A 14-year-old went on vacation and was taken as a slave. Her own mother went to jail for it. An inside look at sex trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Originally published by International Justice Mission, September 2016.
Liana had no money, no cell phone. If she could make it down the street, she told herself, there must be a place to hide. She could wait a few hours, maybe hitchhike home.
Home was only an hour away.
The green cinder block shanty was dim inside, sipping air though four small windows and a crack where the tin roof met the tops of the walls. Liana slipped out through the door and into the humid street.
“Just checking to see if you were coming,” Liana said. She knew it was a bad lie.
They stepped back inside the house, and Liana waited for the next man to come. No one who loved her knew where she was.
In August of 2014, Liana was taken captive in an unremarkable neighborhood along the Dominican Republic’s principal highway, near the town of Villa Altagracia. She was forced to have sex with so many customers that she stopped counting, men who paid her mother and whose names will likely never be known.
Liana had not heard of sex trafficking or the commercial sexual exploitation of children. But her country, renowned for baseball and white-sand beaches, has been flagged by human rights groups and the U.S. government as a haven for purchasing sex with minors.
No one knows just how many children work in the Dominican sex industry, though by all accounts they are pervasive. The International Labor Organization estimated in 2003 that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 sex workers in the country, 60 percent of whom had entered the industry as minors. More than a decade later, a study by International Justice Mission (IJM) found that one in 10 individuals being sold there for sex was under the age of 18.
Liana became one of them by force. As her life slipped from her control, global attention was turning toward the Dominican trafficking industry. Days before Liana was sold to her first customer, IJM’s newly minted office in Santo Domingo, the capital city, had opened its first criminal case against Dominican traffickers and was eager to take on more.
This is a story about one of the most disturbing sex trafficking cases IJM has encountered. While perpetrators around the world regularly employ complex lies and criminal networks to trap girls like Liana, her case was different. She was exploited by her own family after a chaotic childhood in poverty, while police, neighbors and even a doctor either suspected nothing or, for whatever reason, kept silent.
Liana grew up with her grandparents, poor farmers in the Dominican Republic’s central valley who live at a curve in a road that cuts through miles of flat rice fields. Motorcycles race by and rattle the walls of their house, low-slung clapboard fighting a losing battle with termites.
Liana’s grandparents, Josué and Lupina, have spent all 40 of their married years in that house. There they learned to raise six children in one bedroom.
They also raised three of their grandchildren.
Liana was a toddler when she moved in with her grandparents, too young to remember what her mother did to lose custody of her kids. But Josué, a talkative man, forgets little and withholds even less about Teresa, the young woman who married his son.
“I was always telling him, this girl is not good for you, leave this woman,” Josué, 66, told his son Raúl during heated conversations.
Eventually Raúl did leave her. As Josué tells it, after Teresa began using drugs, Raúl brought their two young children — Liana and her little brother — to live with his parents.
“You’re not going to suffer more,” Josué told his grandchildren. “Here’s your bed. This is your home.”
What Liana remembers of her childhood is happy and brief. Playing with her doll on the floor and on the dusty front porch. Going to church occasional weekends. WatchingRaymond y Miguel, a local comedy show, on the family’s toaster-sized television.
Liana and her little brother saw their mother occasionally — sometimes at her place, sometimes at theirs. They would sit outside their grandparents’ house and chat, chasing the shade in wooden chairs. “Everything went well for a time,” Liana said. “She treated us well, with lots of love.”
But the drugs, Liana and others will tell you, changed Teresa. She grew angry, her language harsh. During one visit, Teresa gave beer to Liana’s little brother to help him sleep. Another time, she blew up at Liana and threw her into a trash can filled with broken bottles. Liana still has a scar. “I don’t know why she did this,” Liana said. “But I felt bad. I didn’t want to talk to her anymore.”
Teresa moved away after a few years, to a town about an hour to the south. She married a drug dealer, a man Liana says spent time in prison. Liana and her little brother stopped going to see her.
One day, when Liana was 8, her father got on a motorcycle and never returned home. Liana and her grandparents don’t talk much about the accident that killed him when he was 29. After that, Liana called Josué “daddy” and Lupina “mommy.”
