In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there’s a small garden sheltered from the clatter of the street where young girls quietly play inside a treehouse. The purpose of this hideaway is almost unfathomable. The girls — many of whom had been sold into sexual slavery by their mothers — are brought to the garden by activists who rescue them. With the help of therapists, the girls are “de-eroticized” in hopes that they can abandon the sexually charged mannerisms they’d been encouraged to use and go on to lead something approaching the normal lives of children.
Lydia Cacho, a crusading Mexican journalist, traveled to the garden as part of the research for her courageously reported investigative work, Slavery Inc., which has now been expanded and released in an English-language version. During her visit, a girl named May startled Cacho by calling out in English, repeating a phrase that the child had heard men say to her before activists liberated her from a life of forced prostitution: “That’s it baby girl. … Good job.”
May was 9 years old.
Cacho finds versions of May over and over as she takes readers on a rambling world tour of human depravity to buttress her argument that globalization has contributed to the expansion of sex trafficking. In Burma, she hears from a woman who was sold to a soldier for the equivalent of $60 when she was 15. The woman was brutally gang-raped, then resold to a Thai brothel. In Japan, Cacho meets a Colombian woman trapped in “debt bondage” by human traffickers with the transnational Yakuza crime syndicate. A Hello Kitty notebook holds the tally of men she was forced to have sex with: 1,320 in 11 months.
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Cacho rose to international prominence in 2005, when she was seized by Mexican police outside a women’s shelter she founded in Cancun and driven across the county on a 20-hour odyssey. Officers threatened her at gunpoint with rape or death, Cacho has said. She characterized the incident as a reprisal for her book The Demons of Eden, which had been published months earlier and accused prominent Mexican businessmen of involvement in a child pornography and pedophile ring. Not long after she was released, she became a national cause celebre when an audiotape surfaced of a well-known Mexican politician plotting against her with one of the businessmen named in the book.
Her investigations have made her the target of frequent death threats. When she was promoting the Spanish-language version of this new book, the Argentine government assigned six bodyguards to shadow her during a visit to Buenos Aires, she writes in the English version.
Slavery Inc. has a scattered feel, furiously leaping from point to point and place to place. But, in flashes, the book crackles with the intrigue of a spy novel. In Istanbul, Cacho meets a mysterious police informant in a bar. Not here, he tells her. He orders a drink, doesn’t touch it, then slips out and “jumps on a streetcar, looking over his shoulder.” At a sleazy club in Cancun, she twirls on a stripper’s pole in her jeans to cultivate the dancers as sources. “To be a woman in this investigative field means having to become part of the ‘merchandise,’ and bait for the mafias,” she laments, “whereas a male journalist can pretend to be one of the ‘consumers.’” Once, Cacho writes, a Mexican mafioso waited for her as she left a restaurant bathroom. “You are the bravest woman in this country,” he said. He’d get no argument from me.
Cacho writes with the zeal of an activist. Her heroes are the rescuers, the men and women who save sex-slavery victims and try to heal them. But she has much to criticize: Israeli politicians who she says misrepresent reality by using “rosy” statistics, feminists who want to legalize prostitution, police and other officials in countries throughout the world who treat victims with a lack of sensitivity. “Political will or its absence is a key factor in understanding why human slavery has remained a horrific issue; focusing on isolated cases makes it seem like a criminal phenomenon, a complex conundrum of disparate, individual stories, exaggerated by the fevered imaginations of NGOs.”
For all her passion, Cacho has a tendency to make sweeping declarations that aren’t always supported by concrete evidence. For instance, she writes, without further explanation, that “mafiosi enter into open-ended economic agreements with ambitious politicians who need to improve their standing to avoid being punished in Washington.” And she undercuts her deep field research by making clunky generalizations, such as: “The mafia will always try to convince us that we are free when, as consumers, we enslave others, and that women are free because they can choose whether they want to be their clients’ slaves. The left and postmodern feminists are not the only ones to buy this argument. Hiding behind the clergy’s gown and the crucifix, the right, who enjoy high-level prostitution, also support it.”
But while Cacho sometimes falters at the macro level, she excels at the micro level. She conducts important primary research that could be of significant use to policymakers engaged in combating an international scourge. She extracts chilling details from victims about how traffickers control them by confiscating travel documents, essentially trapping them in foreign lands. And she explains with clarity and great compassion how children sold into sex slavery can become outcasts, unable to ever return to their communities.
“The girls become convinced,” Cacho writes, “that they belong to an undesirable caste.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia reviewed this book for The Washington Post.