SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — It was a typical Wednesday afternoon at a private house party in the Dominican Republic, the most-visited destination in the Caribbean. But moments after someone announced, “Let’s have the wine,” police stormed through the door.
The party was over—and 18 young women who had been trafficked there were set free. Fourteen were minors.
U.S. law enforcement, Dominican state prosecutors and another NGO had arranged this party to draw out criminals and rescue girls who were being trafficked for sex. The pre-arranged price for each girl was $500.
The investigation indicated that the traffickers would be bringing about two dozen girls and young women to the fake sex party. None of the local shelters had room to receive upwards of 20 survivors at once, so the government child welfare agency (called CONANI) and IJM worked together to develop a solution.
IJM assisted with overall planning and joined the authorities on March 11 to support the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the operation, and to ensure the young women would receive ongoing care.
"If you release victims without giving them proper care and treatment they will often go back to being sexually exploited," explains Pablo Villeda, IJM's Vice President of Operations in Latin America.
The Party Ends, Freedom Begins
As the police arrested the seven suspected traffickers during the sting operation, IJM psychologists assured the young women that they were not in any trouble.
“During the rescue operation, our role was to engage with the victims, reassuring them that they were not in trouble, identifying any immediate medical needs, and explaining what would happen next. Many of them are afraid or ashamed; the pimps and traffickers tell them that they will be the ones to get in trouble if the police show up,” explains IJM Field Office Director Fernando Rodriguez.
IJM’s team provided ongoing emotional support and this practical guidance into the night and over the next few days. The young women were taken to an aftercare shelter that IJM and CONANI established specifically for this rescue. They rested, ate good meals, and received medical evaluations. IJM psychologists began working with them to begin the long road toward restoration.
Fourteen of the survivors are minors, between 14 and 17 years old. They will join IJM’s aftercare program for sex trafficking survivors. IJM psychologists will follow up with each one to make a customized treatment plan to treat their physical, emotional and material needs.
“Many times, rescued minors feel alone or have many fears. Our presence at the rescue scene provides important support and ensures a positive beginning to their restoration,” says IJM’s Director of Aftercare. Three weeks after the rescue, many of the survivors have expressed that they feel “cared for” and “loved” by the joint IJM and CONANI team.
Convictions Stop Traffickers
IJM lawyers have begun working with the local prosecutor and the national Anti-Trafficking Unit to ensure the Dominican suspects arrested during the operation are held accountable under local laws.
Until the country’s anti-trafficking laws are actually enforced, pimps have no reason to stop selling minors for sex. The violence stops when the laws are enforced.
A court has twice denied bail to the seven suspects. IJM appeared alongside a local prosecutor to argue that the suspects would pose a threat to the survivors and their families—or they might flee—if released. The suspects remain incarcerated, but they have appealed again. IJM will continue to fight to ensure the survivors are protected and justice is possible.
Read a detailed report of this operation in The New York Times.
Updated on June 11, 2015 (More women were removed in the original operation, but 18 have been identified as sex trafficking victims.)