I can understand why Jack Shafer may have found Peter Landesman's story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "The Girls Next Door," to be almost unbelievable. The nature of human trafficking for the purpose of sex is harrowing, and the notion that there are sex slaves here, among us, in the United States in particularly unsettling. But months of Landesman's reporting and weeks of intensive fact-checking resulted in an article that details a scourge that is real and sizable. Shafer read an 8,600-word article stuffed with quotation, description, and documentation, and dismisses it as unsubstantiated; yet he offers almost nothing in the way of substantiation for his doubts. Content with what amounts to ontological questioning ("I can't DISPROVE the claim…but I seriously doubt its veracity"), he also seems to have no idea—or to have forgotten from his old print days -- how difficult it is to report and write about a shadowy, dangerous world, a world that does not lend itself to seamless narratives, numerous on-the-record corroborators, and hard, precise numbers. I will not parse all the attacks on Landesman and the magazine bolstered by little more than blog-esque ad hominem rhetorical flourishes ("whiff", "slippery" and on). But allow me to respond to some of Shafer's specific allegations.
Let me start with his second posting. Shafer seems to doubt the existence of Andrea, or her stories, or both. Landesman contacted her through one of a number of so-called rescue organizations for trafficking victims. He met her several times face-to-face in a location in the United States that she requested not to be disclosed. He and the magazine's researchers also spoke at length to Andrea's therapist, who confirmed the accounts -- she has heard them for nearly years—and firmly believes them. Also, the Mexican sex-slave trade, like the drug trade, operates on both sides of the border, and slaves like Andrea can be made to work on both sides of the border.
Shafer thinks the cover image is "screwy", but the girl on the cover, as is noted on page 6 of the magazine, is Montserrat, who is a significant character in the story. As is stated clearly in the piece, she spent time as a sex slave in America and is now back in Mexico under the care and protection of a rescue organization. This fact has been carefully sourced and fact-checked.
Shafer's old pal Neal Matthews thinks it is "unlikely" that girls landed by boat. According to Daniel Saunders, as assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, the six Ukrainian women written about in the story were transported to San Diego by boat on July 4. We also have in our possession an FBI affidavit on trafficking that details various instances of boats transporting undocumented aliens to the marina in San Diego by boat.
As for Katha Pollitt's "sensible" question: The story never says "many" sex slaves are killed. It says sex slaves are "often beaten and sometimes killed" if they try to escape. This is something Landesman was told by a number of girls, and a former madam, and this point was confirmed to our fact-checkers by a number of experts.
Now, as for Shafer's original posting: I am not sure whether he is questioning the estimates Landesman quotes as to the number of sex slaves that might be in America, or the very use of any such numbers in a magazine story of this nature. I'll take up the latter first: Can Shafer think of one form of sex crime (child sexual abuse, ethnic-cleansing rapes) for which numbers are not best-guess estimates? Moreover, can he think of any type of international trafficking done by crime groups (of cocaine, of weapons), the extent of which is not presented as an estimate by reporters and publications in stories about such trafficking? And: does he happen to have information that the estimate we published—and the numbers Landesman printed were clearly described in the story as estimated—was wildly inflated? And: Should journalists simply not write about issues until hard numbers ARE established? And: If we shouldn't have printed an estimate from the president of a leading trafficking advocacy group in America, who should we have gotten an estimate from? And: If the State Department point-man on trafficking says that the advocate's estimate "could be low," how does the estimate, and the state department response, come to confirm, for you: "we do know whose interests are served by any inflation of the numbers." I give up: WHOSE?
It seems unbelievable to Shafer that there could be dozens of active stash houses without the police busting them all. Substitute "crack houses" or "whore houses": still unbelievable? As Landesman writes, the police often can't tell slaves from everyday hookers, and so are not looking for them. This same point is made by a named state department official in the piece. Shafer finds particularly "preposterous" the existence of the sex-slave site among thick reeds in San Diego. The police did raid the site in December of 2001—you can look it up in the Los Angeles Times of December 7, 2001—and found at least 10 slaves. This site and others nearby are also reported on in a three-part series published last year in the Mexican paper El Universal. (Obviously the site, or sites, keep re-opening.) The police did tell Landesman they were planning another raid, which he agreed to keep secret. They also told Landesman, as other cops told him, that building a case against slavery in such instances is very difficult , as the girls are young, frightened of the police AND of their traffickers, and also beholden to the traffickers. They also are well aware they are in the United States illegally, and do not relish a court appearance. It is true that Landesman did not wander in and talk to the girls there—really, I cannot believe how easy Shafer imagines this kind of reporting to be—but he did visit a house in Mexico where girls bound for America were "broken in". All of this reporting in San Diego and in Mexico was carefully sourced and fact-checked.
The web site where the slave appeared to be auctioned: It exists, I know the name of the site, and we decided not to print the name on the grounds of taste and ethics. Was it real? The special Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent thought it looked real. Landesman wrote "supposedly". Many times throughout the article Landesman carefully hedged his statements with qualifiers, but you seem to understand that the use of qualifiers is not to show care but rather to create vagueness.
Finally, yes, Montserrat could not have seen "Scary Movie II" in Portland, despite having said so both to Landesman and a researcher. She said yesterday that she is no longer sure where she saw it, but that it is one of her favorites. We will be running a correction about that. Thank you for raising doubts about it.
Editor, New York Times Magazine