In Indiana, at least 2 inquiries are under way into rings that push
people into prostitution, slavery
By Kevin Corcoran
November 28, 2005
A false promise of a $500-a-week baby-sitting job lured illegal immigrant
Marlene Harpi from New York City to Indianapolis four years ago. But when
she arrived here, the job turned out to be quite different.
Police say Harpi was held in a Westside Indianapolis brothel and forced
to have sex with at least 15 to 20 men a day. Two Hispanic teenage girls,
who like Harpi had been recruited from New York, were also prisoners of
the prostitution ring.
Police and prosecutors say they suspect such cases of human trafficking,
which usually involves forced prostitution or labor, are increasing in
Indiana’s poorer immigrant communities. They have assembled a task force
to help overcome cultural and language barriers so they can prosecute
ringleaders and rescue victims.
“We are going to take down as many as we can and move up as high as we
can in these organizations,” said U.S. Attorney Susan W. Brooks, the top
federal prosecutor for 60 counties in Central and Southern Indiana. “It’s
not something people think of existing anymore, but we know it’s out
Brooks, while disclosing no details, said at least two investigations are
already under way into such human trade, described by some as a form of
The Honduran woman’s situation, the only publicized case of human
trafficking in Indianapolis, illustrates the difficulty of bringing the
traffickers to justice.
Harpi escaped after two weeks and went to police. But prosecutors,
ill-equipped in 2001 to deal with such an unusual crime, had to drop
charges against her captors three years ago. They lost their chief
witness after Harpi grew fearful and bolted from the hotel they had
housed her in for safekeeping.
Her captors, a ring of illegal immigrants from Colombia and Mexico, were
deported on the basis of their residential status.
“This was a classic case of what we’re looking for — but with a
different outcome,” Brooks said. “If we have a Marlene come forward in
the future, we can help her.”
Brooks’ office will oversee the effort to find and punish human
traffickers, working with groups such as customs agents, FBI translators
and undercover agents, U.S. marshals, Indianapolis and Marion County
police and local prosecutors.
Investigators also will work with nonprofit groups such as Heartland
Alliance, a service-based human rights group in Chicago that can provide
translators in Chinese, French, Polish and other languages.
A top priority
Brooks’ office coordinates other local-federal task forces dealing with
mortgage fraud, environmental crimes, gun violence, Internet pornography
Under President Bush, the Justice Department has made rooting out human
trafficking a priority nationally and internationally. Aided by a
$450,000 federal grant, the local task force already is training police
to pick up on clues that illegal immigrants might be part of a
Federal authorities usually uncover traffickers when they set out to find
them, said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, an attorney for the Midwest Immigration and
Human Rights Center, a program of the Heartland Alliance.
“People are surprised by the idea of human trafficking, but a lot of
people come up after training to say they’ve seen something like what
we’ve described,” said Ruiz-Velasco, whose group has helped train Indiana
Marion County will be the initial focus, especially along the Washington
Street corridor. But authorities expect to expand the search for brothels
and forced manual labor to area counties. Scrutiny will be given to
businesses such as nail shops, suburban massage parlors, landscaping and
construction companies and ethnic restaurants, according to federal grant
The task force also plans to train hospital emergency room workers,
landlords and code enforcement and public health officers to recognize
signs of human trafficking so they can notify police.
“An initiative like this can change the culture of law enforcement,” said
Liz Allison, who administers grants for the Indianapolis Police
One sign that a person is being held captive, officials said, is that
they are accompanied by someone who is holding their identification, so
they are not free to leave. Another tipoff might occur in a hospital
emergency room, for example, when someone shows up with another person
who does all the talking, and the first person does not seem free to talk
Recent news stories that hint at the trafficking problem include the
Bureau of Motor Vehicles scandal involving the illegal sale of Indiana
driver’s licenses to Chinese nationals; immigrant day laborers and
workers in Chinese and Mexican restaurants who are forced to work without
pay; and the multistate trafficking of truck stop prostitutes, according
Indianapolis police also cite the existence of brothels on the Southside
in which Spanish is spoken exclusively and the presence locally of Mara
Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Hispanic gang that has been known to traffic in
drugs and hold people captive as forced labor.
Illegal immigrants can stay
Under federal human trafficking laws, victims are treated as refugees
rather than illegal immigrants to be deported.
That’s why an additional $500,000 has been requested from the Justice
Department to pull together in the Indianapolis area a network of
services for victims, including food, clothing and shelter, to win their
trust and cooperation in prosecutions.
