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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was a bad night, and none of the girls had made much cash. The evening's customers were more interested in the San Antonio Spurs game on television than the strippers. But one of the dancers knew how they could make up for it.
“There was this guy that was a regular at the strip club,” Serena said. “He sold a lot of drugs in big quantities — he was really popular with the girls that did coke and stuff — and he had a place for us to go after work if you didn't make enough money.”
"Serena" is a pseudonym. She asked for her identity to be concealed for reasons that will become apparent.
That night, she went to a party at the regular’s house.
“He had a pole and a little stage,” Serena said. “It was like just being at a strip club.”
Serena was tipped in $20s and $50s and given a seemingly endless supply of cocaine. At some point that night, she and her friend were the only two women left in a room full of men. Her friend paired up with someone, and Serena – still unclear to this day why – did the same. She left with $1,200 in hand.
“Once the person that I was living with found out about it, I was there all the time, because it was an easier way for him to have more money,” Serena said.
About a year before, Serena had been a college student with a full scholarship. But in her first semester, the man she lived with had introduced her to cocaine, stripping, domestic violence, and had now effectively pushed her into prostitution. Within months, Serena would be walking the main drag of Albuquerque.
“Even now when I tell my story, sometimes people are like ‘Your story doesn't make any sense. Why didn't you just leave? What's wrong with you?’” Serena said.
To put it simply: it’s complicated.
Human trafficking in the sex industry has evolved from a simple pimp and prostitute relationship to complex organizational efforts by cartels and individual entrepreneurs. In many cases, there’s more money and less risk in selling a person than trafficking in drugs or firearms, said Lucia Estrada with Five Stones International, an anti-human trafficking organization.
“A minor can be sold for up to $200 an hour,” said Estrada. “So you figure if they have a couple of minors and they’re selling them a couple times a day, couple times a week, couple times a month, how much money is being involved in that?”
In the Southwest, Estrada says many traffickers travel between California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. However, she adds that the public is often unsympathetic.
“These girls are just seen as whores or it’s their own choice,” said Estrada. “They're categorized, yet they’re not seen as individuals who, a lot of times, are being forced and manipulated and coerced into doing this.”
“A very significant proportion of young people who get involved in human trafficking are very young teenagers and often they are runaways,” said David Pederson with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office. “That’s a very easy group to target and to recruit. And these are not just traditional pimps, they are really mounting an effort to do this as an organized business.”
Pederson says the Attorney General’s office has primarily prosecuted individuals involved in human trafficking.
FBI Special Agent Ida D’Antonio-Hangen said in Albuquerque, law enforcement is seeing a similar trend.
“It involves individuals, not necessarily associated with any gangs, but individuals who, say, lure a girl and get them to trust them and then before you know it, they’re engaging in prostitution,” said D’Antonio-Hangen.
This is important to remember. At the moment, it’s the little guys who are getting into the trade.
“Human trafficking is very profitable for the gangs and the cartels and larger organizations,” said D’Antonio-Hangen. “But what we’re seeing right now in Albuquerque is just individuals.”
There have been 15 human trafficking prosecutions by the state’s Attorney General in the last three years. But law enforcement officials say there could be more in the future as trafficking organizations see an opportunity to expand in this market. Unfortunately, those who get pulled into the trade may not have the same survival skills Serena did to escape.
“At least it was me and not my mom, or like, my dad, or like, a good friend of mine,” said Serena. “At least it was me, because for whatever reason, I came out a little bit better for it. I can find a greater meaning to my experience.”
Serena is now back in school, studying to be a counselor.