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December 7th, 2005 Angela Valdez | News Stories
 

Esclavitud En Portland/Slavery In Portland

Portland's Latino drug sellers increasingly are victims themselves—of human traficking.

     
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Es ilegal que te obliguen a trabajar o prestar servicios sexuales para pagar una deuda. Si has sido víctima del tráfico humano, o conoces a alguien que ha sido víctima, puedes recibir ayuda confidencial a través del programa de Alcance y Apoyo para Poblaciones Inmigrantes Especiales de Caridades Católicas. Conéctate a la línea de apoyo para víctimas del tráfico humano marcando el 503-515-9902 las 24 horas, o marca el 503-231-4866 ext. 113 durante horas de oficina.

The mug shot shows an olive-skinned man with solemn, full lips and a thinning brush of black hair. His left eye squints in the glare of the flash, while his right eye, a prosthetic, stares back, wide open and a little off center. A police report lists his measurements—5 feet 4 inches, 160 pounds—and his date of birth, Nov. 19, 1963.

Maquiavelo Reynaldo Hernandez-Gomez lost his right eye after getting shot in the face; both his father and grandfather were killed in violent disputes. Such brutality may sound fitting for a criminal caught selling cocaine and heroin last September at Portland's Gateway Transit Center. But Hernandez-Gomez, now serving a 70-day sentence and awaiting deportation, claims he sold drugs only under threat of violence, bound to repay a debt for being smuggled here from Honduras.

Hernandez-Gomez is not alone. According to police and other observers, an increasing number of the mostly young men who sell drugs in Portland are victims of human trafficking. Most come from Honduras and Mexico, lured to the United States with promises of work. In exchange for safe passage over the border, they incur a debt that must be paid in labor—with fists and loaded weapons to back up collection. Their new jobs place them at the bottom rung of the local drug trade: street-level salesmen peddling $20 bags of smack along the MAX line.

"It's a big problem," says lawyer David Shannon, who has represented several young men he believes to be victims of trafficking. "What makes it remarkable is that you always see individuals engaging in what is defined as criminal behavior as 'criminals.'" Forcing illegal immigrants to sell drugs, he says, blurs the line "between who is a victim and who is a criminal."

But this is not a problem in need of legislation. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a law targeting the perpetrators of human trafficking and offering protection and services to their prey. Nonetheless, there have been no federal prosecutions in Oregon, and only 10 local victims have been certified to receive federal benefits.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Stuckey, who is assigned to prosecute Oregon human-trafficking cases, says his office is not responsible for launching investigations and that law-enforcement groups simply haven't presented him with enough evidence for a case. Asked whether he thinks trafficking occurs here, he says, "I don't know enough to say whether it does or doesn't."

Multnomah County Juvenile Court counselor Sylvia Montes says if investigators can't find proof of trafficking in Portland, "they haven't talked to anyone in juvenile court. My experience is that it is happening here. It's heartbreaking."

This summer, Hernandez-Gomez went looking for a way to smuggle himself into the United States.

Because he could not find work in Honduras, he later told police, he decided to leave his wife and three children in search of work. Hernandez-Gomez borrowed $2,000 and gave the money to a Mexican man in exchange for a promise of passage into the United States. The man put Hernandez-Gomez on a train headed north to Piedras Negras, a busy city on the Mexican side of the Texas border known as La Puerta de Mexico, or Mexico's Door. But when the train pulled into the station, no one was waiting to guide the way across the Rio Grande and into Eagle Pass, Texas. Hernandez-Gomez left the terminal and began wandering the streets, searching for someone who could help him make the crossing.

After a week of hunting, he met a coyote, a specialist in smuggling illegal immigrants across the border, who offered the service for $1,000—a debt to be repaid in labor. On the other side, he said, they would meet another man who would give Hernandez-Gomez a job, making it easy to work off the price of passage. So the men crossed the border on foot—as thousands do every day—and, as promised, a Mexican man met them with a car. Hernandez-Gomez climbed in and they drove straight to Oregon.