At the Justice Department’s request, The Julian Center, an Indianapolis
nonprofit that shelters domestic violence victims, would oversee the
grant and coordinate the delivery of medical care, housing, welfare and
other benefits, said Ann DeLaney, the center’s executive director.
Federal law also makes victims of human trafficking eligible for special
“T” work visas that give them a chance for U.S. citizenship in exchange
for their cooperation in criminal cases.
“These people come to this country to work,” said Gayle L. Helart, the
assistant U.S. attorney coordinating the human trafficking task force.
“They really want to work. That’s an important component of this.”
Finding a good-paying job in the United States was Harpi’s dream. She
told them a woman she met in New York City offered to bring her to
Indianapolis for the baby-sitting job.
After Harpi arrived in June 2001, she said, a man told her she would be
working instead as a prostitute in a duplex on West 16th Street. Harpi
also was taken to a duplex on Sherman Drive to work as a prostitute.
Harpi was warned that if she tried to escape, she would “disappear.” She
told police one captor slapped her face several times two days after she
had arrived from New York because a customer had complained about her.
One night, Harpi said, she escaped after one of her captors left a door
unlocked. She gave police enough evidence to search both homes and arrest
her captors on charges of criminal confinement and promoting prostitution.
Marion County prosecutors called in the FBI after Harpi ran away, but
agents were unable to find her. Barbara Crawford, the prosecutor assigned
to the case, said she has been told Harpi went back to her native country.
Prosecutors, believing the case was weak without Harpi, moved in April
2002 to dismiss all charges against her five captors in Marion Superior
“We don’t know why she left,” said Roger Rayl, a spokesman for Marion
County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi. “We think she was worried about being able
to continue to provide for her Honduran family.”
One woman’s 13 days of terror
Marlene Harpi arrived in Indianapolis from New York in June 2001,
believing she would be starting a $500-a-week baby-sitting job.
The Honduran woman, then 34, was told instead she would be working as a
prostitute in a duplex in the 3000 block of West 16th Street. Her captors
warned her that she would “disappear” if she tried to flee.
- Rice and beans: Police say a ring of illegal immigrants from Colombia
and Mexico held the Honduran woman in a Westside brothel, feeding her a
diet of coffee, bread, tacos, rice and beans. Harpi told police she and
two Hispanic teen girls also recruited from New York were forced to have
sex in upstairs bedrooms with at least 15 to 20 men a day. After three
days at the West 16th Street house, Harpi was taken to a duplex on
Sherman Drive just north of East Washington Street. There, her sex
slavery continued for another three days.
- The case crumbles: Harpi then returned to the West 16th Street house,
from which she escaped and contacted police after roughly a week.
Prosecutors opened a case but had to drop charges against her alleged
captors because of its unusual nature. They also lost Harpi, their chief
witness. She became afraid and left a hotel in which she was placed for
her own safety.
How the feds fight human trafficking
The U.S. government estimates 800,000 to 900,000 people are trafficked
globally each year, and that as many as 18,500 victims are brought into
the United States annually to suffer physical, sexual and emotional
They are predominantly women and children facing extreme poverty, a lack
of economic opportunities and civil unrest.
The federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000
expanded the legal definition of forced labor and put tough new criminal
penalties in place for traffickers.
Trafficking violations generally result from force, coercion, threats or
fraud. These offenses differ from human smuggling, which is done with the
consent of those being smuggled in exchange for money. However, people
smuggled into the United States can become trafficking victims.
Violations resulting in death or involving kidnapping or sexual abuse can
bring a sentence of life in prison. Most other violations are punishable
by at least 10 years in prison.
The federal government spent $81.8 million abroad during the 2004 budget
year to combat human trafficking internationally. Money was spent on such
projects as creating a radio-based soap opera on child trafficking in
West Africa and helping faith-based groups reunite children with their
families in Sierra Leone.
The U.S. Department of Justice also awarded anti-trafficking grants
totaling $13.1 million in 2004 to municipalities ranging from Collier
County, Fla., to Seattle. Most U.S. trafficking victims were found last
year in Arizona, California, Illinois, New York and Texas.
Help for victims
The Julian Center in Indianapolis has agreed to help coordinate services
for victims of human trafficking, including:
- Bilingual interpreters.
- Bus vouchers.
- Child care.
- Housing and household items.
- Job training and placement.
- Language instruction.
- Medical care through Clarian Health Partners.
- Mental health counseling.
- On-site legal services.
- Personal finance training.
- Public assistance such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.
- Preschool and grade school education.
- Substance abuse treatment
Source: Federal grant application
Trafficking tip line
Human trafficking can be reported by calling toll-free (888) 428-7581
between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. The U.S. Department
of Justice will relay reports to police.