Why Did These Sex Traffickers Only Get A Slap on the Wrist?

PHOTO: Nicaraguan sex workers and Yajaira, Alejandra, and Jessica wait for clients at a brothel in Managua. Sex trafficking in Latin America generates an estimated $16 billion in business annually.

What's worse?: 1. Trafficking more than 100 women and coercing them into sex slavery or 2. Selling a lot of weed.

Well, in U.S. courts often times #2 receives much harsher punishments than #1.

Take, for example, the following men who have all been convicted of running separate trafficking rings within in the last few months, using mostly women smuggled from Latin America. All five men only received approximately three years in prison each:

Angel Campos Tellez, 27, admitted to leading a prostitution ring of more than 100 trafficked women in states across the East Coast. The women he oversaw were paid $30 for 15 minutes of sex, while he and his accomplices pocketed tens of thousands in cash each year. In the country without authorization, Tellez has already been deported twice. Earlier this month, Campos was convicted in Virginia and received just 46 months -- or three and a half years of prison time -- for his crimes.

Freddy Soriano Leguisamon, 27, was charged in Maryland with 54 counts of general prostitution for pimping out mostly undocumented women. Leguisamon was sentenced in April to three years in jail for his crimes.

And three men, Nery Najarro-Rodriguez, 42, Jorge Perez-Hernandez, 37, and Luis Mata, 30, were sentenced for running a prostitution ring in Northern California, comprised mostly of undocumented women from Mexico, who were sold for sex to as many as 20 clients in a single day. Each man received just three years for his involvement in the ring.

In comparison, many cases involving growing or selling weed get much longer sentences. In recent months, this California man was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, this Oregon man to 15, and this Iowa man to 20 years -- all for growing or distributing marijuana. Those cases are all on the long end for marijuana-related sentences (the average time served for drug-related offenses being about 2.2 years) but they help illustrate just how comparatively short sentences for pimping can be.

For all the attention the drug debate receives, sex trafficking remains comparatively under-discussed problem. Roughly 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year, according to the most recent U.S. State Department estimates. And sex trafficking in Latin America generates an estimated $16 billion worth of business annually. One study estimated that at least 10,000 women from southern and central Mexico are trafficked for "sexual exploitation" to the northern border region each year.

The average sentencing length for sex traffickers in the U.S. is harder data to come by, but advocates say prison time for these crimes tends to be woefully short. So why don't traffickers face harsher sentences?

According to Dorchen A. Leidholdt, the Director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, there are numerous barriers to convicting pimps and human traffickers with a punishment that fits the crime.

One of the barriers is legislative. In many states, including New York, promoting prostitution is classified as a misdemeanor crime. (There's a bill in the New York State Legislature which would increase punishments to pimps and human traffickers, but it has been held up due to procedural complications.)

Another big problem is that federal law requires that prosecutors be able to prove force, fraud, or coercion by pimps, making it very important for victims to testify against their exploiters. But often times women are too scared to come forward, or feel that their pimps are their only source of protection due to concept called "traumatic bonding."

"Trafficking is a unique kind of crime because traffickers often brainwash their victims and use very sophisticated tactics to do so," said Leidholdt. "Not only do they physically abuse them, but they often make them believe that their safety depends on them, and manage to win their loyalty."

Leidholdt says this concept has been recognized in domestic abuse cases, and for that reason domestic abuse law requires only evidence-based prosecutions to convict perpetrators, instead of relying on testimonies of victims.

She believes prosecutors should be able to rely on evidence, like wiretaps, in trafficking cases as well, regardless of the quality of victim testimony. A father, son pair was acquitted from sex-trafficking charges in New York in June because the same prostitutes who were threatened with beatings if they didn't make enough money (according to wiretap evidence), testified on the father and son's behalf in court.

Short sentencing for human traffickers also means that victims are more fearful to come forward, pimps retain their power of prostitutes from behind bars, and prostitution rings are more likely to resume when traffickers are released from prison, according to Leinholdt.

"Legislators and prosecutors need to beat traffickers at their own game, which means changing the law," she said. "We have to find a way to be as sophisticated as traffickers are themselves."

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