Dear PoP – Disturbing News: Latin american brothels

Photo by PoPville flickr user [email protected]

“Dear PoP,

I wanted to write to you to alert the readers of a very disturbing trend of human sex trafficking from Latin America to brothels here in the U.S.  This is nothing new, but MSNBC did a whole news series on this issue recently, and it is particularly relevant for residents of Columbia Heights as I witnessed some brothel advertising going on this past weekend in our hood.  I was walking up the east side of 14th street on Sunday afternoon, and was a few steps behind a Hispanic man.  Between Newton and Meridian I saw a man who looked a little shady (nothing in particular, sometimes people just look shady) up ahead of me.  He was about 40, had dark skin (not sure if he was African American or Hispanic), and he had a stack of business cards in his hands. He made a concerted effort to get the attention of the Hispanic man in front of me and gave him one of the business cards, but he ignored me (I’m a girl). I  saw that the business card had a pair of wings on it.

Anyway, the situation sounds innocuous but something just didn’t seem right about this guy handing out the cards.  Lo and behold, this morning I was reading the news on and saw a story called “Enslaved in America” talking about the trafficking of young girls and women from Mexico to the U.S. to be sex slaves in illegal brothels. They are essentially slaves, beaten if they try to escape, not allowed contact with anyone but their handlers, forced to have sex with up to 50 men a day…it is so sad and sickening.  The story talks about how these brothels operate and why they are so hard to detect. One of the ways they stay in business without getting caught is to advertise solely to Hispanic men, via word of mouth and fake business cards. The article states that business cards have certain codes, one example being a PAIR OF WINGS to indicate they will deliver a prostitute to the customer.

I know this is happening in CH because there was a house on my block that was operating as an illegal brothel but was finally shut down a few years ago due to persistence of neighborhood residents gathering photographic evidence and basically badgering the police enough until they cleared it out.

Anyway I URGE everyone to please be on the lookout for signs that this is happening. If you notice a house on your block that has a lot of male foot traffic at odd hours, shady activity, or people handing out business cards only to Hispanic men, please report this to the police. If there are any male Hispanic readers that are targeted by “advertisers” PLEASE tell the cops. This abuse of women is so terrible we all have to be on the lookout.

Link to “Breaking the Code” tips on how to spot brothel advertising

Link to the full “Enslaved in America” story

82 Comment

  • There was that big bust, 20 or so people, on the 3000 block of Georgia very recenly in the non-descript building next to the brick dental office. Reading the police report (listserve) revealed all involved had Spanish names.

    • One day they will all assimilate and get their hookers from Craiglist, like a decent American, and take them back to a proper hotel.

      Or just get an Asian Massage. I’m sure those service providers are not quite free marketplace employees, either.

  • While I applaud the OPs great instinct to help, I would say reporting a brothel in Columbia Heights will not help end prostitution; it will just be pushed out to Langley Park or some place where people are less likely to report it.

    How to help (and I’m no expert) is difficult. My suggestion would be if you know of a brothel to see if the women ever leave the house. Do they seem scared, confused? If so, contact social services or the police. If they NEVER leave the house, same thing. If the women come and go freely, say hi whenever you see them, try to be a friendly neighbor and be a resource should they ever get in trouble.

    • It won’t end prostitution but it will end prostitution for the girls, I think that is the bigger picture. Most of these girls are forced into this life

    • so you would recommend an unarmed social service worker go check out the situation? you should not be giving advice.

      “try to be a friendly neighbor and be a resource should they ever get in trouble”

      did you even read the post? in almost every case you come across being a prostitute is ALREADY BEING IN TROUBLE. in most cases it is slavery. there is no oh MAYBE they need help.

    • if the pimps see you talking to the girls, they will beat them. cause of you.

      • no, it’s because they are violent criminals.
        call the police.

        • i’m just saying, try to find a way to help them w/o singling them out and arousing suspicion since these girls are very vulnerable and are always watched

  • You’re doing a great thing to notify others about this horribly abusive trafficking going on right in the District and thank you for writing to this blog to let others know about it.

