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Trail of darkness: Sex trafficking in Jackson Heights, New York


The scene resembles an image one might more likely expect to see in places like Bangkok, Manila, or Mexico City. Men of all shapes and ages hand out cards, bottle openers, or key chains that don images of half-naked women.

When night descends upon the streets of Jackson Heights in New York City, many families or couples, who only hours ago, spent their evening enjoying one or more of the neighborhood’s many Colombian cafes, Peruvian restaurants, or Ecuadorian pastry shops, scurry home, or just simply head elsewhere. When nightime comes to this section of Queens, New York, streets that were earlier teeming with shoppers, now witness many of the stores drawing their gates down, because another, seedier element is beginning to take over, and lining themselves along Roosevelt Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare.

The scene, resembles an image one might more likely expect to see in places like Bangkok, Manila, or Mexico City. Men of all shapes and ages hand out cards, bottle openers, or key chains that don images of half-naked women. These articles have come to be known as “chica cards.” This is the new face of street prostitution and sex trafficking in America, and in particular, in New York City.


Some of the methods may have changed, but several aspects of the sex industry have not. It is still an industry overflowing with unsuspecting women and young girls, whom are lured into a life of selling their bodies for money at the behest of men, and even other women, who in turn threaten cruelty to them if they choose to do otherwise. It is still an industry fueled by drugs, rape, and violence. And it is still an industry where among onlookers and law enforcement, sometimes, the label applied to who is the perpetrator or who is the victim is often confused or unwittingly interchanged.

Senator Jose Peralta, who has represented the nearby neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, as well as Jackson Heights, once referred to these areas as the “mecca of human trafficking,” where women and girls of all ages are transported from places like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela to be exploited, and in many cases, forced to work as prostitutes. Peralta commented in an article for in 2014, where he said that “they bring them right to Roosevelt Avenue.” Prostitution is practiced so openly in these areas, many have nicknamed these neighborhoods “old Times Square,” referencing the 70s, 80s, and 90s where the very heart of New York City was populated by more pimps, pushers, and prostitutes than there were tourists.

Few might suspect, that this trail of woe often does not begin in New York City. And nor does it even begin in the United States. It begins over two thousand miles away, across the U.S. border, in a southern Mexican town called Tenancingo in Tlaxcala, the smallest state in the in Mexico, populated by approximately 11,000 residents. Tenancingo serves as a transit point, which takes in women either lured or kidnapped from other locations around Mexico such as Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. According to Nina Lakhani of The Guardian, who covers Tlaxcala, writes that this little town is an, “unlikely hub of human trafficking.”

Like in Jackson Heights, many prostitution and human trafficking practices here are performed out in the open. In Tlaxcala, sometimes these practices go on even within eyeshot of Mexican police. However, arrests and punishments for these criminal acts come few and far in between. Prostitution rings Mexico, are often broken up with the help of the United States, since some of these rings collaborate with drug cartels, which make arresting perpetrators dangerous for Mexican law enforcement. However, surprisingly, much of the prostitution business here is also conducted by family-run outfits.

Tenancingo is a town that has seen its share of poverty, corruption, and unemployment, and where residents find prostitution to be a far more lucrative substitute to working in Tlaxcala’s few remaining factories. It is not uncommon for sex trafficking to be performed amongst brothers, cousins, and even husband and wife teams. So desirable has sex trafficking become as opposed to legitimate work, recent polling of this area has shown that approximately 1 out of every 5 males in Tlaxcala want to be pimps, or “padrotes,” as they are often called.  In fact, 5 out of 10 of the most wanted sex traffickers in the United States come from Tlaxcala, as reported by The Guardian in 2015.

Many women from Mexico, and elsewhere in Central and South America, are kidnapped and smuggled into the United States. But also, many of these women arrive in New York City because they have been lured. They come to the United States under the pretenses of marriage, better living opportunities, or legitimate lines of employment. These women soon find out that they have now entered a dark world, where they will be forced to work in dozens of brothels scattered throughout the tightly-packed apartment buildings of Jackson Heights, generally under the threat of violence.

Some are even coerced by having the lives of the families they left behind in Mexico, threatened if they do not follow the commands of their pimps. Some of these woman are forced to work in bars, where they will offer men attention if the customer agrees to buy them a drink. For the price of a alcoholic beverage, men are often allowed to fondle and grope these girls for long periods of time. Some women are even forced to do drugs to stay awake as a result of all the drinking their “employers” force them to do. According to PIX11’s Kirstin Cole, in an article written November of 2016 where she writes, “They live in fear that their family back home will be murdered,” and “If they complain, the women say they are beaten, and their families safety is threatened.”


Cut off from many of their family members in Mexico, and living under the threat of violence in the United States, these women whom are trafficked to New York City, have few places to turn for help. Senator Jose Peralta admits there is a desperate need for more resources to get these women and girls out of this industry. Some private organizations have been advocating for more, and better services for these women to provide a lifeline out of the sex industry. Attorney Lori Cohen, who works for a group called Sanctuary for Families, has been working on ways to provide a variety of services for these women such as setting up shelters and legal assistance for cases that involve victims of sexual exploitation. Family Justice Centers, with locations around New York City, also provides similar services for women and girls forced into a life in the sex industry by also providing legal representation in immigration cases.

Local politicians and law enforcement however, admit that putting an end to sex trafficking into the United States, and more specifically New York City, can be a daunting task. Both in Mexico and the United States, sex trafficking is an extremely lucrative business. Weak economies and fewer job opportunities are only exacerbating the problem, by drawing more willing participants into the trade.

Senator Peralta says busting these prostitution rings and brothels can often become a “game of whack-a-mole.” Once one brothel or ring is shut down, another one seems to pop back up in its place, and the types of participants tends to run the gamet. In 2008, The New York Times reported on a major sex trafficking ring, called the Carreto Clan, was broken up. This was a family-run sex trafficking ring, headed by a 61 year old woman, that was smuggling women and girls from Mexico to Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, New York. In an article for PIX11 in 2016, Assistant U.S. Attorney Taryn Merkl stated they had prosecuted at least 65 major sex traffickers in that one year alone, so it is clear that law enforcement alone will not fix what has become a rapidly evolving issue both in Mexico and the United States.