BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Marcela Loaiza was 21 when she was lured from Colombia, trapped in a sex trafficking ring run and forced by Japan’s Yakuza mafia to sell sex on the streets of Tokyo.
After 18 months of sexual exploitation, she escaped, so weak and ill that her hair and teeth were falling out.
Today Loaiza, 35, runs a non-governmental organisation that bears her name to raise awareness about human trafficking among girls, women and men in Colombia and the United States, where she now lives.
While the Colombian government says tackling human trafficking is a priority, Loaiza says much more needs to be done to prevent women falling prey to trafficking rings in the first place, and to provide the health care and psychological support survivors need to recover.
Loaiza spoke with Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the Colombian city of Cali, and recalled how she escaped forced prostitution and the mafia, and how she moved past the pain and guilt and healed.
“I remember a Colombian man coming up to me in a nightclub in Colombia where I was working as a professional dancer. He introduced himself to me as a talent scout looking to hire dancers to work abroad. I didn’t accept his offer, but I took his card and kept it.
“Back then, I had two jobs: one as a cashier in a supermarket and another as a dancer on the weekends. A few weeks later after I’d met the man, my daughter, who was three-and-a-half years old then, had an asthma attack. I stayed with her in hospital night and day for two days as she recovered. As a result, I lost my two jobs, and I didn’t have the money to pay for the hospital bill. I was a single mother. I was desperate. So I got in touch with the man I’d met at the nightclub and he lent me the money to pay for my daughter’s treatment. That was the hook that got me in.
“He offered me work as a professional dancer in Japan. It seemed the best way to earn money to look after my daughter and buy a house I had always wanted for my mother. I left my daughter with my mother. Within a week, I was in Tokyo.
“At the airport, I was met by three Japanese men and a Colombian woman. I later learnt she was a recruiter for the traffickers and had been a victim of trafficking herself.
“My passport was taken away and the pimps working for the Yakuza mafia told me I had to pay them a $50,000 bond before I could be released. I still had no idea I had been sex trafficked. I didn’t know what human trafficking was.
“I was given a blonde wig and blue contact lenses. I worked on the streets, changing my location every 10 days or so. Sometimes I worked in massage parlours. A pimp was always nearby checking how much I earned. For 18 months I worked day and night, from 14 to 20 clients a day, Sunday to Sunday. I never stopped.
“I shared a three-bedroom flat with other women who were working as prostitutes for the mafia. They were from the Philippines, Russia, Venezuela, Korea, China, Peru and Mexico. There were about six to seven girls to a room, and we’d sleep in bunk beds or mattresses on the floor. I had a diet of tuna, boiled eggs, rice and energy drinks.
“I didn’t have the right to speak, to have an opinion. I was only allowed to speak to my mother a few times during the time I was there. They threatened to harm my family and daughter back in Colombia if I left.
“They brainwash you. They tell you this is the high price you have to pay for taking up the offer of work you need to move on with your life. That’s the sacrifice you have to make, they would say.
“After working for nearly 18 months, I knew that I had paid off my $50,000 debt I owed them. It got me thinking about escaping. I spoke to a loyal client of mine, who had known me for most of the time I worked there. I told him I had been kidnapped and that I was trapped by the mafia. He didn’t believe me at first. He said I was there because I wanted to do what I was doing. It took me ages to convince him otherwise. I kept telling him all I want to do is to return to my country Colombia.
“Eventually he agreed to help me and we hatched a plan for my escape. One day, he told me to walk slowly with him along a street until I reached a McDonald’s. There near the toilets, he had left me a change of clothes, including a jacket and a wig, as a disguise. He helped me board a train to reach the Colombian embassy in Tokyo.
“At the embassy, I was crying uncontrollably. I was paranoid because I thought the mafia had been following me. I kept saying, ‘I’m a prostitute.’ The consular gave me a big hug and told me I was a victim of human trafficking. That’s basically the first time I had ever heard of the term.
“I stayed in the embassy for about a week until I was given a new passport. When I came back to Colombia, I didn’t get the help I had been promised. I needed medical care. My body was very weak. My hair and teeth were falling out and I was anaemic.
“I was traumatised. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I was too ashamed to talk. I felt as if I was the worst person in the world. I felt disgusting. I felt guilty for accepting the job proposal. I was suicidal.
“The first person I spoke to about what had happened to me was a nun in a local church in the (Colombian) town of Pereira. She told me I wasn’t a bad person.
“It took a long time for my mother to understand what had happened to me, that I had been a victim of human trafficking and not a prostitute of my own choice.
“I spent three years in therapy. I felt a catharsis when I wrote down my feelings. My psychologist suggested I write a book to help other women who’ve been trafficked. I’ve had two books published about my experience.
“Many girls and women in Colombia don’t know what human trafficking is. They’re vulnerable because of the high levels of unemployment and their lack of education. The Colombian state is failing survivors, and it’s not giving them the support they need.
“I’ve been living in the United States for the past eight years. I’m happily married and have had two more children. My family is behind my cause and supports my work through my foundation.
“My work is to show this happens to real people. I never give up. It’s important to tell the truth. Part of the problem is the silence.”
(Editing by Alisa Tang: email@example.com)