    However, one thing that I find degrading (although obviously the following complaint pales in comparison to what you wrote about, but is related to the broader issue of the treatment of women in society) is when women are called ‘girls’, as you referred to yourself–it happens a lot in businesses by people who wish to demean women and the work that they do and is a way to infantilize women. So many people are used to ‘girl’ being the parallel of ‘guy’ that they don’t stop to think that no one really calls men ‘boys’, ever, unless it’s as an insult (think Civil Rights era) or between very close friends (he’s my boy). So while this pales as a complaint in comparison to the horrible way women are treated in these brothels, it’s in the same vein that this language is used in a way to show women are less than men and can be treated as a commodity. I know it’s an automatic way to refer to yourself or other adult women because it’s so pervasive in our language, but it allows others to perceive you as ‘just a girl’

    • Wow wow wow… so should she say “gal”? I think “girl” is enough of a corollary to “guy” that you might be going a little overboard with this…

    • unless they are under 18, then they are girls. the average age of a prostitute is 13. that’s a girl. a child.

      • That’s the average age of ENTRY into prostitution ( ). The Hispanic prostitutes I have known are generally older; generally they do come of their own free will (albeit through false promises). But once they are here they are in debt, completely stuck, don’t speak the language, have no support network, don’t even know how to contact police or about 911, have no way to even get back to their home country.

    • Sorry but you are completly off base on this one. Especialy given the context of the post for which you are commenting. In my personal use of the english language, I might use the word girl to describe a female, friend, associate, business partner, ect. However, if deemed insensitive, i would happily stop, but don’t think i should then be spoken in the same breath as those who illegally kidnap woman and force them into the sex trade. I’m glad you got this little tid bit off you chest but honestly I think it could wait for a more appropriate forum. Thanks.

      • +1 a thousand times.
        I’m card carrying feminist.
        keep the semantics in the universities and let’s spend our energy on real issues.

        • I prefer “Y chromosome deficient persons”

        • Eh, I still think it’s a mistake. I understand people saying ‘woah let’s not say this in relation to this story’ but it’s still the slow creep of it all and how language says a lot about how women are perceived. I’m not referring to the prostitutes but how she describes herself as a girl. Obviously the young prostitutes/sex slaves are girls in this story and it’s absolutely horrifying, but I found this use of ‘girl’ to often describe grown women as another thing that hurts how women are perceived. I acknowledge in my post that it pales in comparison to the very serious nature of what she writes about, but it’s still significant enough to point out. It’s very shitty to be called a ‘girl’ by bosses, professors, and many others when you’re trying to command respect for the work you do/the person you are.

          • You made your point. Let’s try and keep our eye on the ball female human.

          • Completely agree. I’m a 26-year-old woman, and many people refer to me as a ‘girl.’ I haven’t been for 8 years. It’s degrading and especially frustrating when it comes from fellow professionals.

          • Why not stop arguing about word choice and focus on the real issue. I’m sure the girls forced into prostitution don’t care whether they’re called women or children, they just want out of prostitution. Way to miss. The. Point.

          • @jason, she never said it was THE point. it’s A point. and a great one.

    • This is the sort of pseudo intellectualism that makes me lose faith in modern liberalism, parts of the modern academy, and humanity generally.

      Your decision to be the language police on this blog post is really disappointing. You’re just plain incorrect about the use of the word “boy” as well, so maybe we should call you a pseudo philogist.

      You my boy Blue! George Bush was a cowboy. Where’s the bus boy? Garcon! Cafe! My boyfriend? He’s 41, and a real pretty boy. And he’s my boytoy. Let’s take that hill, boys! Win one for the Gipper, boys! My favorite Christmas song is little drummer boy. I need this stat! Where’s the copy boy? Have you met my eldest boy? He’s 32. Boy, did you see that one!? Yeeeeeeeeeah, booooooy!

      My hunch is that your understanding of modern language was colored by a dated lecture by someone who’s spent an equally small time thinking about modern language, or perhaps by some chapter in a ridiculous book.

      • Jesus, thank you.

      • I wonder if you’ve ever sat down for just 5 minutes and really tried to think about what it’s like to be a woman.

      • Dude, take a deep breath. It’s a legitimate concern. And language does influence how we think about things. Furthermore, none of your examples refer to a serious professional situation. How would you feel if your boss or colleagues or professor referred to you a boy? “This is Mr. Poon. He’s the boy who does the cleaning.” That wouldn’t be accepted the way it would if it were a woman being referred to as a girl.

        Also, your language knowledge may also be a bit dated. “Garcon” is considered rather offensive these days, and no longer used in that context.

