It was one thing when Lina Maria Carmona's would-be new husband told her she would have to get a job within days of unpacking her bags from Medellin, Colombia, and hand him her paycheck.
Then there was the time he grabbed her by the feet and dragged her down the stairs. And the way he made her have sex every day, once wanting to film them in the act. But when he grabbed her arms, sat her in front of the computer and ordered her to pick him a new wife from the same "Colombian Sweethearts" Web site he had found her months earlier, she couldn't sleep that night.
"I kept thinking anything could happen, like maybe he would suffocate me with a pillow," the 21-year-old said. The next morning, after the man who brought her to Las Vegas left for work, she walked out the door, seeking help from one of the few people she had met during her five weeks in the United States.
Two weeks later, wearing borrowed clothes and sporting a new hair color, she's on the run, with a daunting deadline closing in on her. Her "fiancee" visa expires in a month, she knows nothing of the complex, relatively new and largely untested federal law designed to protect victims of what's called human trafficking, and she has no money to make it back home.
Interviewing Carmona's would-be husband or the marriage agency in Colombia to obtain the other side of her story would increase the risk of putting her in danger. But experts say her story suggests that she may be a victim of "servile marriage," one of the least known forms of human trafficking.
Nearly half of the cases nationwide involve prostitution, capturing more attention to date, said Terri Miller, director of a federally funded office within Metro Police called the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery. The office is seeking to get a handle on trafficking in the Las Vegas Valley and coordinates with private and government agencies to deal with everything from offering victims temporary shelter to prosecuting trafficking rings.
Carmona's case, Miller said, "alerts us to another area that needs to be looked at." It's not difficult to understand how the young woman wound up where she did, even though she said she curses herself for being so naive.
Extended family raised her. She never met her father. Her mother was killed by a stray bullet during the Pablo Escobar days of the mid-1980s, when Medellin led the world in murders. She went to work after high school and rented an apartment with a friend, unusually independent in a country where sons and daughters often live at home until married.
After two years of working in sales for a supermarket chain, she earned about $225 a month, paid a third of that in rent and never saved a peso. Then a friend told her about "Colombian Sweethearts."
"I've never had anything," she said, crying as she recalled the day she first went to the agency. "Everybody always says life here is different, it's so wonderful. And my family is so important. I could help them with money from here."
She saw marrying someone from the U.S. as a way out.
Sheila Neville, who works with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and is an expert on human trafficking, said mail-order brides are ripe for being abused. For many foreign women and their families, especially in the developing world, "marrying a white American is a huge step up," Neville said.
The Colombian women who work in the U.S.-owned agency wowed Carmona with a photo album "this big," she said, holding her hands apart the way fishermen do. She saw each photo as a potential husband. Soon she met her Las Vegas catch. Over about 10 months, they saw each other eight times in Colombia. They went bowling. They went dancing. They ate out. He spoke a little Spanish. She speaks no English. The agency-supplied interpreter gave her opinions of the guy, telling her what a great life she could have with him.
"I guess I was really stupid," she said. On May 27, there was a civil ceremony in Medellin. She wore a white dress. She signed papers. She thought they were married. The Colombian Sweethearts Web site has a photo of the two from that day, with a caption saying they were married. However, months later, those who helped her pointed out that her visa is for the fiancee, not the wife, of a U.S. citizen. It expires after 90 days, on April 18.
Neville said the confusion over her status - married versus engaged - may be a sign of fraud underpinning the relationship. Fraud and coercion are two indicators of trafficking, she said.
On Jan. 18, Carmona started her new life in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it was hardly a smooth start to her new marriage or life in a new country. When she asked her "husband" for help buying clothes, he told her to get a job. He took her to a Subway sandwich shop, where she began work in a kitchen full of Spanish speakers. But he told her all the money she earned would go to him, so she left after five days.
Home life also darkened, as he daily called her stupid. The man she had hoped to launch a family with hid the television's remote control, so she couldn't watch programs in Spanish. One day she tried to get on his good side by tickling him, she said. They were standing by the top of the stairs of the two-story house. He responded by grabbing her ankles and dragging her down the steps.
Within days, she was gone. Now, she's in the limbo that trafficking victims often find when they escape. "She's completely isolated. She has nothing," Neville said.
David Thronson, an immigration lawyer and one of the founders of the immigration law clinic at UNLV, said the Las Vegas area suffers from a lack of agencies with experience about trafficking. His clinic has handled a half-dozen cases in recent years, only three of which have been completed, with the trafficking victims receiving U.S. residency and help starting a new life. Lauren Hermosillo, who works with Miller on the social services side of helping victims, said she has obtained emergency shelter for less than a dozen victims.
Not only are there few agencies offering help, but information also is lacking about the help available, Thronson said. Miller said nearly a third of her $370,000, three-year grant is targeted at getting the word out to victims through radio, billboards, posters and pamphlets.
Carmona knows nothing about all that. She said her aunt has been getting calls from the agency in Medellin and her "husband" in Las Vegas, bad-mouthing her and alleging that authorities are on her trail. She says she's scared of what "that man" might do to her and unsure of her options.
"After getting my hopes up so much, what am I supposed to do now?"
Adapted from: Timothy Pratt. "Servile marriage puts women at risk." Las Vegas Sun
Timothy Pratt can be reached at 259-8828 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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