Two years ago, Richmond police started noticing a strange trend in neighborhoods on the city's south side: cars coming and going from homes and apartments.

Investigators soon discovered more than a dozen brothels where women, primarily illegal immigrants, were being forced into prostitution. But what happened in the homes and businesses there is just one type of human trafficking. It is a hidden crime few people will talk about, until now.

"For many years, I was told not to talk about it, which made me feel like I had done something wrong," said Kelly (not her real name), a trafficking victim who offered to tell her story.

We agreed to conceal Kelly's identity because her friends and co-workers do not know about her past as a runaway forced into prostitution.

"I've spent many, many years blocking it out," she said.

Thousands of American girls, often runaways like Kelly, are controlled by pimps and forced to have sex with men, as many as a dozen a night. Some are paid with poker chips, turned in later for scraps of food.

"I was really, really angry and confused," Kelly said. "I carried around guilt that I thought I was a prostitute. I thought that I had made the decision. I didn't really understand that someone had taken advantage of me and manipulated me."

The United Nations says human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world: a $40 billion-a-year industry. Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked each year, but exactly how many enter the U.S., and eventually enter Virginia, is impossible to tally.

Officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies confirmed that there is a growing problem with human trafficking in Virginia, although none of the agencies would provide specifics about ongoing investigations. Most did say, however, that police are increasingly concerned about the connections many traffickers have to Latino gangs, including MS-13.

"Statistics are hard to come by because it's a hidden crime, it's a hidden problem," said Bradley Myles, who runs the Polaris Project, a Washington-based non-profit that is working to shed light on trafficking. "Fear is a big challenge."

Myles said victims often are afraid to talk to the police, worried they will be treated as criminals instead of victims, and worried that their pimp will try to steal them back.

"And sometimes even if the trafficker has been caught, the victim still has this kind of residual fear," Myles said.

That fear stems from beatings, filthy living conditions and violent rapes, committed by the traffickers to control their victims.

"The guy did rape me, the day I finally sought help," Kelly said. "When he raped me, I finally realized I wasn't in control."

Advocates, including those at the Polaris Project, worry that tough trafficking laws in Maryland and Washington, D.C., are pushing the problem into Virginia. Now, those advocates are pushing back, by trying to convince Virginia legislators to change the law and crack down on the traffickers.

If you know of someone who is being forced into prostitution, the Polaris Project operates a confidential tip line: 1-888-373-7888.

In part two of our special report, we go straight to the General Assembly to ask the tough questions about Virginia's failed anti-trafficking law.

Reported by Adam Rhew
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