Last month, on a dead-end street in southwest Raleigh, police officers raided a small but bustling brothel.
Neighbors described cars coming and going throughout the days and nights; police found 75 to 100 condom wrappers in trash bags at the curb and 132 unused condoms in the flat-roofed house.
One of the operators was arrested, as were the two women working there at the time. They were charged with prostitution.
But, as in many cases of prostitution, there may be more to the story.
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The women told authorities that they had been working as blueberry pickers in the western part of the state and had been enticed to Raleigh by the promise of jobs in housekeeping. Once here, they said, they were forced into the sex trade.
Now the women are awaiting trial -- and possible deportation -- while the men who ran the brothel told WRAL-TV that they planned just to move their operation to another home.
If the women's story is proved, the case exemplifies an international problem that has begun to rear its head in North Carolina: the trafficking of human beings. In particular, the trafficking of women and children for sex.
Just this month, the issue was the topic of a conference sponsored by the Women's Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. The state, in fact, recently launched a task force to address sex trafficking, which the U.S. State Department calls a modern form of slavery involving force, fraud or coercion. The task force hopes to make sex trafficking, which is already a federal crime, a state offense.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are slowly beginning to view brothels -- particularly the uptick in the number of brothels serving the Latino community -- in a more sinister light.
Still, many law enforcement agencies, particularly in rural areas, remain largely ignorant of the possibility that women working in brothels may not be there of their own free choice.
"This is not an issue many people have had much experience investigating," said Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department. "The first part of learning is awareness that there is something to be learned."
As for the brothel in southwest Raleigh, Sughrue said he couldn't comment on it. But he noted that in many cases, an arrest can mark the beginning of an investigation, not the end.
The federal government estimates 14,500 to 17,500 victims are brought into the United States for forced labor each year, many of whom are sexually exploited women and children. They come, or are brought here, from Asia, Central America, South America, Russia and Eastern Europe.
It is often a fine line that distinguishes sex trafficking from prostitution. Trafficking victims are coerced into their roles, literally sold like pieces of equipment. (Average price, according to the U.S. State Department: $2,500.) Most victims have no idea they are entering the sex trade.
Many are lured out of poverty by wily operators who promise them lucrative jobs in factories, department stores and hotels.
When the women arrive, their passports or travel documents are taken, and they are soon forced into having sex for pay, sometimes with as many as 50 men a night.
At another brothel busted in Raleigh last fall, women and young teenagers were allegedly held under lock and key.
Many can't speak English. They are often afraid of the police. Sometimes they don't even know where they are.
Part of the education of law enforcement officers is training them to view these women as victims, not as common streetwalkers.
No awareness at sheriff level
It is a dramatic shift.
Under new federal laws, victims of trafficking can receive special visas to stay in the United States. They are eligible for shelter and other government assistance -- rather than jail time or a one-way ticket back home, only to be relocated to other brothels.
"In many ways this is similar to the way domestic violence was viewed 30 years ago," said David Munday, director of special operations for the N.C. Highway Patrol. Officers couldn't believe it happened.
Educating law enforcement officers on sexual slavery will be an uphill battle, Munday said. He cited a survey sent to all 100 sheriff's departments in the state. "Unfortunately, most of them had no idea" about human trafficking.
At least one responded tersely: "Don't want to know more."
"This is a horrible criminal act, where the contraband is human beings," said David Sobczyck, head of vice control for the Chicago Police Department and co-chairman of that city's trafficking task force. "Yet for the most part, it exists under the radar screen of the criminal justice system."
Putting a plan into action
How prevalent is sex trafficking in North Carolina?
"No one really knows," said Michelle Old, a social worker with the state Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Old helped organize the state's still-young task force on the topic. Its name is RIPPLE, which stands for Recognition, Identification, Protection, Prosecution, Liberation and Empowerment.
The task force taps the expertise of 35 agencies, from the FBI and immigration to the state departments of agriculture and labor. Its members have worked over the past year to come up with state legislation that will put the issue on the books in North Carolina and draw the attention of law enforcement agencies statewide.
They have also worked to put together a specific protocol for handling these cases. This is a guidebook of sorts that helps law enforcement officers recognize trafficking, interview and offer assistance to victims, pursue the legal cases and re-integrate victims back into the community, either here or in their home countries.
There are frustrations.
"We have not had one full case of human trafficking completed in this state," Old said. "From identification to prosecution to the reintegration of the victims, not one full case has been successfully completed."
Task force members have no doubt that the problem exists here.
North Carolina is host to the fifth-largest immigrant population in the United States -- growing dramatically from an estimated 20,000 in 1990 to more than 300,000 in 2006. That alone gives rise to suspicions that sex trafficking is an industry with a flourishing demand, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of Latino brothels in the state.
Learning at all levels
Many sex trafficking rings are aimed at servicing men who work in the fields as migrants. Others operate in cities.
Last fall, the U.S. Attorney's Office charged the alleged operators of three brothels in Wake County, including one in Raleigh, with trafficking women and teenage girls.
But not all trafficking occurs in such organized fashion, as Kayley Taber, assistant district attorney for Chatham County, pointed out at the recent conference in Research Triangle Park.
Taber worked with a girl not yet a teenager who was brought to Chatham from Florida by her father, or at least a man who claimed to be her father.
He set her up in business.
"She was so traumatized, she won't speak of what happened to her," Taber said. "When she was brought in, her system was full of vet medications; that's how she was being treated for worms."
Yet in that case, there have been no trafficking charges filed. In part that is because there is not a state law that speaks to the issue of sex trafficking.
Currently, the only laws specifically governing trafficking are federal.
And even the feds are still learning about trafficking -- how to identify it and how to pursue the cases.
"Six months ago, trafficking wasn't even on my radar screen," said Kevin Kendrick, the special agent in charge for the FBI in North Carolina.
Now he refers to it as his "pet project."
In December, when Kendrick put together the bureau's annual all-employee day, he brought in speakers to discuss human trafficking.
"This is a no-brainer for me," he said. "We think we have a serious problem here in North Carolina. Do we know that for sure? No, we don't. We just don't have a handle on it yet.
"But we will."