Slowly and painfully, a mark of slavery is fading away.
Blood percolates on Arien Pauls’ chest as a laser removes a large tattoo of a rose on her chest, but it’s worth every pang. Every time the 27-year-old Fresno woman looks in the mirror, or someone calls her rose beautiful, it’s a tormenting reminder that she was once branded like cattle.
She received the mark in a garage at the direction of an abusive pimp. After it was done, she was made to pay for it by having sex with the man who gave it to her.
The rose represents the childhood home of the pimp, who saw himself as a “rose that grew from the concrete.” There were many thorns. He repeatedly beat Pauls severely, threatened to kill her family if she stopped selling her body for sex, and kept all the money she earned.
Pauls and another Fresno woman are the first two human trafficking victims to benefit from the Traffick Stop project. There will be many more.
Local law enforcement groups and other organizations say the “overwhelming majority” of human trafficking victims are branded and that Fresno is a major hub for the sex trade.
Sgt. Curt Chastain, who oversees the Fresno Police Department’s vice and criminal intelligence unit, said that on any given night there are at least 100 people being sold for sex in Fresno, the majority of them victims.
Of 2,700 to 3,000 children who run away from home in Fresno every year, an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent are lured into human trafficking. Chastain thinks the actual number is much higher.
Many, like Pauls, were targeted as teenagers on social media by predators pretending to love them.
While prostitution – the act of performing a sex act for compensation – is illegal in California in all cases, Chastain says “human trafficking is when one gains from the services of another through fear, force or coercion” and that the majority of those involved in prostitution are victims.
Throughout his 29 years with the department, Chastain said, “I’ve never personally met someone in prostitution who hasn’t started out as a victim.”
The founder of the tattoo-removal project, Robert De La Rosa with United Way, is eager to help these victims. He thought of starting Traffick Stop after talking with Debra Woods, Breaking the Chain’s co-founder and chief executive director, also a victim of human trafficking. Learning that many women are branded shocked him.
Pauls receives case management and counseling services through Breaking the Chains. The nonprofit is preparing to open its first safe house in Fresno for victims of human trafficking and is working with United Way to find more women to benefit from Traffick Stop. Woods says three more women are already on a waiting list for tattoo removals.
Chastain says most victims are lured into prostitution by what is known as a “romeo” pimp. A much smaller percentage are kidnapped and physically restrained against their will.
“(Prostitution) will be sold to them as a temporary way to gain money so they can have this beautiful life they are going to have together,” Chastain said, “and it’s all a big, fat lie.”
“Eventually,” Pauls said, “that sweetheart phase falls away and it’s life-threats and beatings.”
Living in terror
The lies began for Pauls when she was 17. A man started talking to her on the social networking site Myspace. She thought he loved her.
He wined and dined her, and showered her with attention and gifts like she never had known growing up in poverty. She got good grades at Bullard High School, but was working at a Taco Bell after graduation and struggling to make ends meet while taking classes at Fresno City College.
He started talking to her about having sex for money.
“What really got me is that he said, ‘You can even send money to your family.’ ” Pauls recalls. “ ‘You can help your brothers out and buy them new shoes, you can help your mom, you can help them live in a better house, you can help them have a better car.’ ”
She agreed to meet a woman involved in prostitution in Modesto who made it seem like an “elite, underground club.” Within a couple hours of meeting the charismatic woman, Pauls was alone in a hotel room with an unknown man. She had previously had sex only once, at age 16 with a high school sweetheart.
“At that point, I really believe that survival instinct, that fight or flight instinct, kind of kicked in, and it was just like, ‘I’m going to go along with this because when it’s over, I’ll be able to help my family,’ ” she recalled.
Her reality was very different.
A few weeks later, she was passed off to a new pimp. She didn’t realize until later that she was sold. Like the first man, the pimp wined and dined her in the beginning, making her think he loved her.
She was never able to send money home. She handed over all the money she earned, except for a little cash she was allowed to use to buy something at a store or to play slot machines at a casino, only in an effort to look busy and avoid police detection. On average, pimps make between $500 and $1,500 a day, Chastain says.
Pauls’ pimp took her to Las Vegas so she would be far away from family, and she was sold there and in many other cities around the country. She had sex for money every day, sometimes with 10 different men. During one of the most terrifying nights, she was robbed and raped at knife point in the back of a car by several men.
The pimp repeatedly beat her severely, kicking her and hitting her with a golf club. He broke her nose and finger, cracked her ribs, and busted open her lips. He also got her pregnant twice and made her have abortions – one time, when she was five months pregnant.
Pauls’ mother placed a missing-person report, but it didn’t help. When found, Pauls said, an officer just asked if she was hurt and if she was over 18 before clearing the report.
She was arrested for prostitution dozens of times in other cities, but only recalls one officer asking if she needed help.
“It was more like, ‘We need to catch the pimps,’ and it was almost like we were being viewed as, ‘Whatever. You’re going to be back out there again anyways.’ ”
Still, after one brutal beating, she decided to flee while the pimp slept. She told a police officer her story and later worked with detectives to prosecute the pimp, who she said only received a domestic abuse charge.
People often ask why she didn’t try to escape or ask for help sooner.
“You need to understand that it’s not that easy,” she said. “He (the pimp) took time to know about my family members and where they lived. He even knew their birthdays and he would threaten to kill them on their birthday, and it’s just that fear that’s installed and it is brainwashing. At the beginning, I believed with all my heart that I was in love with this person and he cared for me. But it was all false.”
A victim-centered approach
Woods, with Breaking the Chains, said many more women like Pauls are being seen by law enforcement as victims instead of perpetrators. Education has helped.
Fresno police founded a task force against human trafficking in 2009; it includes local and federal partners. By spending more time talking with victims and offering support services, they are arresting more pimps than ever.
“Back in the ’90s,” Chastain said, “if we prosecuted one to two pimps a year, that was a great year. … Since we started our task force, in the last six years we’ve prosecuted 36 pimps for human-trafficking cases.”
Woods said Fresno is receiving a lot of praise for the work.
“Fresno is an amazing example of truly embracing the victim-centered approach,” she said.
Victims face many more obstacles after fleeing the sex trade.
Pauls started going to school to become an EMT, but after excelling and earning her certification, she was denied a license to work because of her criminal record. She was very close to going back to the streets.
“It’s taken me about a year and a half, two years, to not absolutely start crying when I see an ambulance go by,” she said.
But eventually, she caught a break. She now works as an assistant catering manager in Fresno.
Moving forward hasn’t been easy, but things are looking up.
Getting the brand on her chest removed is helping. It’ll take many more laser treatments to completely remove the mark, but it’s already fading.
“This one is a reminder that I still belong to the streets, that I’m not really a free person, even though I’ve accomplished so much since then. … So each treatment, it feels like slowly those ties are coming free.”
She got a tattoo of another rose on her wrist. It’s a symbol of hope and strength.
Pointing to her chest, she says, “Once this is finally gone, then it will be an even more positive reminder that the rose is no longer a negative thing for me.”
Traffick Stop: People interested in being a part of the Traffick Stop program can call 2-1-1 or visit uwfm.org. Beautologie Cosmetic Surgery & Laser Center also removes tattoos from former gang members for free.
Make a report: Sgt. Curt Chastain says tips made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline will also alert police: 1-888-373-7888.
Breaking the Chains fundraiser: Breaking the Chains will host a Promise Banquet at Tornino’s, 5080 N. Blackstone Ave., Fresno, on Thursday, April 21. Silent auction begins at 5 p.m. and dinner at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 or $350 per table. Reserve a seat online at btcfresno.org. More information is available by calling 559-402-3955 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.