Arriving in Portland in mid-August, they were greeted by a drug dealer called Primo who laid down a new set of rules: Hernandez-Gomez would have to sell heroin and cocaine to pay off the $1,000 he owed. When Hernandez-Gomez pleaded for a regular job, Primo threatened to find his family and make them suffer. So Hernandez-Gomez accepted a cell phone from Primo and moved into the Barberry Village apartments on Southeast 188th Avenue in Rockwood. His roommates also had phones from Primo and made deals to meet buyers at stations up and down the MAX line. Primo collected the roommates' earnings every day, but no one seemed to be keeping tabs of how much they had made, or how much debt remained.

About a month after he arrived, on a mild September night, a police informant bought $60 in heroin and $60 in cocaine from Hernandez-Gomez in a small garden at the west end of the Fred Meyer near the Gateway Transit Center. He was arrested and charged with distribution and possession of a controlled substance. But Hernandez-Gomez told his story to Sheriff's Deputy Tim Wonacott and, two weeks later, to Deputy Dan Rendon of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

Rendon had just taken on a challenging assignment: overseeing a new task force on human trafficking. Funded by a $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the program pairs law enforcement with social-service agencies that reach out to trafficking victims and help investigate perpetrators. In announcing the grant, Justice Department officials pointed to Portland's role as a gateway into the United States.

Rendon, who is Mexican-American, had first heard stories like Hernandez-Gomez's early last summer, before he started working on the task force. Responding to a request to interpret on a narcotics bust, he listened with skepticism as a skittish teenager sitting on 30 balloons of coke and heroin in an SUV explained that he sold drugs because he owed money. "In the first place, I had never heard of it," Rendon says of the "excuse." "It was just a new lie, and crooks are always coming up with new lies."

Over the next few months, Rendon heard the same story twice more, from young men who seemed genuinely scared. When he asked them how much they owed or how long they expected to work, he says, the answers "were just a bunch of 'I don't knows.'" Rendon remembered childhood trips to his father's hometown, a dilapidated village in the state of Nuevo León that didn't get electricity until 1966. Parents watched their children die or grow disfigured because they couldn't treat a common cold or a broken bone. "Poverty," he says, "makes people do things that are unbelievable."

Like selling themselves into slavery. While clinging to his doubts, he decided to believe the "excuse." And now, he believed Hernandez-Gomez.

In an industrial-beige room at the Multnomah County Detention Center, the Rendon and Hernandez-Gomez talked for less than an hour. Rendon has a disarming presence out of uniform: rumpled sweaters, drooping eyelids and a gray-flecked mustache. But he couldn't get his subject to spill the details he needed—like Primo's full name or his address. Even when Rendon told him that protections were available in exchange for helping mount a prosecution, Hernandez-Gomez still clammed up.

At the end of his report, Rendon recommended halting the investigation. "Even though Mr. Hernandez-Gamez [sic] appears to be a victim of human trafficking," he wrote, "he does not wish to participate in services available to him and is unwilling to cooperate with suspect identification." The inquiry stopped there. Police never raided the apartment in Gresham. Investigators never tracked down Primo. Rendon says there was nothing more he could do.

He says he is frustrated that he can't push subjects like Hernandez-Gomez to turn on their abusers. Because these men are victims, Rendon says, it is unethical to compel them to provide information, and the federal anti-trafficking law denies benefits to adults who refuse to cooperate with prosecutions. In several cases, Rendon has simply stepped back and relinquished a case to outreach workers at Catholic Charities, which also participates in the local anti-trafficking task force. Catholic Charities receives federal funds for a separate anti-trafficking program and said in October that it was investigating 14 cases of human trafficking.

The nonprofit refuses to discuss even the most general details of clients' cases, saying exposure would put staff and victims at risk. Their fears may be well-founded. The last Portland nonprofit to launch an anti-trafficking campaign, run by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, halted its efforts a year ago after caseworkers received threats of violence. Officials at IRCO refused to speak on the record about the incidents.

