling.
He and his 23-year-old co-conspirator were arrested last summer, and Bonilla-Hernandez was sentenced to more than two years in prison last month.
According to The Hill, human trafficking is a nearly $32 billion-a-year enterprise in the U.S. that sees traffickers compel tens of thousands of people, mainly young women, to engage in commercial sex or forced, unfair labor. It’s the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind drug trafficking.
According to Bill Woolf, the executive director of Just Ask Prevention and a former 18-year Fairfax County police officer who once acted as the co-director of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, the term “compelling” has many different connotations, like manipulation and physical force. Woolf said that 85 percent of human trafficking victims have been coerced, forced or defrauded to labor or sell sex.
According to a 2018 U.S. Department of State report, the national human trafficking hotline from July 2017 to June 2018 received 62,835 calls, identified 8,759 human trafficking cases and provided 10,615 victims with resources.
During that timeframe, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated 282 federal human trafficking prosecutions and charged 553 defendants with the crime—241 more prosecutions and 22 more charges than it made in the previous 12 months.
In Virginia from 2007 to June 2018, the hotline reported 1,120 human trafficking cases, with 156 in 2017 alone—70 percent more than the 92 cases it reported in 2012.
According to Kay Duffield, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative, Virginia is ranked sixth in the nation for the number of active human trafficking cases. Most of those cases stem from the eastern district, where Loudoun is located.
“I think people in Northern Virginia want to believe that we’re unique—we like to live in our own bubble,” Woolf said. “Human trafficking is present and it can affect any of our families.”
Detective Dave Orr, the lead detective for the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, said it’s difficult to attach an exact figure to the number of cases in Loudoun. He said that’s because it’s difficult to identify such instances and charge for the crime because the sex trade is “highly mobile.” He said victims aren’t out “walking the streets,” but are being transported from state to state and are staying in one location for only a few days at a time. “They’re in and out,” he said.
Woolf agreed that it’s difficult to attribute numbers to cases here, but that it’s safe to determine human trafficking is prevalent in Loudoun because the county is wealthy and stable, which is appealing to traffickers.
He cited a recent study by the University of San Diego that found there were about 10,000 victims passing through San Diego County each year—a county Woolf said had similar demographics to Loudoun.
“We do know that there is no shortage of cases here in Northern Virginia,” he said. “I could go find a case right now in Loudoun County without hesitation.”
To spread awareness of the issue and help victims, the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative was established in 2013 to “eradicate human trafficking and restore those impacted through awareness, prayer, partnerships, intervention and victim services.”
Since its Reston drop-in center opened in October 2017, the initiative has served 159 human trafficking victims.
According to Bella Ibrahim, the initiative’s case manager, human trafficking—and specifically sex trafficking—in this area is “a huge issue” that manifests itself in multiple forms.
She said for the most part, sex traffickers identify vulnerable females and coerce them into the lifestyle at a young age. Ibrahim said it’s not uncommon for a victim to be trafficked by a blood or distant relative “once they learn how lucrative [human trafficking] can be.”
Ibrahim said that in some “Romeo-pimp relationships,” minors are enticed by men who take them out, buy them what they want and promise to help them budget their lives—and the same men later become controlling and force the women into commercial sex rings.
“[The girls are] being manipulated and brainwashed,” Ibrahim said. “What seems like a child giving consent is irrelevant.”
In general, traffickers bring the girls in with “force, fraud and coercion”—three actions that are generally difficult for prosecutors to prove.
Woolf said he uses a “free to leave” standard. He said he looks for one scenario in human trafficking cases—whether a victim is free to leave or if they’re being forced to stay because of physical control, blackmail or another restraint.
Either way, if law enforcement finds a victim under the age of 18, force, fraud and coercion aren’t necessary to prove.
A Hometown Issue
It’s not like human trafficking is found only in secluded industrial parks in the inner city or out west in the back woods. It’s in communities all around the region and sometimes even in the house next door.
The Bonilla-Hernandez case was one that Orr worked on and one the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office initiated. Orr said that none of the victims cooperated—either because they were afraid of being arrested or because they thought they’d have to return to the sex trade. Because of that, Orr is unsure of where the women ended up.
Anna Hansen, the NOVA Human Trafficking Initiative’s operations director, said her office is aware of a sex camp located near an elementary school in Herndon. “The problem is that it’s hidden in plain sight,” she said.
Illicit Massage Businesses
Another form of sex trafficking, perhaps one that comes to the minds of many when hearing about commercialized sex in America, occurs at massage parlors. The types of businesses where women are being forced to sell their bodies aren’t at the typical locations found in Loudoun’s dozens of retail center spas.
Illicit massage businesses oftentimes use the title “therapy” instead of “massage” in their names and are found in small office complexes, have multiple security cameras and double-door entrances with doorbells and frequently feature neon signs, according to Hansen and Ibrahim.
At the Human Trafficking Initiative’s 2019 Justice Summit last month, Robert Houston, a former 27-year FBI agent who specialized in counterterrorism and transnational organized crime, pointed out that the businesses are registered and provide massages and “wellness services,” but derive some or all of their revenue from commercial sex.
