October 30, 2015
It had been almost a week since Yulissa* heard the pastor’s words: “Someone here in this service today is trapped in an awful situation. But help is coming; God will bring people to help you escape.”
It was as if the pastor was talking to her, as if the pastor knew Yulissa’s situation. Maria* — the woman who Yulissa needed to be rescued from — was seated right next to Yulissa and hearing the same words. While posing as a devout Christian who was active in her church, Maria was actually running the prostitution ring in which Yulissa was trapped.
Yulissa had thought about the pastor’s words many times in the last week, but escape didn’t seem any closer. And tonight, Maria had arranged for another date for Yulissa.
At 15 years old, Yulissa was the youngest of the women and girls Maria was prostituting. When Maria — who was also the sister of Yulissa’s stepmother — offered to help Yulissa with a place to stay and support for her education, Yulissa had no idea what was really in store. She didn’t know about the nights like this.
Yulissa waited in the living room of Maria’s house, and soon enough, a man arrived. He was new, someone she didn’t recognize.
“Yulissa, please listen carefully. I’m here to help you escape,” said the man. He explained that he was an undercover agent and part of an operation to rescue her. With Yulissa secure, the agent was joined by the rest of the rescue team, and within hours, she was in the protection of the Honduran government’s special prosecutor for the protection of children — and out of the reach of Maria.
Maria was arrested that same evening.
The operation that rescued Yulissa was the result of an investigation carried out jointly by the Honduran government and AJS’s Rescue project — which works on finding justice for victims of sexual abuse.
The investigation started when the Honduran attorney general’s office got an anonymous tip about the prostitution ring. They soon realized that they would need AJS’s help on the case. One of the distinguishing elements of Maria’s prostitution ring was the clientele — many were police and members of the military. In addition to providing payment to Maria as clients, they also helped protect her prostitution ring. It was going to be a difficult operation to catch and prosecute these criminals — and AJS’s expertise would be vital.
AJS Investigator Pedro* was one of the staff assigned to the case. A former police investigator specializing in crimes of sexual abuse, Pedro understood how crucial AJS’s support was to operations like this one. During his work with the police, he had seen too many cases fall apart without proper resources and leadership.
“One of our roles is to make sure these cases proceed through the legal system. Sometimes the prosecutor’s office simply doesn’t have the resources — for example, they won’t have vehicles. We make sure they don’t have excuses,” Pedro said. “We’re able to give the needed logistical, investigative, legal, and psychological support in the case.”
The anonymous tip didn’t provide much information to go on. The first step of the investigation was just to find out where Maria’s house was. Working undercover, the team was able to find the house. Then it began to ID suspects.
Next came the warrant for a phone tap on Maria’s phone. With the tap in place, the team collected conversations of Maria arranging meetings between various men and Yulissa. The team needed irrefutable evidence against Maria and her clients — especially when it turned out that one of those clients was a colonel in the Honduran military.
“We definitely had to be careful in this case. The criminals involved know well how the process works,” Pedro said.
Within a month, the team felt that they had collected enough information. They were ready to make arrests — but first, they needed to get Yulissa to a safe place where no one could threaten her.
The same night that Maria was arrested, the team also arrested a police officer who was accused of being one of Maria’s clients.
The even more impressive arrest came two days later: the military colonel.
Bringing the Case to Court
Newspapers across the country reported on the arrests, running photos of Maria being booked for prison. Her dyed orange hair and zebra pattern blouse contrasted starkly with the police officers flanking her left and right sides, wearing bullet-proof vests and ski-masks to hide their identities.
Special steps were taken to protect Yulissa. Her location was kept secret and was monitored closely. Given Maria’s relationship to Yulissa’s stepmother, not even Yulissa’s family could be trusted.
With Yulissa in protection, one of AJS’s psychologists — who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse — went to work, providing Yulissa with crucial support after the trauma she had experienced.
Yulissa displayed her tremendous bravery by testifying that 10 police officers and two military personnel paid to have sex with her.
Currently, Maria, the arrested police officer, and the military colonel are all in prison and their cases are moving through the judicial process. Maria maintains that she is not guilty. If convicted, she would face 22 years in prison for human trafficking.
AJS lawyers, psychologists, and investigators continue to support the prosecution of the offenders, to investigate other abusers, to reach out to other victims of the prostitution ring, and to provide Yulissa with crucial psychological support.
Reflecting on the case, Pedro said that despite the years he spent as part of the police force and with AJS helping victims of sexual abuse, he still can’t help but be emotionally moved in cases like Yulissa’s.
“One realizes the hardships that victims go through. It’s very complicated, very painful, and very difficult for the victim to overcome. In these types of cases your heart softens as you work with the victims,” Pedro said. “Without AJS’s help, many cases like this would have ended in impunity. It’s important that we keep doing this work to help prosecutors win cases and to help provide victims with the support they need.”
* Names changed to protect identity
Context In Honduras, human trafficking and child prostitution are serious problems.
Honduras’ gangs and criminal organizations often use victims of human trafficking to make money as prostitutes or drug transporters.
Perpetuating the problem are Honduras’s high levels of corruption and impunity. In addition to AJS’s Rescue project, our other efforts to tackle corruption at the highest levels of the Honduran government are crucial components in the fight to protect girls like Yulissa.
Find out more about AJS’s Rescue Project here.