As a means to flee Cuba, six young women agreed to work in Miami as exotic dancers.
That was the deal to pay off a $20,000 smuggling fee from the island to Mexico and ultimately into the United States.
But instead of simply stripping, they were forced into sex slavery in Miami. They were locked up, mistreated and forced into prostitution until police rescued them in September, according to federal court documents. Their ordeal has become the first known criminal case involving Cuban women brought to the United States for sexual exploitation.
Prosecutors charge that 31-year-old Silvio Clark Morales — who faces trial later this month on 16 charges, including sexual trafficking and exploitation of women — offered to guide the women out of Cuba and find them jobs as strippers in Miami, promising they would not have to have sex with clients. In return, the women agreed to pay him $100 a day of their earnings until they paid off the $20,000.
But once here, court documents say, the terms changed. Morales, AKA “Jander” and “Silvito,” increased the debt to $55,000 and forced them into prostitution, according to court documents.
The women are 21 to 25 years old. Most of them, like Morales, are from Camagüey province in eastern Cuba. They left Cuba in 2015 and 2016, amid an exodus from the island that has been increasing since the Obama administration announced a change of its policies toward Cuba.
The legal documents in the case, first reported by Univisión 23, a news partner of el Nuevo Herald, indicate that Morales did not work alone and moved easily between Florida and Cuba, and perhaps Mexico and Central America as well.
The documents show he traveled to Cuba to meet the women, some of whom he first made contact with via Facebook. In one case, Morales picked up one woman in Cuba and “transported her to a boat” that took her and a dozen other people to Cancun in Mexico, the documents said.
Yoel Trujillo, who acknowledged that he guarded the women in Miami, told Univisión 23 reporter Erika Carrillo in June that the operation was part of a people smuggling network that operates between Cuba, Mexico and the United States.
“We took them to the [Mexican immigration] detention center to get them papers, made a deal with a lawyer that Silvito has there, then sent them money by MoneyGram and he put them on an airplane to the border,” Trujillo said.
One of the women said she met Morales in Honduras when he was introduced as a smuggler who could get her to the United States, according to the court documents. Another victim said she sent money through Western Union to “associates” of Morales in Mexico.
The documents do not say when Morales came to the United States, but Trujillo said he arrived four to five years ago and obtained his permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The case could prove to be a test of new levels of cooperation between U.S. and Cuban authorities that began after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. A colonel in Cuba's Interior Ministry visited Miami in February to meet with U.S. officials from the departments of Homeland Security (DHS), State and Justice about human trafficking and immigration fraud. DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and federal prosecutors in South Florida declined to comment on the case because it remains under investigation. They also declined to say whether Cuban authorities are cooperating with the investigation.
Two of Morales’ victims escaped from the apartment in the Allapattah neighborhood of Miami on Sept. 6 and went to police, who arrested Morales the same day. He was indicted later that month. He faces up to life in prison if convicted on the string of charges, which also include human smuggling and possession of weapons during criminal activities. Morales’ court-appointed attorney could not be reached Thursday.
The other four women were found in the same Allapattah apartment complex where they and Morales lived. Several neighbors told Univisión 23 that they knew about the activities going on inside.
The operation to rescue the victims and arrest Morales was conducted by agents from Homeland Security, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Human Trafficking Task Force from the Miami Dade State Attorney's Office.
Univisión first aired a report on the case this week, which included the June interview with Trujillo. He told the TV channel that he was in charge of receiving the young women in Miami, guarding them and transporting them to night clubs and hotels to meet clients, all on orders from Morales.
Trujillo said they hid their passports and the food stamps they are entitled to as Cuban migrants.
“I admit that I was guilty, but I had the courage to break with it and talk about it because of the women because of their fears, even though I know all of this could cost me,” Trujillo told the television station. “One day I went to pick up one of them up at a hotel that they use, on the edge of the airport, and she was with two men,” he said. “It was clear that she came out destroyed, her body, you understand me? That hit me pretty hard.”
Trujillo added that Morales did not allow the women to go to the hospital when they were ill.
The women have said that Morales threatened them, and some declared that he beat them. He pointed a pistol at one woman and at the boyfriend of another “because they were breaking his rules,” according to the legal documents. He drove another to a bridge and threatened to throw her off, the women said.
“You could say they are also sex slaves because they had to be with him,” Trujillo said.
Morales also threatened to kill the women’s relatives in Cuba if they left him. The mother of one of the women who escaped confirmed that he threatened her on the island.
Morales went to Cuba “and told the mother that if she ]the young woman] did not return in a week he was going to kill the son [she had left in Cuba] and was going to have her killed here in the United States, that he had the power to do it,” Trujillo said.
Univisión reported that Trujillo’s information eventually led authorities to the Allapattah building where the four women were found three months later. His name does not appear in the court documents but knowledgeable sources told the channel that he could be called in for questioning.
Sgt. Mary Pérez, with the human trafficking unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department, told Univisión that her unit has noticed a recent increase in the number of Cuban prostitutes.
“This year we’ve found many more Hispanics than last year,” Pérez said. “This year we’ve had more recently arrived Cubans.”
The U.S. State Department’s last annual report on people smuggling listed Cuba on its “Tier 2” Watch List of countries that don’t do enough to combat the crime. It notes that Cuban citizens are victims of sex trafficking and forced labor in Latin America and the Caribbean, but does not mention Cuban victims in the United States.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, both Cuban Americans, alleged that the Obama administration pushed the State Department in 2015 to move Cuba from its worst classification, “Tier 3,” to the “Tier 2” Watch List. Many Cuban American members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly denounced the existence of Cuban criminal networks that operate on both sides of the Florida Straits.
A State Department spokesperson told el Nuevo Herald that Cuba and the United States are holding “productive discussions” on human trafficking and called it “an area of mutual concern.”
The spokesperson referred to a January trip to Havana by Susan Coppedge, U.S. ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, “to discuss efforts to combat trafficking in persons with a broad range of Cuban officials.
“We hope to plan another exchange in Washington next year.”