By Krupskaia Alis and Rafael Romo, CNN
Joanna moves her hands nervously as she speaks. Her oversized, golden earrings rattle as she shakes her head to make a point. Joanna is not her real name. She's speaking on the condition that CNN will protect her privacy and not disclose her real name. She's only 16 years old, but has already experienced a lifetime of horror, abuse and torture. She's a former sex slave.
It all started when she met a charming man. "I was in a normal relationship with him for three months," she says. At the time she was only 14 years old. She was treated like royalty and fell in love. A few months later he asked her to elope and she agreed.
"He promised that we would get a house and that we would raise children. I was naïve and believed everything he said. We started living together in July and by September he was already forcing me to work as a prostitute," Joanna said.
By then it had become painfully clear that Joanna's boyfriend was in reality her captor, a pimp who preyed on young, vulnerable teenagers whom he recruited in central Mexico with the purpose of forcing them into prostitution.
Joanna says she was forced to have sex with dozens of men for as many as 18 hours a day. There were days, she says, she would only sleep a couple of hours before starting another long and painful shift, sleeping with strangers who paid only a few dollars to be with her 15 minutes. The worst part was that if she failed to make at least $600 a day, she faced severe punishment.
"He hit me many times with a phone cable. He would hit me in the legs and hands. One time he started beating me with a broomstick. He beat me so hard that I couldn't even get up afterwards," Joanna said.
According to the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, as many as 70,000 minors in Mexico are victims of human trafficking. Most of them are subjected to forced labor, but a significant number are forced into prostitution, as in the case of Joanna.
Over the last decade, the problem has crossed the U.S. border. The arrests of 13 people in New York state in late April suggests pimps are also fond of getting cash, not only in Mexican pesos, but also in U.S. dollars.
According to authorities, the suspects worked a "sex trafficking corridor," transporting women from the small town of Tenancingo, in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala, to the New York area.
Over a period of seven years, federal officials say, dozens of women were exploited; some of them were illegally transported from Mexico. Once in the United States, they were forced to have sex with as many as 30 customers per day, according to the federal complaint charging all 13 suspects. Victims were paid $30 to $35, the complaint says. Their driver would keep half. The other half went to the pimp, and the victims were left with nothing.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the defendants blatantly lied to their victims in order to recruit them.
"With promises of a better life, the members of this alleged sex trafficking and prostitution ring lured their unsuspecting victims to the United States and then consigned them to a living hell - forcing them to become sex slaves living in abhorrent conditions, and using threats, verbal abuse, and violence – sexual and otherwise – when they resisted and even sometimes when they didn't," Bharara said.
The complaint describes how one victim was smuggled into the United States with her young child. Once in New York, she was made to sleep on the floor with the child. But that was just the beginning of her ordeal. On one occasion, when the woman refused to work as a prostitute, she and her child were forced to stay outside on a cold winter night.
Federal agents conducted raids at six locations, including four brothels in Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Queens. If convicted, the suspects face anywhere from two years in prison to life.
Humberto Padgett is a Mexican journalist who wrote a book titled "Intimate Portrait of a Pimp." Based on years of research and interviews with victims and pimps, the book describes how Mexican pimps operate and how they exploit their victims.
Padgett says trafficking young women in Mexico has increased faster than drug trafficking in recent years.
"You can only sell a kilo of marijuana once. But you can sell a woman multiple times, even as many as 60 times per day. In five years, a woman can make as much as a million dollars for her pimp," Padgett says.
Last year, Mexico approved a law that makes human trafficking a federal crime punishable by up to 40 years in prison. The law targets not only those involved in sex trafficking, but also other forms of modern slavery, including forced labor and child pornography.
Padgett says pimps force women to stay with them by threatening to kill family members if they escape.
Maria, another former sex slave who asked that her real name not be used, lost her father six months after escaping her pimp. The now-17-year-old believes the prostitution ring that held her is responsible for his murder.
"More than anything, I feel guilty about my father's death. Sometimes I think that I should've stayed with the pimp so that he would kill me and not my father," Maria says.
She's back with her family, but still suffers from depression and nightmares associated with the verbal and physical abuse to which she was subjected.
"There's no way I'm ever going to feel better," she says. "They destroyed my life."