“Everything you would do for your child, we have done for them,” Josué said of his grandchildren.
Liana and Teresa fell out of touch, and Josué did his part to keep Teresa away. But it only worked for so long.
When Liana entered the seventh grade, the president of the Dominican Republic kicked off the school year with a live television broadcast from the capital, declaring it would be his country’s best one ever.
Liana would never get the chance to find out.
A month earlier — just before her 14th birthday — Liana had traveled to spend her summer vacation with her maternal grandmother, Teresa’s mom, in a city about 50 kilometers from Josué’s house called Bonao. They hadn’t seen each other in years. Josué allowed the visit, reluctantly.
Teresa came over frequently that summer. The slender-faced 29-year-old was the spitting image of her daughter — she was only Liana’s age, in fact, when the girl was born. They played cards and dominoes and listened to music out front of the house, like old friends.
You should come live with me, Teresa told Liana after a few weeks. A girl should be with her mother — anything else would hurt their family, she said. By now Teresa had left the drug dealer and was in a different house with a more stable man, a truck driver named Sergio.
Liana agreed to move in. And briefly that summer, she hoped she might have a mother in her life again. Liana enrolled in the local middle school and started classes in August.
Her school year lasted just two days. On the third day, Liana woke up and her mother told her she wouldn’t be going to school. You will do whatever I tell you to do, Teresa ordered, or I will kill you.
“I obeyed,” Liana said. “I didn’t want her to hurt me.”
Instead of school, Teresa drove Liana to a motel that Dominicans call a cabaña, a drive-up inn built for secrecy where often managers do not even know who comes and goes. They walked into a room with a private entrance, where a man met them.
Teresa remained in the room and watched as the man approached Liana and raped her. He gave Teresa some cash, and the girls got back into their car and drove home.
It was 2014, late August or early September; trauma fragments memory, and what Liana recalls about that day and the following weeks surfaces in pieces that don’t always fit snugly together. She remembers so much crying, her mother hitting her, threatening to kill her nearly every day — once as she brandished a knife.
“I believed her,” Liana said.
Teresa’s husband, Sergio, played her devoted sidekick. For nearly five months, the pair lined up customers young and old to buy Liana. Most were their friends and acquaintances, Liana said, though she didn’t recognize any of them. She thinks they were all Dominican.
The crime scenes rotated — Teresa’s house, motels, sprawling orange groves nearby. Almost always, Teresa supervised the encounters. Sometimes Liana heard her laugh while she was being raped.
Liana doesn’t know how many men bought her, but it happened almost daily, often multiple times a day. Nor does she know how much her mother earned, only that Teresa took the money and plowed it into drugs and drink.
In Liana’s mind, she was the only girl in the world being trafficked for sex. In fact, there were at least six in the small city of San Francisco de Macorís where she grew up, likely more. IJM investigators examined a handful of locations there as part of a larger 2014 study of child exploitation and identified the six minors in one day alone.
That same study found third parties selling minors for sex for between $12 and $89 per hour.
Teresa and Sergio found customers entirely by word-of-mouth. They drew suspicion from neither police nor anyone else — not even as they repeatedly brought Liana to a clinic next door to their home, where a doctor examined Liana and prescribed birth control without ever asking questions.
When Liana wasn’t with a customer, she lay alone in her bed with her thoughts and tears. She couldn’t leave the house, and Teresa had taken her cell phone.
Josué and Lupina called a few times to check on their granddaughter. Lupina is a woman of extremely few words, so Josué did the talking, oblivious to the hell Liana was living just a taxi ride away. When the phone rang, Teresa or Sergio would pass it to Liana and the girl would burst into tears. They would snatch the phone back, utter something about how the girl’s not feeling well, and hang up.
Her grandparents thought Liana’s behavior on the phone seemed odd.
Teresa did bring Liana to Josué and Lupina’s house once for a short visit. Liana kept to herself, and Josué was again baffled by her strange behavior. “You have no idea how many things went through my mind,” he said.
He peppered her with questions, but Liana would barely speak with him. Teresa was always nearby, listening. “If I said anything, she would kill me,” Liana said.
Teresa had another husband besides Sergio; apparently it was no secret. She would disappear for days to be with the other man. When she was gone, Sergio dutifully ran the family sex business.
