SALT LAKE CITY — At 14, a young girl in El Salvador faced one of the most painful decisions she would ever make.
She was full of questions. Her father, whom she had met for the first time, was promising regular financial support that could pay for school and get her out of a home with no running water and only occasional electricity. He wanted to come back and visit her. Maybe one day, he would take her to live with him in the United States.
But there was no question about one thing: The way he touched her was wrong.
Now 29, the woman took the witness stand in a Salt Lake courtroom last week to describe the years that followed. Her father is charged with rape and sexual abuse, accused of keeping her as "his woman" for eight years after she arrived in Utah — eventually impregnating her.
"My mom always told me he was my dad, and my dream was to meet him," the woman testified, speaking in Spanish. "I felt that he could be a support in my life, I felt that I would have someone who could care for me."
While it is an uncommon and shocking example, the case highlights some of the painful challenges that come with trying to identify and investigate human trafficking. Discussing trafficking in general terms, Russell Smith, SECURE section director for the Utah Attorney General's Office, described the increased anonymity the internet provides for traffickers, the psychological chains that hold victims hostage, language and cultural barriers, fear of police and the justice system, and the threats and manipulations that traffickers use.
"I think the message that the A.G.'s office wants out there is that this happens in our own backyard," Smith said. "Young children are being taken advantage of, and they're being taken advantage of in Utah."
Jose Balam Valencia, 53, was charged in 3rd District Court earlier this year with aggravated human trafficking, a first-degree felony, after missed deadlines by federal investigators moved the option to prosecute the case into the state's hands. Three counts of rape were added later, but the trafficking charge was not actually available to prosecute the case and was dropped.
"That statute didn't actually go into effect until two years after she got here," prosecutor Melenie Serassio said.
After this week's preliminary hearing, Valencia was ordered to stand trial on the remaining rape charges as well as three new charges of forcible sodomy, also first-degree felonies.
Serassio said a limited number of trafficking cases are prosecuted in the state, both because they are under-reported and are often handled at the federal level.
"I know they happen, I think people just don't report them," Serassio said. "I think they happen a lot, actually. I hate to say it. When you read about minor sex trafficking, it's happening every day, all the time."
Following the hearing, the woman told the Deseret News she is working to build a life for herself, even as the case against her father moves forward. She declined to discuss her experience out of a desire to protect the ongoing case but consented to having her story told.
The woman, whom the Deseret News has chosen not to identify, is now in a loving relationship with the friend who helped her find courage to approach police, she said, as she strives to support her daughter financially and the little girl adjusts to being allowed to be around different people for the first time in her life.
"I want so much to improve myself," she said. "I would like to study and so many things to raise my daughter and give her everything she deserves."
Valencia's daughter testified this week of her father's regular visits to El Salvador after that first meeting. For five years, Valencia would visit about every six months, she said. Each time, he would want to have sex with her.
If she complied, she could continue receiving $100 each month for her family, the woman explained. If she refused, Valencia told her the money would stop.
"He told me that if he I slept with him my life was going to change and I was going to have everything I wanted," she testified, describing carrying water long distances to her house and selling homemade pupusas to try to support her family. "I didn't want to keep living the way that I was."
Smith noted that promises of love are a common method to ensnare victims. In instances of prostitution, another lure is the possibility to make "big money," which they never actually see, while another is an option to feed a victim's drug addiction.
"Feigned love seems to be one of the No. 1 ways to get the victim into the arena," Smith said.
When she was 19, Valencia offered the bring the woman and her brother to Utah, splitting the cost three ways to have a "coyote" smuggle them across the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Though she knew more abuse likely awaited her when she arrived, the woman agreed, hoping for a better life, she explained.
"I didn't want to do it, but that was a price I had to pay to come up here," the woman testified.
When she arrived, Valencia found a number of ways to control her, the woman said. She was rarely allowed to leave the house where they shared a basement bedroom. When she did leave, it was to go to work at a local fast-food restaurant where Valencia pushed her to make her schedule match his and required she call him on her breaks.
Her paychecks were directly deposited into a bank account controlled by Valencia, who would give her only a small cash allowance, as she paid her share of the $16,000 that had gone to the coyote for her trip to the states.
Once a year, she was allowed to use money from her tax refund to mail a box of clothing to her siblings in El Salvador.
Both in sex trafficking and labor trafficking, debt bondage, Smith said, is a powerful force.
"They really push the debt bondage. That 'I brought you to the country, you have to pay me back, and you can't go anywhere until you pay me back,'" Smith said. "These people are generally good people and they want to pay the person back, but what they don't realize is, No. 1, that's illegal, and No. 2, they've paid them back hundreds of times over but they're still being kept there over those issues."
But the biggest control of all, she said, was the threat that if she didn't do as she was told, including sexually, Valencia would force her back to El Salvador.
"He always said that I had to do it, otherwise he was going to send me back to El Salvador and it would be the way it was before, when I didn't have food," the woman said.
After their daughter was born, Valencia would threaten to take the child away if the woman ever told anyone the truth about them, she testified.
Threats against children or family members are common in human trafficking scenarios, according to Smith.
However, on cross examination, defense attorney Daniel Black questioned whether the relationship was consensual and happy, showing the woman printouts of text conversations and photos of her and Valencia together, including photos with their daughter. The woman replied that Valencia kept constant contact with her and this was the role he had wanted her to play.
"This makes me sick," she muttered as she flipped through the pages.
The woman ended her testimony describing how she finally confided two years ago in a friend and coworker, revealing who she really was and the situation she was living in. With her courage bolstered, she began preparing to leave Valencia's home and to talk to police.
In many cases, fear of law enforcement and the justice system instilled in victims from traffickers keeps them from cooperating with prosecution, Smith said.
"They feed them information about what horrible things law enforcement are going to do to them, what prosecutors are going to do to them, so they're really afraid of us, usually, to begin with, so we have to break down those barriers," Smith said.
Despite abuse and threats from Valencia when he realized what was happening, the woman reported the alleged crime. Asked if she remembers the day she left, she responded without hesitation.
"Dec. 31, 2013," she replied. "I will never forget it because that was the day I felt free."
Ordered to stand trial, Valencia is scheduled to return to court Aug. 22.
Compared to many states, Smith said, Utah laws do much to protect victims without heaping their own criminal charges on them.
"They treat them as the true victim that they are. We're ahead of the game on a lot of areas," Smith said. "That doesn't mean we're not identifying, as we come across new things, things that can be changed in the statute to make it better, because we do that constantly."4 comments on this story
Because of the secrecy and anonymity that surrounds a variety of trafficking scenarios in an increasingly digital age, Smith noted the important role that alert citizens can play to combat the issue. Members of the public, he said, may see red flags that are out of law enforcement's view, and shouldn't hesitate to contact their local police on behalf of those who can't for a number of reasons.
"There are psychological links that bind (victims) to their trafficker," Smith said. "You're not going to see them walking around in chains, but when you do see them, a lot of time something in your brain says 'that's not quite right.' Go ahead and speak out, let law enforcement know."