    • Thank you for this post.

      The term “girl” is very pervasive in our language and I have tried myself to be more conscious of my use of the word.

      It is offensive to some people, whether anyone wants to believe that or not on this blog.

    • +1 bazillion

    • I researched extensively before writing this in response to your critique: Shut up.

      Poster is trying to shed light on an important, critical. and deeply perverse problem and you would like everyone to take a moment to consider VERNACULAR?!?

      Save that comment for your freshman third wave feminism review class…not for a post that relates to KIDNAPPING AND RAPE.

  • houseintherear

    MPD will be no help. We had a brothel next door when I lived in Petworth, with cars waiting out back at all hours and countless men going in and out of the house all day long. We called the police repeatedly, who did NOTHING. I even called with a complaint of sexual assault when one of the men out back tried to grab me, and the police DID NOT COME. The brothel went on for over a year until a poor young girl escaped, barefoot, and ran to get help from a neighbor. Then the police finally showed up to break up the business. I wrote letters to the local and citywide police dept leaders, who basically all said there’s nothing they could do without evidence. It’s a bunch of crap, and very sad.

    • Not so sure. I know a cop working on this issue, and he seems to be genuinely concerned and ready to act. He said we’ve got one right in the heart of Petworth operating today. But to your point, it’s amazing though that they seem to know about it, but it’s not yet been taken down? Seems they do a lot of that kind of stuff in this city, particularly when it comes to drugs. Hmmm, some cops on the dole perhaps?, or is it that they really need hard evidence to act, not just speculation or heresay…

      • houseintherear

        I guess I thought a physically assault would have gotten at least a car and an officer to my house/the brothel house. But they’re “too busy” for that kind of thing, apparently.

        • I call BS. All calls get a response. MPD has no discretion when it comes to choosing whether or not to respond.

          It might not be a fast response, but they will respond.

          There is a lot of oversight of this service.

          • saf

            “All calls get a response.”

            No. All calls that get to the cops may get a response, but I have been ignored by OUC often enough to say that they don’t GET all their calls.

      • didn’t you ever watch The Wire (the source of all my police knowledge)? step 1 is getting probably cause to justify a warrant. step 2 is coming up with charges that will actually have an effect on stopping the activity from starting up again. finding a bunch of people inside a house won’t do much to stop it from just restarting later.

        • houseintherear

          Oh ok. Next time I have a brothel next door to my house I’ll just wait it out and let the cops figure it out a year or two later. No use calling them. Thanks for the awesome advice.

  • Ditto on applauding the OP, but the police pretty much know where every brothel in the neighborhood is located. Had some downtime talking to a cop the other day while his partner CSI’d my apartment (break-in, real fun) and he said brothels are nearly impossible to prosecute. Makes sense if you think about it, even these poor victimized women are unlikely to speak to police. Sucks, but not sure what can be done.

    • The cops do know. I know of one place that gets shut down the same time every year no arrest and then back open a month later. I was also waiting for a friend near mount vernon and went in to have a beer at a bar I’ve never been to before and yea that place was kickin with under age females who wanted some money to be friends. I don’t agree with it at all but telling the police is like calling 911 and complaining that the sky is blue. The police know. Really the place up the street from me is a great neighbor. They keep the street quiet, they lease out the other areas of the building to businesses that could not afford the rent to keep up appearances. Most of the customers don’t want any trouble or to even be seen for that matter so there are no issues there. Needless to say slavery in any form is bad but the guy could of been handing out cards for fake ids, bail company or a lawyer.

      • I’m almost speechless at someone calling a brothel owner “a good neighbor,” particularly in the context being discussed here of sexual enslavement. But as long as they don’t inconvenience YOU, then hey, it’s all good! Women being raped? So what, dude? The higher rent supplements the bar and coffee shop!

      • @scott, either your sense of humor is deeply lame or you are about the worst human being on the planet.

      • don’t these places pay the cops off sometimes? i wonder how under the radar some of these places could really be

  • Is it impolite to mention that, if you are in the country illegally, just simply being here constitutes “shady activity”?

    • Impolite? No. Just irrelevant.

      • Not impolite, just incorrect and frankly, stupid.

        But I guess we shouldn’t expect more from a clown.

