14-year-old girl was state's first human trafficking case

Published: Mar. 2, 2010 at 3:49 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2010 at 1:50 PM EST
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Jesus Perez-Laguna
Jesus Perez-Laguna
Ciro Bustos-Rosales
Ciro Bustos-Rosales
Guatalupe Reyes-Rivera
Guatalupe Reyes-Rivera
By Jody Barr - email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - $32 billion -- that's how much United Nations officials estimate human trafficking is worth around the world.

Now, before you go and dismiss it as a crime that only happens elsewhere in the world, be aware that the Palmetto State has seen a human trafficking case.

Tucked away in a trailer park just a few miles outside the Columbia city limits was the center of South Carolina's first human trafficking case.

Inside was a child, smuggled into the US, then trafficked to a pimp and forced to service dozens of men a day in the Midlands.

"I told my agents, I said, 'We're going to treat this little girl like she's our daughter and we're going to hunt this little girl down and get her out of this trailer,'" said Ken Burkhart, an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Burkhart got a call from Mexican authorities in February 2007 about a 14-year-old runaway who called her sister in Mexico for help and gave a vague description of the trailer on Sharpe Road.

ICE agents put the trailer under surveillance. On Feb. 27, 2007, the agents moved in.

"Wasn't really seeing anything and with a minor being involved, I didn't want to wait much longer, so we made the decision to simply knock on the door. When I knocked on the door the 14-year-old answered the door," said Burkhart. "I was shocked. I didn't expect that, I expected anybody else but my girl to answer that door."

Unaware of who was inside, Burkhart knew he had to act fast.

"I told her we had been in contact with her sister and shook her hand and just gently led her right out of the door and I had several agents, along with officers from the Richland County Sheriff's Office who assisted, and just kind of passed her right over to those agents," said Burkhart.

It took days, Burkhart says, before the girl agents called "AR" could trust them.

"They have been trained not to trust law enforcement, that we're the bad guys, that we're really not there to help them, so initially AR would tell me that everything was fine, she was okay; she was in no danger," said Burkhart.

When she opened up, AR told investigators she was smuggled in from Mexico in July 2006 by  Jesus Perez-Laguna.

Perez-Laguna ran a sex trafficking ring in Charlotte where he pimped AR and several other girls out around the area for several weeks, pocketing the money the girls made.

AR told investigators she was then traded out to Guatalupe Reyes-Rivera, also known as Mama Martina, who lived in Columbia.

"She actually liked her because she didn't beat her like the man in Charlotte did," said Burkhart.

AR told investigators a third pimp, Ciro Bustos-Rosales, pimped her out at Columbia's Mauldin Village Apartments on Mauldin Avenue, a few miles away from Columbia College. The girl was forced to have sex with dozens of men a day.

In 2007, SLED director Reggie Lloyd was the US attorney who prosecuted the case against the three.

"We got our first look at really an organized human trafficking network in that case," said Lloyd.

It took Lloyd only six months to get convictions on Perez-Laguna and Bostos-Rosales.

"It ratchets up what is already a very horrible crime when you see women being treated like this, but when you see children being treated like this, it really makes you want to go after these guys and put them away," said Lloyd.

The obstacle for law enforcement is getting the public to accept the fact that human trafficking isn't a foreign crime.

"Most people don't believe that this is going on, most people that have never seen it, never heard of it, so it makes it very difficult for them, as the average citizens to take a look at a situation and say, you know, this could be a human trafficking case," said Lloyd.

David Thomas heads up the FBI's Columbia bureau.

"In it's most basic form, it's slavery," said Thomas.

Thomas says hot spots for trafficking include agriculture, strip bars, massage parlors, and tourist areas.

Department of Justice figures show worldwide, there are nearly 900,000 human trafficking victims, with 20,000 inside the United States.

Thomas says traffickers mainly target Asian and Latin American countries.

The FBI says traffickers use natural disasters like the Indonesian tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti to kidnap victims.

"They can be removed from those countries and no one knows who is the father of that child, or where is the family member, so it's something that we really have to gear up and look at when we see these types of disasters occurring around the world," said Thomas.

For Lloyd, the only way to break human trafficking cases is for the public and law enforcement to accept the reality that human trafficking is real, and to take a closer look at crimes, like prostitution that could lead authorities to something much bigger.

"These guys aren't going to stop with just the women they've already put in these situations, they're going to be constantly recruiting and bringing in more women and more girls into these situations," said Lloyd.

"If it's not for the attention, if it's not for the people understanding that yes, this is going on right here in our own backyard, it makes it very difficult for us to be able to identify and investigate these kind of cases," said Lloyd.

This case we profiled is still not closed.

Federal agents are still trying to hunt down Mama Martina, whose real name is Guatalupe Reyes-Rivera for her role in this trafficking case.

Both Perez-Laguna and Bostos-Rosales pleaded guilty in 2007. Perez-Laguna is serving a 14-year sentence, Bostos-Rosales is serving five-and-a-half years.

The penalties for trafficking carry up to life in federal prison, and in some cases, qualifies for the death penalty.

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