If police, like Rendon, won't lean on victims to give up their captors, and nonprofits stand down in the face of violence, it is hard to see how anything will change unless the two groups work together. Catholic Charities caseworkers admit they are tentative about cooperating with police. And many police still see trafficking, as Rendon once did, as an excuse.

Perhaps those with the most street-level knowledge of human trafficking in Portland are those who straddle the line between law enforcement and social work.

Officially, Sylvia Montes is a counselor in Multnomah County Juvenile Court. In reality, her job is a combination of probation officer and therapist. She says she's seen nearly two dozen cases of Latino boys arrested for selling drugs who fit the description of trafficking.

"A generic profile is of a young man, anywhere between the ages of 15 up to 25," she says. From rural villages in Honduras, she says, most travel on their own through Mexico, hopping freight trains and hitchhiking. Those who are able pay a coyote to cross at the border, she says. Many of the rest are sold into debt bondage, often ending up with jobs that place them at risk of arrest.

"Some come with the knowledge that they're going to sell drugs," Montes says. "Most don't. They're innocent. These kids are naive enough to come up and think they're going to work. And then once they start in, they're literally bound by the contract to pay the coyote."

The connection between Honduras and Portland is still something of a mystery to observers here, who believe a loose network of small-time dealers and drug runners has built a mini-pipeline that funnels desperate youth to the Northwest and western Canada.

In Portland, Montes says, the young men live in apartments along the eastside MAX line, often crowding between eight and 13 people in a one-bedroom unit. Police say bosses charge each tenant about $100 in monthly rent. Trafficking experts say such fees for living expenses—which can quickly eclipse any earnings—make a victim's existence more like slavery than simple debt. (The property manager at Barberry Village, where Hernandez-Gomez lived, says she has been cracking down on renters who try to cram more than the permitted number of residents into apartments. Rebecca Cook says it came as a "total surprise" to hear that residents were suspected of selling drugs.)

Bosses often share apartments with their captives, or live nearby. Honduran or Mexican women stay in the cramped quarters as well, cooking and cleaning in addition to "keeping control over the whole situation," says Montes. "They're not a mother figure, nothing like that."

Mornings begin with a delivery of dozens of packets of cocaine and heroine. Each bindle has been painstakingly prepared by wrapping a mound of black tar or white powder in a two-ply square of plastic from grocery-store bags and sealing it with a match. The young men board MAX trains with the tiny sacks hidden in their cheeks—a few swallows can destroy the evidence. Usually, they travel in groups of two or three, with an older man stationed nearby. "Somebody always has an eye on them," Montes says. They leave the train to take up posts on busy platforms and wait for customers to approach them. Some wander off in the direction of pre-arranged buys. They sell to anyone and everyone, from smack-addicted prostitutes—who can buy a $20 bindle of chiva for only $8—to West Hills cokeheads stocking up for a rager.

Back in the apartment, they turn over most of what they make. According to Montes and several law-enforcement sources, the young men report that their captors assert their authority by brandishing guns or threatening to contact an enforcer in Honduras and take revenge on their families.

"Those threats have special currency because Honduras is such a small country," says defense attorney Shannon. "Somebody could actually do that—they could go to that region and find their family."

Shannon says many Americans simply don't believe such stories of violent retribution.

"The question is always asked: How can you keep a prisoner in this country?" he says. "How can you control someone so completely that they work for you without wages or sell drugs for you without running away?"

The answer, he says, is that immigrants from rural villages feel so out of place in the United States that they cling to what they know best, even if the most comforting connections are to men who hold them in subjugation. For that reason, many young men sold into debt bondage return to the network of captors even after they're arrested and deported. Most don't identify themselves as victims of human trafficking—the phrase doesn't even translate into Spanish.

In the likely event of arrest, Montes says, the young men are told to claim they are juveniles. Because of their short stature and lack of documentation, such claims are hard to disprove.