        • So being in the country illegally, and having committed a crime in the process is not shady? How would you describe it?

          • I’d describe it as being a 14 year old girl from a rural area or urban barrio with limited education and six siblings who is offered a good job as a maid in the paradise of the US, shown very convincing official working papers and taken under the wing of a kindly and protective patron.

            Even though she and her family may even have heard of scams and girls being sold into prostitution, they don’t quite believe it will happen to them, and besides, it can’t be that much worse than their life as it is, and have no other real choice.

            Open your mind to the realities of the world.

          • +1. This thread is making me realize how little empathy and understanding people have for one another.

          • that was +1 for victoria, btw

    • According to :


      One of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement agencies, besides locating and infiltrating the closed network brothels, is getting the cooperation of the victims. [. . .] If they are in the country illegally, they are told that the police will arrest them for prostitution and then deport them. [. . .]

      Since Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, women in such brothels can be treated as victims rather than criminals. Protections include special “T Visas” allowing victims and their families to stay in the United States, counseling, health care and job placement.


  • Praise for the poster on raising this repugnant issue to our attention. Very timely as I am currently reading a book called ‘Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy’. Heavy focus on human trafficking and modern-day slavery of all kinds but with a special focus on sexual slavery.

    These .orgs operate in DC and Polaris advertises a hotline for reporting purposes:
    The Polaris Project

    Finally, the DC Human Trafficking Task Force:

    • I’d just like to emphasize the advice given here – especially about the hotline for reporting. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline can be reached at 1.888.3737.888 and you can report tips, get referrals to services in DC and elsewhere, or request more general information about trafficking. If you report a tip to this number, they can get in contact with law enforcement to investigate the situation or build a case against the traffickers. Please call if you think you have any information!!

  • Wondertwin powers activated. Thank you for posting this.

    I want to hop out of this office chair and go tear down some doors right now.

  • Concur that this is atrocious that this is happening in DC. I’d like to point out however that this type of trafficking is hardly new, and is well chronicled (fictional characters, real scenarios) in Upton Sinclair’s classic, The Jungle, written in 1906. The same type of trafficking, captivity, forced prostitution, prohibition from contacting the outside world, etc. The question is, what are we doing about it. During the bust scene in The Jungle, both Johns and prostitutes are rounded up and taken to court. Interestingly, in the court gallery, a group of onlookers is there to take the names of the Johns so that they can be blackmailed later. So the principle of shaming the John is nothing new either, but back in 1906 it would have been powerful enough to extort money from them. Does anyone know if the billboard shame campaigns from other cities have had any effect?

  • didn’t they bust the house next to Wonderland on Kenyon for this a couple of times across the last years?

  • I find it disappointing that PoP only brings up prostitution in the guise of Latino or Other illegality.

    Why isn’t PoP dealing with the ramped prostitution going on in the white community in our city?

    I think it is time for PoP to be more representative of the neighborhood it claims to report on and less on the small fraction of new residents who monopolize services in the city while ignoring the poverty and systemic problems that surround them. I’m sorry, but wearing a tight t-shirt at Wonderland about ending human trafficking isn’t really helping anyone.

  • I live on Kenyon across from the house that used to be a brothel. The DC cops busted it once a year or so but it always got up-and-running the next day. My understanding is that what finally closed it down was engaging CM Graham and getting the INS to do a raid. That did the trick. But while the brothel on Kenyon shut down, almost immediately afterwards, there were flyers everywhere, wafting down the block like confetti, advertising that the brothel had moved a few blocks away.

  • Check out the basement of El Salvadoreno on 14th and Parkwood. IF they let you down there after your pat-down. We weren’t allowed down when we went to check out the bar but regulars (older Latin men and the occasional scantily clad young lady) were pretty frequently entering and exiting the basement. A few days later, in passing, I spoke to a police officer about it and he said he heard “shady things” happen there but no one ever gets caught- whatever that means.
    I would love it if more attention was brought to this establishment and a stop would be put to any illegal activity, ESPECIALLY if it has to do with prostitution or human trafficking.

  • The building where Redrocks occupies today was a hispanic brothel for years. I tried to buy the place for over a year and couldn’t figure out why despite the “for sale” sign in front nobody would return my calls with requests to purchase. Then a Hispanic developer asked me to sit across the street and watch the place. As discribed by the poster, men would hand out business cards to hispanics walking within a 1 block radius and often enough there was traffic in and out. Rarely saw women.
    Developer said that the “for sale” enabled protection to the owner who could claim he was not aware what was transpiring as he had the place for sale and was not collecting rent. Scary this still exists today in CH.