A truck driver, Sergio crisscrossed the island of Hispaniola in diesel rigs hauling lumber, horses and cattle. He brought Liana with him on the road, delivering her to customers around the country.
“Sergio, at least, bought me food,” Liana said. Her mother did not feed her much. “He treated me well.”
One of the customers was Sergio’s boss, a pot-bellied man named Tito with children and a troubled marriage. Tito, 40, managed drivers from his office at a truck stop north of Santo Domingo. Liana first met him there, and he had sex with her multiple nights in a nearby hotel.
But Liana thought Tito was different from the other men. He convinced her that he loved her, told her he wanted to marry her. And he never paid for her. Instead, one day he abruptly told Sergio and Teresa he was taking Liana home as his child bride.
Teresa was livid and protested through tears. Sergio assured her Liana would come back soon.
But she never did.
Nearly five months had passed since Liana’s mother sold her to her first customer. But Josué had no idea about that. All he knew was that in five months, he’d spoken with his granddaughter on the phone maybe four times.
Each call left him more worried. According to him, he had no clue where Teresa was living or if Liana was even with Teresa at all. He couldn’t have looked for her if he tried.
One day in late November, 2014, a car pulled up to Josué’s house, driven by a man he’d never seen before. Tito got out of the vehicle and greeted Josué as the old man walked over. Then Liana climbed out of the car.
Josué’s joy at seeing his granddaughter again was clouded by questions swirling in his head. The men exchanged some words, and the three of them went inside and sat down in Josué’s living room.
“What happened?” Josué asked Liana. She said nothing at first. There were no words.
“Tell him,” Tito encouraged her.
Her grandfather was the second person Liana shared with about the unspeakable suffering she’d endured at her mother’s hand. Tito had been the first.
Liana is guarded about her relationship with Tito. This is what is known: After exploiting her, he took Liana home to live with him and his mother for a number of weeks — how many is unclear.
Then she told Tito her story, a story she would retell many times to investigators and other strangers in the following months. Her mother’s death threats. Her enslavement. The incalculable rapes. Tito shared it with his mother who, shocked by what she heard, ordered Tito to take Liana back to her grandparents.
Tito left Liana with her grandparents that day and never came back. Josué promised that she was safe now and that life would return to normal, beginning with all the school she had missed.
“We’re not going to abuse you or defraud you,” he told Liana. “We’re going to do everything possible so you can continue your studies.”
Within a few days, Josué rode his motorcycle to the nearby city of Bonao and reported Teresa to the police.
The police referred Liana’s case to the Dominican Republic’s federal anti-trafficking agency, known as the PETT. On December 9, special agents traveled from the capital, about two hours away, and met with Josué. The following three days were quiet.
On the morning of Friday, December 12, Josué was out at the back of his property splitting kindling when his phone rang inside the house. Liana answered it. Teresa came at her through the handset, her voice wild.
“Tell Josué,” Teresa said. “Whether I hide under Lupina’s skirt, or I hide under your bed — however I do it, I’m going to kill you.”
To Josué it seemed the woman would stop at nothing. He immediately called the police, telling them everything he and Liana knew about where they might find Teresa.
By the end of the day, police had found Teresa at her home near Bonao and arrested her there. Sergio was nowhere to be found — he was tipped off, one story goes, and drove out of town in his truck.
In the Dominican Republic and around the world, trafficking can be a banal sort of evil. Families are commonly complicit in trafficking their own children. And while foreign tourists do frequent the Dominican sex industry, especially in beach towns, the vast majority of customers are Dominican.
“Cases where the parents are aware that their child is being abused and they are benefiting from it — there are thousands here,” said Raysi Marte, an IJM paralegal in the Dominican Republic. “The parents don’t try to rescue their children from this type of crime.”
But even when families are aware of exploitation, it’s rare for a mother to enslave and repeatedly sell her own daughter. “This was an extreme case,” Marte said.
Until recently, penalties for sex trafficking were also rare. Dominican courts handed down only six convictions against traffickers in the decade after it formally criminalized human trafficking in 2003.
Impunity for traffickers is so common that a man selling minors for sex in Liana’s hometown told an IJM investigator to ignore the police, “They don’t worry about those things here, and they are not going to bother.”
