(MSNBC) -- Cristina was just 24 years-old, living in a rural farming village in Mexico, when Amador Cortes-Meza told her he was falling in love with her. He promised her marriage and a good job, and then brought her to the United States. But when she arrived in the Atlanta area, he physically abused her and forced her to work as a prostitute.
"That's when I realized he was not telling me the truth," said Cristina (not her real name). "A man who loves a woman would not make them do that. I lived under his humiliation, I lived under the beatings, under the fear, there was nothing I could do."
She is an example of an insidious form of slavery spreading across the United States - prostitution operations that traffic in women and children from Latin America.
In these operations, "closed-network" houses of prostitution cater to customers of a specific race or ethnicity, in this case, Hispanic women and Hispanic customers. One nonprofit anti-trafficking group labels them Latino Residential Brothels, or LRBs.
What separates them from other sex-trafficking operations, experts say, is their sophisticated camouflage and adherence to a simple business plan, used from coast to coast with cold efficiency. The operators set up shop in average neighborhoods and use coded advertisements and word of mouth to attract specific customers.
An underground growth industry
The Latino brothels rely on what amounts to slavery. Women and, in some cases, girls held captive, denied choice, denied freedom of movement, denied dignity, their bodies sold by someone else for sex.
Interviews with law enforcement and advocacy groups and independent research has found that Latino residential brothels have spread to at least 25 states and Washington, D.C. over the past 20 years.
The stories told to law enforcement or support organizations by women and girls who have lived through the brothel experience are often similar. Many times they begin in small rural towns in Latin America, where girls as young as 13 are approached by men or women who promise to set them up with good jobs as waitresses, housecleaners or cooks in the United States. Sometimes victims are courted or married by the men.
Once they agree to seek a better life, they are sent off with "coyotes" and smuggled into the United States. But when they arrive, there is no job, merely a debt they owe their smugglers, usually $2,000 to $3,000. They are told they will have to work as prostitutes to pay it off. The debt can bean elusive target. Many sex ring operators add charges for rent and food to ensure victims remain under their control for many years.
A prostitution playbook
The brothels have developed a series of standard operating practices, experts say. Among them:
- Once the girls and women are in the United States and under the traffickers' control, they are moved from one brothel to another in rapid succession, rarely spending more than one or two weeks in one place. The rotations prevent disoriented victims from establishing roots or escaping, and keep faces fresh for customers.
- Most advertise, sometimes in the classifieds of Spanish-language newspapers, or more frequently by handing out "tarjetas," business cards with codes for brothels, on the street. An officer from the Chicago vice squad told NBC News that his group uncovered boxes of business cards during a recent brothel raid that advertised tacos and burritos for delivery 24-hours a day. Potential customers are screened on the telephone or at the door to make sure they are members of the targeted ethnic group.
- Within the brothel, usually a typical house or apartment, a unique accounting strategy uses tokens such as poker chips and marbles, which are purchased by the "johns" and given as proof of purchase to the women and girls to keep track of how many men have visited them. A token, which costs $30 in the majority of cases, buys 15 minutes of sex in a sparse bedroom. According to the Polaris Project, an organization that operates a national hotline and offers services for victims of all types of human trafficking,one victim reported that she was forced to have sex with 55 men in one day.
Polaris Project released a report in 2009 about Latino residential brothels, an initial attempt to connect the dots of a national trend.
"We're still only beginning to wrap our brains around how big this issue is," said Bradley Myles, Polaris executive director. "Imagine all of the trafficking that goes on across the United States, Polaris has the job of being that single hotline for all of it. We're starting to get calls in from all 50 states, and we're hearing about this (type of) network more and more."
News reports over the past two decades frequently treated the issue as a local or regional problem. The same problem can exist within the law enforcement community, and with many networks operating in what appears to be a hub and spoke system, knocking out one brothel does little to disrupt business.
For law enforcement, a moving target
Local authorities often make strides in their communities, only to see the problem move to the next town or state. Thomas Stack and Leeland Wiley, two police detectives from Montgomery County, Md., largely eliminated the brothels in their jurisdiction several years ago. But they are under no illusions they solved the bigger problem.
"The brothels have moved to other locations, to other jurisdictions in the surrounding Washington metropolitan area," said Stack. "We've seen a significant decrease to the brothels in our area, but that doesn't mean that there are no brothels. You can just go across the county line and find them."
The origins of Latino Residential Brothels in the United States go back to at least the late 1980s when enterprising traffickers set up pop-up brothels in fields adjacent to farmland near the San Luis Rey River in California, catering to migrant workers. Farm owners eventually hired private security contractors to patrol the area, according to a 1989 story from the San Diego Union-Tribune.
As brothel networks spread across the country, the practices became more uniform and the profits grew. In 1998, a network of six brothels across Florida was raided, leading to 16 indictments. Authorities said the ring trafficked girls as young as 13 from Vera Cruz, Mexico, and netted up to $2.5 million in two years.
In a more recent case, on March 24, a federal judge in Atlanta sentenced Amador Cortes-Meza to 40 years in prison for human trafficking. He was convicted of bringing 10 women and girls, some as young as 14, into the United States from rural parts of Mexico. The victims said he and his co-conspirators told them they loved them, and promised jobs and weddings.
'Why did he do that to women?'
When one victim asked to be returned to her family, she testified, he repeatedly dunked her head in a bucket of water until she felt she was drowning. Another had an iron thrown at her, slicing open her head.
"Why did he do that to women?" asked Angelica, (not her real name) one of Cortes-Meza's victims, in an interview with NBC News. "He has a mother who is a woman. We're human beings."
Cases like these expose the scope and severity of the criminal networks nationally.
"They devalue life to such an extent to turn a young girl into nothing more than a money generating profit item," said Brock Nicholson, special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Investigations at the Department of Homeland Security, which investigated the case. "They brought back slavery."
One of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement agencies, besides locating and infiltrating the closed network brothels, is getting the cooperation of the victims. Traffickers keep women and girls under close supervision, and often take away their personal identification. If they are in the country illegally, they are told that the police will arrest them for prostitution and then deport them. Often captors threaten violent retribution to their families if they run away. One girl freed from a brothel in South Carolina in 1998, reported that she was caught escaping, locked in a closet for 15 days and then raped.
Since Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, women in such brothels can be treated as victims rather than criminals. Protections include special "T Visas" allowing victims and their families to stay in the United States, counseling, health care and job placement.
"I'm so happy now," said Angelica, who recently testified in a Federal courtroom in Atlanta against Cortes-Meza. "I have all the liberty and freedom in the world."
But, according to experts, victims are often too afraid of law enforcement to come forward.
To provide a tip, call the National Human Trafficking Resouce Center Hotline, 1-888-373-7888.