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Journeys To The Underground

Peter Landesman Talks About the Sex Slave Trade

Peter Landesman's groundbreaking article in The New York Times Magazine, "Sex Slaves on Main Street,” inspired a national conversation on a topic left largely unspoken in the American media. Since the story's publication in January 2004, news articles, documentaries and websites worldwide have finally begun to shed light on the human and social costs of this multi-billion-dollar, multinational slave trade. And the federal government has initiated legislation and law enforcement programs to help stop the trade.  Now, with the release of Trade from Lionsgate Films, the shocking underworld first exposed by Landesman finds its most compelling expression in the deeply human story of a boy and a policeman's unlikely journey to reunite their families that have disappeared into the "tunnels” of international sex traffickers. 

With tens of thousands of women and children kidnapped each year by these prostitution and drug rings, Landesman contends that Americans can no longer remain bystanders to the global growth of sex trafficking, because these crimes are happening in their own backyard. 

"People who live in these towns I wrote about responded to the story with disbelief, rejection, horror at what was taking place next door,” he remarks from his home in Los Angeles. "It's a little like battered wife syndrome; they know it's happening to them, but they don't want to know. I don't think it's a matter of not accepting it. I just think people had no idea.” 

Landesman's five-month investigation of the "tunnels” of sex slavery across the U.S.-Mexican border lead him through a labyrinth of organized crime whose scope was as daunting as its motives. 

"It's an extraordinary economy, primarily because the capital it takes to start up a business is zero,” he reports. "You kidnap a girl, you pay her nothing. You don't pay anyone else for that human being. So you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year off a single girl.”

Of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children trafficked across international borders each year, approximately 80% are women and girls, and about 50% are minors, according to recent State Department reports. Landesman estimates that about 100,000 or more men, women and minors are trafficked into the U.S. every year. Still, he cautions that any numbers are merely a best guess when it comes to the trafficking of drugs, weapons, or humans: "After all, traffickers don't file with the IRS, and no one's at the border with a clicker counting who's coming across.” 

In his own reporting for The New York Times, Landesman discovered that many of these girls, some as young as 11 or 12, are forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day. The going rate starts at around $20, with clients paying as high as $100 if the girl is a virgin. "Just do the math,” says Landesman. "With each trafficker controlling five, 10 or 20 girls for 365 days a year, it's an enormous business.” 

Within the U.S., the sex slave market is stratified between low-end prostitutes brought in by Mexican field hands, and girls targeted for the high-end prostitution market who are kidnapped from countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Poland, the home country of Veronica in Trade. Many of these victims are enticed into the network by "travel agents” who lure them with exotic tales of becoming movie stars and supermodels, of living the good life under the waving palms and beckoning sun of Hollywood. Their dreams inevitably shattered, these girls can be seen entertaining clients in almost any local strip joint across America. Many are found "offering” their high-end services on the web, while still others are sold outright as chattel for tens of thousands of dollars each, via secret, password-protected Internet auctions. If any of the girls try to escape from these tunn


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