Montes has one client whose drug charges were dismissed because he was able to convince a judge that he had been brought to Portland under duress. "He's intelligent," she says. "He was able to verbalize and really be very credible about telling how it was that he was brought here and forced. When you're locked in a room at gunpoint, that's a real life-threatening situation." Montes says the teen is now in process of applying for federal trafficking-victim benefits.

According to police and social workers, most officers don't ask about trafficking when they arrest young Latino suspects for selling drugs. Dan Rendon says cops don't realize that trafficking exists in Portland and don't know what warning signs to look for.

West Helfrich has been asking questions for 10 years. One of a handful of Portland police officers who speak Spanish, he began noticing young Latinos dealing tar heroin on the bus mall in the 1990s. "You get interested," he says. "You wonder, what would make a 14-year-old kid come on the street and start selling drugs?"

Like Rendon, Helfrich believed the young men had a rational fear of violent retribution.

"They always say they're much more afraid of their bosses than us," he says. On rare occasions when the television news reports the discovery of murdered brown-skinned boys in a field out in Gresham, he fears the worst. "In my mind, I have no doubt it's something like that," he says, shaking his head.

Asked whether he thinks the boys are victims or criminals, Helfrich responds instantly: "Victims, yeah, but boy, what can we do with them? They come up here and commit crimes. If you're looking at the big picture, they're definitely victims, but if you're looking at the factual...they're criminals."

Regardless of an individual officer's sensitivity to the issue, most drug arrests of illegal immigrants result in a call to immigration officials. Some police are less likely to call immigration if a suspect claims to be a juvenile.

Whenever a youth is released, Montes says, "they always run." Some hop trains headed back to Honduras, others wander into the open arms of new captors and get arrested again. Montes has clients in Portland who've been arrested in New York, Vancouver, B.C., and California.

Montes also faces disbelief about why a young man would put himself in such a situation.

"Who wants to leave their country of origin, the language they're comfortable with and their families, to come to the unknown?" she asks. "And yet they do it. My grandparents did it, and many have. You want an opportunity to offer your children something better. That is the vision. Some of us were very lucky, it took. These kids want the same thing.

"The drug trade itself is such a huge issue, and these kids are just a little piece of sand in the whole scheme of things," Montes continues. The sorrowful part, she adds, is that these kids are the ones who get arrested: "They're the ones who are penalized, and that's the attraction for the dealer and the cartel. They're expendable."

Last Sunday evening, at the Rockwood apartment complex where Hernandez-Gomez lived, the dimming light brought with it a bustle of activity: mothers and fathers coming home from work, young men taking up positions outside the 7-Eleven across the street or standing on the sidewalk in the open door of a running car. Residents spoke tentatively to strangers. Most said they had arrived only last week or last month; most were from Honduras or Mexico. They said they knew many immigrants became indebted to coyotes to get to the United States. A few, like a diminutive Mexican woman who works nights, said they didn't doubt that some of the men selling drugs do so to repay a debt. Two young men in cowboy boots and denim button-down shirts sat with legs splayed on some steps and said the complex was "tranquilo," or quiet. A young woman passing on foot said she was scared, and that police came all the time. Mostly, the residents said they keep to themselves, hurry from work to home and mind their own business. No one remembered Hernandez-Gomez.


Debt bondage blurs the line between smuggling, in which paid agents transport people over borders, and trafficking, which entails continued abuse after the checkpoints have been crossed.

An estimated 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed in 2000, defines labor trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery."

If you are a victim of human trafficking or know someone who is, confidential help is available through Catholic Charities' 24-hour Trafficking Line at (503) 515-9902 or during business hours at (503) 231-4866, ext. 113.

The TVPA offers services to certified victims of human trafficking and allows officials to extend a victim's stay in the United States with a T visa or a special status called "continued presence." To qualify for the visa, adults must help with a prosecution.

Since 2001, 752 trafficking victims have been certified to receive benefits and 633 have been allowed to remain in the United States through continued presence or a T-visa certification.

The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's offices have prosecuted 291 traffickers since 2001.

 
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