From their world of shadows, the women step only briefly into the light. With gestures universally understood, they beckon southside drivers late on a Friday night, seeking out the wayward and lonely.
These prostitutes inhabit an underworld where human beings are trafficked like cattle, recruited from impoverished countries and brought here with the promise of good jobs and a decent life, only to find themselves virtual prisoners in the land of the free.
The U.S. State Department estimates that up to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked around the world each year, with nearly 20,000 of them smuggled into the United States. Here, they are pressed into modern-day slavery in brothels, on farm fields and in sweatshops. A lack of English, coupled with isolation and geographic disorientation, ensures their captivity.
Disregard for their plight also perpetuates this travesty, says Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. "In many states, people are not concerned about the women and girls—or men and boys—who are trafficked into this country for forced labor. When I've been speaking about this, I've had people say, 'What about our own girls here at home?'"
But if people somehow conflate such trafficking with illegal immigration, they should think again, since the people brought here and placed in bondage are victims, pure and simple.
"If you're a young woman in a small village in Uzbekistan or wherever, and your next-door neighbor's cousin says he can get you a fabulous job in America where you can earn lots of money to support your destitute family back home, and also get a good education, you're going to believe him," Wolfe says.
"Traffickers are not really nice people. They lie; they cheat; they steal. And a lot of young women and young men end up in forced labor because they've been lied to."
They might be living in your neighborhoods, under the radar of everyone—including the police. It could be a typical suburban home—but it might as well be Alcatraz.
"So there you are, from Uzbekistan," she says. "You think you're going to get a great job in Tucson, Arizona, which you've never heard of before. You end up in a sweatshop or an agricultural field or forced labor of some other kind, and what can you do? The traffickers have taken your papers. You have no passport. These are the kind of issues that states find it hard to comprehend and address."
Yet some steps have been taken, spurred by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Toughened over the years with several key amendments, the law now prohibits the use of fraud, physical force or psychological coercion to hold workers against their will. To date, nearly every state also has at least one statute on the books aimed at human-trafficking.
Still, there are broad variations in just how aggressively states have tried to tackle this problem, and Arizona is far from being a leader. That became clear five years ago, when Wolfe's organization issued a report ranking each state's efforts to combat human-trafficking. Arizona received several strikes for failing to regulate travel services and international marriage brokers that fuel sex tourism. We also fell short in providing protection and assistance for victims, and for not having a state task force dedicated specifically to fighting human trafficking.
But there is reason to hope. The board of directors of Wolfe's nonprofit is chaired by Arizona state Sen. Linda Lopez, who has worked closely with the group to strengthen Arizona's laws. And there have been some triumphs at the statehouse, such as a 2005 statute that makes sex-trafficking of a minor under the age of 15 a first-degree felony, and the attempted trafficking of a minor a second-degree felony. The law also imposes felonies for unlawfully obtaining labor and services.
But even with stiffer laws, traffickers find ways to ply their trade. One of them, say human-rights advocates, is to advertise through online classified sites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com.
While Craigslist discontinued its adult section in 2010 after relentless criticism, Backpage.com has not—despite repeated allegations that its site is used by those who traffic in underage sex-workers.
The issue was brought to light earlier this spring, when Southern Arizona Against Slavery rallied in downtown's El Presidio Park. The coalition called on Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage.com, to discontinue running ads that—according to critics—result in the exploitation of minors.
Among the speakers at the March 30 gathering was Karna Walter, a director at the UA Honors College and chairwoman of the group.
"A lot of sex-trafficking these days is facilitated by the Internet and by companies like Backpage.com," Walter said in a subsequent interview. "But even when it's been drawn to Backpage's attention that this is happening, they haven't taken steps to ensure the safety of underage victims.
"It's a very shadowy crime, so it's hard to always know for sure, but there have been documented cases of pimps pedaling their prostitutes via the mechanism of the adult Backpage.com ads."
While many view this as a moral issue, however, others consider it a legal quandary tied to the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which fostered communications between third parties—such as through online classified ads—without holding publishers liable for what transpires from those contacts.
Nonetheless, Backpage.com has come under intense national scrutiny, including excoriating columns by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof. In one piece, Kristof described Backpage.com as a "classified advertising website that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats—and girls."
Village Voice Media, which in 2005 merged with the group that owns Phoenix's New Times, fought back fiercely, arguing in its own pages that Kristof has his facts wrong.
When I called New Times for comment on these allegations, however, I was told by the receptionist that New Times had no connection to Backpage.com. When I insisted, she hung up not once, but twice. Finally I was able to leave a message for Village Voice Media CEO Jim Larkin.
In response, I received a brief voicemail from Liz McDougall, VVM's general counsel. As of press time, I was unable to get an interview with McDougall.
Nicholas Kristof was luckier. He wrote of a conversation in which she defended Backpage.com by claiming that it attempts to screen out minors from the adult ads, and that it surely is not alone among websites used by human-traffickers.
And that is cold comfort indeed—especially in summertime Arizona, where women in bondage still ply the dark streets.