Dominican authorities do want to crack down on trafficking and are increasingly eager to provide aftercare for trafficking victims, committing early this year to open a dedicated safe house for female survivors.
But trafficking is a difficult crime to investigate. Child exploitation there is street-based, lacking the tourist-thronged brothel strips that countries such as Cambodia were once known for. Instead, it runs on loose-knit referral networks — opportunistic motorcycle and taxi drivers, for example, who get a cut for guiding customers to pimps selling girls.
“It’s much more fluid,” said Fernando Rodriguez, IJM’s field office director in the Dominican Republic. “You can go to the same plaza day by day, and either the exploiter is going to be different each night, or the girl being exploited is going to be different.”
Rodriguez’s team trains police officers and prosecutors across the Dominican Republic on specialized techniques for investigating sex crimes, including victim-sensitive interview methods for gathering better evidence from trafficking survivors.
They also spend a lot of time persuading law enforcement and the legal community that traffickers and child rapists should go to jail — because imprisoned bad guys will deter other bad guys, ultimately protecting children. In a country where adult prostitution is legal and under-age sex workers are everywhere, trafficking blends into the landscape. Many Dominicans simply don’t see child sexual exploitation as a crime, at least not a serious one.
“There is a perception that these are not true victims, that these girls want to be out there,” Rodriguez said. Such victim-blaming fuels a vicious cycle of impunity, he said. “When the government doesn’t enforce the law, that helps create the perception that this isn’t really that bad.”
That perception meant that Liana’s case was extreme, but not bulletproof.
Her story, while generally consistent, shifted slightly each time she repeated it — common for trauma survivors. Her vagueness about her relationship with Tito was concerning. A savvy defense attorney would grab hold of such discrepancies and shake her testimony apart.
Liana needed a good lawyer, something her grandparents could never afford. “They’re subsistence farmers, they couldn’t pay for a private lawyer,” said Mildred Casado, an IJM attorney in the Dominican Republic.
In January of 2015, after arresting Teresa, the PETT referred the case to IJM to help government prosecutors bring it to trial. IJM had opened its small office in Santo Domingo a little more than a year earlier. Its nascent legal team had yet to win a case in court.
IJM agreed to represent Liana and her family at no cost —IJM never charges its clients for legal services — and to provide her with aftercare services such as therapy and vocational training.
Prosecutors formally charged Teresa and Sergio with “human trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation.” In the Dominican Republic, pushing a case even that far was a triumph.
But it was only mild comfort for Liana. Her trauma was catching up to her.
Liana was far from home. After her mother’s arrest, officials temporarily placed Liana in a women’s shelter in Santo Domingo, a large two-story painted yellow and black and run by nuns.
Liana shared a room on the first floor with a 16-year-old and her two young children. Some of the girls at the home made Liana laugh, others she fought with.
Anything was better than being alone. She wondered what would happen if her mother left prison.
“There were times when I couldn’t sleep,” Liana said. “She would come for me, and there’s no telling what she would do.”
In February of 2015, a young IJM aftercare worker named Jenifer Matos drove 20 minutes from her office to the women’s shelter to do therapy with Liana. They met for an hour every two weeks.
Matos, 23, had worked at IJM for only a year. Liana’s wounds were deep, and their times together tested every therapeutic skill she had learned.
Liana at first thought therapy was boring, but she was soon calling Matos at all hours. She had anxiety attacks and called Matos for help breathing. One night, she dialed Matos in a panic, alone in her room and thinking about killing herself.
In dark moments, Matos stood like a wall between Liana and the brink.
“I liked the way she treated me,” Liana said. “She guided me. She would say beautiful things to me.”
What breaks inside a girl when the woman who gave her life nearly takes it away?
At times, Liana’s anger at her mother overwhelmed her. “Why did she do this? I was born to her,” she often asked herself. She also had moments of compassion toward her mother, an addict who also knew how it felt to be enslaved.
“I didn’t want for her to be how she is now,” Liana told officials, who once asked her if she knew her mother could go to jail for what she’d done. “On the other hand, she’ll be better there, because she can become someone better, learn to read, and stop doing drugs — something she herself regrets.”