He noted that there are up to 10,000 illicit massage businesses in the U.S. and that two-thirds of those are found in the nation’s largest counties, with typically at least one found in each of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties.
Working in those massage parlors are about 35,000 sex workers that typically live onsite 24/7 and are forced to stay indoors nearly all hours of the day and work hour-long sessions with upwards of 10 men each day.
Houston said illicit massage businesses generate $3 billion each year in the U.S. and that the workers, which he simultaneously referred to as victims, are predominantly light-skinned Asian women from South Korea, China and Vietnam who arrive in America on legitimate B1 or B2 visas that have been fraudulently obtained. “Basically, [human traffickers] are tricking … our counselor officers at our embassies overseas,” he said.
Houston said the women think they they’re going to work off their debt—a debt that traffickers sell at discounted or heightened rates.
“It sounds like selling people, that’s exactly what it is,” hesaid. “This is not Al Qaeda, this is not the Russian Mafia … but there is a process and there is an organization to it—this is a transnational, organized crime enterprise.”
Of the thousands of illicit massage businesses in the U.S., Houston said there are somewhere around 250 in Virginia—ranking the commonwealth eighth out of 50 states.
Whether it’s found in illicit massage businesses or controlled by pimps or gangs, Woolf said Northern Virginia sees all forms of sex trafficking. “I would argue that all of those are present in Loudoun County,” he said.
Numbers Rising, Ages Declining
Hansen said that human trafficking is on the rise, with more people calling the the center than ever before. She said her office can’t conclude whether that’s because there’s more instances of trafficking in 2019 or because there’s more awareness and reporting of it.
In general, the age of victims is also decreasing each year. Hansen said the youngest victim she’s helped was 14 years old.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in October 2017 that the annual number of cases related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children filed in U.S. district court nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, from 1,405 to 2,776.
According to a 2014 sex trafficking report by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than half of the nation’s sex-trafficking victims are minors.
Hansen said access to the internet has “played an enormous role” in that age decrease, since traffickers can connect with teenage girls through social media. She said some traffickers even use Facebook to pinpoint vulnerable girls based on their music tastes.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015, finding the statistic to be a direct result of increased internet usage.
Loudoun Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell noted that child human trafficking is a $100 million industry in the DC area.
Woolf said the average age of traffickers is also decreasing, something he attributes to pop culture’s influences and information becoming more readily available in today’s tech age. He said someone interested in human trafficking can simply go onto YouTube and watch a tutorial.
Peer-to-peer-trafficking, in which an 18-year-old could traffic another 18-year-old, is becoming more of a reality. “It’s easy to learn how to do it—the idea just needs to be sparked,” Woolf said.
Raising Awareness and Helping Victims
To educate area youth on the international issue, Just Ask Prevention implemented training in Loudoun’s school system for the first time this school year, integrating the curriculum with Family Life Education.
Woolf said students from sixth to 10th grade learn about the reality of human trafficking and how to prevent victimization and seek intervention if they ever find themselves in a bad situation. “It’s been extremely well received by the students,” he said.
The NOVA Human Trafficking Initiative hosts seminars and private talks to raise awareness on the issue. It also forges partnerships with different organizations and, as a Christian organization, focuses on prayer in public and private settings.
At its core, the initiative provides victims with case management, crisis intervention, life skill development and expressive therapy. “It’s just providing an open, safe, comfortable place,” Hansen said.
Hansen said the initiative also is opening a housing center for victimized adult women to stay in for 30 days to six months as they stabilize their lives.
Initiative volunteers and employees even bring friends into victims’ lives and help them find a sense of self. “That’s the number one hardest thing to do,” Ibrahim said.
The initiative also recently began holding Buyer Outreach Trainings to teach men how to non-aggressively help other men overcome sex addictions without shaming them.
“That’s going to push them into darker things, and we don’t want that,” Duffield said. “We want the root problems healed so they’ll stop exploiting women—if we don’t stop the demand, the problem is never going to go away.”
The initiative also reaches out to victims and is now looking for 10 organizations to host phone bank outreaches every month.
The Sheriff’s Office also partners with the FBI Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force, the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, Loudoun guidance counselors and school resource officers, Loudoun County Family Services and the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter to combat the issue.
Seeing the Signs
Aside from encouraging community members to lend a helping hand in the fight, the Human Trafficking Initiative urges residents to be aware of their surroundings and understand what human trafficking looks like.
Ibrahim said victims often are overtly anxious or malnourished and that young victims frequently have multiple cell phones. She said another red flag is seeing a young girl out shopping for lingerie with an older man.
She pointed out that any of those situations could be innocent and not related to human trafficking whatsoever, but that it’s still important to evaluate a situation when something feels off.
“If you see something, say something,” she said. “More often than not, there’s something extremely sketchy going on.”
Woolf said that while more solutions need to be implemented to continue the battle against human trafficking, it’s important for communities to unite and become proactive in spreading awareness before human trafficking overtakes the drug trade.
“We really can’t sit back and say, ‘the police are going to solve the problem,’” he said. “It really is going to take the community to stand up and say, ‘we can do better, we can do more.’”