LOS ANGELES – Florencia Molina’s personal hellhole was a dressmaking shop on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She worked there up to 17 hours a day, seven days a week, and lived there, too, without the option of showering or washing her clothes. Other victims of American-style human trafficking have had very different venues for ordeals as bad or worse – brothels and bars in New Jersey, slave-labor farms in Florida, a small-town tree-cutting business owned by a New Hampshire couple. Trafficking is a stubborn problem and a staggering one worldwide, affecting an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 victims a year. Federal officials say 14,500 to 17,500 of them are trafficked to the United States, where the myriad forms of modern-day slavery present an elusive target for those trying to eradicate it. Victims have come from at least 50 countries in almost every part of the world, and are trafficked to virtually every state – to clandestine factories, restaurants, massage parlors, even private homes where women and girls are kept in servitude. Now a cashier at a discount store, Molina was enticed to California by a woman back home in Mexico’s Puebla state who promised a job and free housing. “I came to the United States with lots of dreams, but when I got here, my dreams were stolen,” said Molina, 33, who left three children behind in Mexico. On Jan. 1, 2002, she worked her first shift at the dressmaker’s, sewing roughly 200 party dresses over 12 hours. Later, the shifts stretched to 17 hours. Molina was locked into the shop at night – sleeping in a small storage room. The shop manager confiscated her identify documents. “For me, it was completely dark, without money, without English, no papers,” Molina said. “The owner told me, ‘You can try to do whatever you want. Dogs in this country have more rights than you.”‘ After 40 days, Molina summoned up the nerve to flee, and soon encountered FBI agents who were investigating the dress shop. They sought her cooperation in prosecuting the owner, and Molina – after difficult deliberations – agreed to help. “The owner had always told me I would pay the consequences – or my family in Mexico would suffer – if I went to the authorities,” she said. “But I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want one more person to be in the situation I was in.”‘ By cooperating, Molina received a T-visa, a status created by Congress in 2000 that allows trafficking victims who assist prosecutors to stay in the United States for three years and then apply for permanent residence. Molina’s three children have received permission to join her in California. Though Congress authorized up to 5,000 T-visas annually, less than 700 had been issued overall as of September. Some victim-support experts say the modest numbers result from overly strict criteria, notably the requirement that victims assist prosecutors. “It can be a very difficult decision to come forward … when a victim has every reason to believe a trafficker can make good on a threat against family members,” said Steglich, the Chicago attorney. Federal officials defend the rules as necessary to separate fraudulent claims from genuine ones and to put traffickers out of business. “These traffickers are extraordinarily evil,” said Bradley Schlozman, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. “If a victim doesn’t come forward, that trafficker is going to turn around and exploit other individuals.” Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families with the Department of Health and Human Services, said reaching victims is a key goal of a new federal program. Regional task forces have been formed; a national hotline is being advertised in ethnic newspapers. “The problem is the traffickers are very good at controlling their victims,” Horn said. “Getting the message directly to the victims is difficult.” Some people are abducted by criminals and brought to the United States, but many come willingly, swayed by promises of good jobs or marriage that prove false. Maria Suarez went from Mexico to Los Angeles legally in 1976, a 16-year-old with a sixth-grade education and no English. She was offered a housecleaning job at the home of a 68-year-old man who instead converted her into a virtual slave – threatening her if she told any one of the rapes and beatings that ensued. In 1981, the man was killed by a neighbor; Suarez agreed to hide the weapon, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Officials later confirmed Suarez’s claim of being battered; she was paroled in 2003 and certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa. Now 45, Suarez attends Pasadena City College, hoping to gain U.S. citizenship and become a social worker. She urges authorities to be understanding of sex-trafficking victims. “It was a disgrace,” she said. “How was I going to confront my family and tell them what was happening to me?” Before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, no comprehensive federal law existed to prosecute traffickers. Since 2001, the Justice Department says it has prosecuted 277 traffickers and obtained convictions in every case. Schlozman said the department is intent on combating all types of trafficking, but estimated that 75 percent of the prosecutions involved sex trafficking. Some victims’ advocates say the government stresses sex cases because they generate more news coverage or because they are a priority of conservative Christian groups loyal to the Bush administration. “Christian evangelicals see this as an important mission – rescuing women from sex trafficking,” said New York University law professor Michael Wishnie. “There’s a risk of distracting attention from much more common situations (in sweatshops) that many more people find themselves in.” Among the groups campaigning against slave labor is the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. One of its leaders, Laura Germino, said the government could undermine trafficking by cracking down on all types of abusive workplace practices. “You can’t view trafficking in a vacuum,” Germino said. “If you bring an end to sweatshops, you would curb trafficking.” An estimated 40 percent of trafficking victims are under 18; Given Kachepa was among them. As an 11-year-old orphan in Zambia, he was recruited into a boys choir that toured the United States for 18 months. Promises of education and money proved false, and the boys – constantly threatened by their handlers – endured an arduous concert schedule until authorities finally intervened. Kachepa was taken in by a Colleyville, Texas, couple who became his guardians. Now 19, he obtained a T-visa and entered college in August. “The most important thing is constant educating of people,” he said. “There’s help out there – but victims don’t know it.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week “Human trafficking is so hidden you don’t know who you’re fighting – the victims are so scared, they’re not going to tell you what’s happening to them,” said Given Kachepa, a former victim of a scam that exploited Zambian orphans touring the United States in a boys’ choir. He was later taken in by a Texas couple. Aligned against the traffickers is an array of federal, state and local government agencies, teamed up with an odd coalition of private groups that include Christian conservatives and left-of-center immigrant-rights advocates. The result is perhaps the most far-reaching anti-trafficking campaign of any nation, yet some victim-support groups question its effectiveness. They contend that federal criteria offering assistance to victims only if they help prosecute their traffickers deters some people from seeking help. Others say the government has placed too much emphasis on sex trafficking and too little on workplace abuses at sweatshops and farms. “We see sex cases being prioritized (by federal prosecutors), but other cases we’re having a hard time getting looked at,” said Elissa Steglich, an attorney for the Chicago-based Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center. “Whatever type of slavery you’re dealing with, they’re horrors all the same.” Molina was the beneficiary of one case in which the anti-trafficking campaign worked as intended. Her helpers – as she escaped from the dress shop, learned English and gained legal U.S. residence – included the FBI and the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, which provides victims with shelter, legal aid and other services.