At the shelter, Liana poured herself into baking and cosmetology classes. After missing so much school, she remembered how it felt to learn again.
Liana told Josué one day: “I’m going to get better, because I want to achieve my goals.”
Toward the end of their therapy sessions, Matos remembers Liana saying: “Yes, it was painful, and I have the right to express my pain. But I can also move forward and do great things, and help others.’”
Liana stayed at the shelter for roughly seven months. She missed her grandparents terribly. And in the summer of 2015, almost a year after Liana’s mother entrapped her, the nuns sent Liana home to San Francisco de Macorís for another try at the seventh grade.
Sergio didn’t run from the law for long. He called its bluff.
After Teresa’s arrest, Sergio stopped driving trucks; his employer learned about the trafficking charges and fired him. When police and IJM investigators located Sergio, he had returned to his home near Bonao, hiding in plain sight.
But police never arrested him. They tried once and couldn’t get a warrant because of paperwork errors. After repeated follow-ups from IJM staff, police only responded that they had the situation under control.
Sergio remained free for nearly a year. “His attitude was very unusual,” IJM paralegal Marte said. “At no point was he ever afraid.”
Impunity can make criminals brazen, but also sloppy. On Valentine’s Day of this year, Sergio boldly walked into the Najayo prison near Santo Domingo to see Teresa — a romantic gesture turned costly misstep.
An officer asked for his name to sign him in as a visitor, and Sergio simply told him. A pause, while the prison computer alerted the officer that Sergio was a fugitive, and police arrested him on the spot.
That was six months ago. Then, last week, police transported Teresa from the prison to a modern beige courthouse in Bonao for the final hearing in her trial. She wore jeans, a khaki button-down, a bejeweled pink headband and a smile, chattering like someone not at risk of spending 20 years in prison.
Josué was at the courthouse that day, too, to testify against her.
From the witness stand of the air-conditioned courtroom, Josué looked over the small crowd arrayed on rows of wooden benches: five lawyers, assorted family members and a handful of other witnesses. Teresa glared as he outlined what his granddaughter had told him about becoming the woman’s slave.
The judge read the court a transcript of a testimony Liana had previously given — for her protection, she was not at court. Two other witnesses spoke for the defense, anemically lauding Teresa’s motherly nature.
Then Teresa took the stand. She cried and denied everything, pleading with the judge, “Liana is my daughter, the only thing important in my life.”
The judge, unimpressed, declared flatly that “to accuse your own mother for no reason makes no sense.” He sentenced Teresa to 15 years in prison.
Sergio will face trial in the coming months.
In the spring of 2016, Liana scored a 95 on a school Spanish exam. She keeps a picture of it on her phone and shows it off to friends.
Poised and articulate, Liana is quick to clean the house and do whatever she’s asked. She excels in school.
When not in class, she takes extra English courses and is enrolled in an executive assistant training program — thanks to scholarships from IJM.
Liana’s dreams are big and full of a 15-year-old’s innocence. She wants to be the first in her family to attend college, to study medicine and become a pediatrician. “I like caring for children,” she says. “When I see a sick child, I feel bad.”
After all that, she wants a shot at being a lawyer.
Liana sometimes studies long into the evenings, before the city power cuts off around 7 p.m. and the house goes dark.
Josué frets about his granddaughter, who often seems distant, distracted. They don’t talk much about what happened, but he watches her study sometimes, and he tries to understand her.
“I think of it like this,” he says, quietly. “When I come home from a hard day’s work, I’m so tired. I want to eat something but I just can’t, I’m so tired I just can’t eat anything.”
There are exactly four girls in her community Liana trusts enough to call them her friends. On lazy days, she sits with them on her porch, playing tinny music on their phones and watching neighbors walk along the road.
“¡Adios, ñato!” they shout at passersby — an innocuous joke that doesn’t translate to much, except as something a 15-year-old might yell in a mall or a high school hallway to draw awkward laughs from her friends.
– Story by Andy Olsen. Photography by Orlando Barría.
*The names of Liana, her family members, and the perpetrators have been changed for the client’s protection. IJM uses pseudonyms for clients who are minors or who have requested anonymity. IJM also conceals the identities of perpetrators who are still undergoing trial or are entitled to appeal their cases.