  • Jeeze, everyone’s got to be so sensitive on here. All he did was post a reader’s email about something she saw on MSNBC. I’m sure if you emailed PoP something voicing your concern over the ramped prostitution in the white community he’d post that as well.

  • I’m curious why people don’t just start a list of addresses and what sort of activity they have witnessed. It seems like a good way to build momentum in addressing the issue.

  • Thanks for posting this. Yes – prostitution has been around forever and yes it always will be, and no the police can’t do much about it – but – in any raid there is an opportunity for a girl/woman to escape that life.

    Yes, there are still a thousand reasons why she might not – but for the one who does there are enough organizations, in the US anyway, that she really can have a chance.

    By being aware of the problem and having an idea of the resources available to assist a woman seeking escape, you can actually save someone’s life.

    It’s like knowing that CPR might only be 5% effective – but it only takes you ten minutes to learn it, and costs you nothing to do it – so why not at least try?

  • Wondering if it would make a difference to post signs on flag poles with an advert asking people to call Grahm (or the appropriate CM) with a photo and address of the brothel. If advertising can work to support a business surely informing neighbors can help put an end to it.

    Also the Police need to not treat the prostitutes as criminals but victims and the “Johns” as criminals. If we put away the customers like we put away crack heads in the 80s/90s I think the problem would become much more manageable. Also if you get arrested for patronizing a prostitute – or an underaged prostitute at the least – you should have to register as a sex offender.

  • If you see a victim that only speaks Spanish, please give them this number: 1-888-NO-TRATA (1-888-668-7282).

    This number is to Ricky Martin’s foundation program to help put an end to human trafficking.

    Free, confidential, in Spanish, and people ready to help.


    People from this organization literally go out into the streets and try to assist victims of sex/human trafficking.

  • Question: If we know of places (i.e., addresses) that are into some shadiness and are trying to be discrete about it, why not put those places on blast? Public shame? Put a big ass red sign in the front yard that says “Prostitution Services Here” or something.

    …would be awesome if someone did that.. just sayin..

  • Once when walking my dog I saw a U-Haul go by and could hear women inside screaming and pounding the insides of the U-Haul. I tried to get the tag # but was afraid to get too close because the driver saw me on my cell phone (I was calling the cops) and I was afraid he might have a gun. I couldn’t get the tag # but followed as far as I could on foot til the U-Haul was out of sight. The cops almost immediately swarmed the area (this was in Petworth), but they couldn’t find the vehicle, it was gone. I’m sharing this horrible story so others can think about it and watch for things like this, and call them in. If a cop had been close by for another call when my call came in, maybe they would have apprehended the vehicle and saved those women. I still think about them and worry about them; I can’t imagine they are okay.

  • It’s not like this is news to anyone who has lived in CH’s for even the shortest period of time. Hell, I have collection of these “business cards” at home that I would happily give to the police if ANYONE was even remotely concerned with shutting them down. Clearly the police/code enforcement/gov. officals are either 1) turning a blind eye, 2)on the take or 3)both. I particularly like the relocating business card that I have for the “store” that supposedly “makes shoes for men only” go figure…If everyone seems to know about it how come NOTHING is ever done about it?

    • How come nothing is ever done?

      Same reason all evil is permitted to persist in this world. $$$$$$$

  • While I agree with the OP’s concern about human trafficking–hell, I work on these issues!–I want to caution commenters not to constantly conflate trafficking and prostitution. Not all prostitutes are sex slaves, just as not all are willing participants. It’s really problematic to deprive all of these women of their agency in this matter by treating them unilaterally as weak, helpless victims.

    That being said, I do believe law enforcement needs to up their efforts to weed out sex slavery and human trafficking.

    • no. it is better to err on the side of concern for the women in places that are not legal brothels.

  • I was at the Red Derby about a year and a half ago and there was a stabbing at a Latin brothel accross the street, apparently there was a man and two ladies involved. I remember the bartenders telling me that that block was full of brothels.

  • Great program on sex-trafficking on Kojo Namdi today. Check the website for re-broadcast info.

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