Peter Van Sant infiltrates the billion-dollar business
of human trafficking on "Rescued From The Shadows."
""One of the key tools that modern
day slaveholders today use is to break the person's will
as soon as possible."
Jolene Smith, Free The Slaves Foundation
48 Hours worked
with Iana Matei, the director of Reaching Out Romania, a
shelter for trafficking victims. (Photo: CBS/48 Hours)
The report also explores the
case of a young Russian woman who escaped from a
million-dollar sex trafficking ring. (Photo: CBS)
Learn more about this non-profit
organization working to end
Reaching Out Romania
Iana Matei firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Justice Department
Trafficking in Persons Task
Force Complaint Line:
night, the rooms above a building in downtown Bucharest
resemble a scene straight from the 18th century slave
trades, and it's taking place in front of 48 Hours'
There, Correspondent Peter Van Sant is negotiating to
buy a human being – not for an hour, but forever. In this 48 Hours report, Van Sant infiltrates the
billion-dollar business of human trafficking, a business
that is worldwide.
Hundreds of thousands of young, desperate girls are
trafficked each year as sex slaves. Some are lured overseas
with the promise of a good job, only to be enslaved once
they arrive. Others are simply abducted.
To investigate, 48 Hours traveled to
Bucharest, Romania, with hidden cameras to find out if it
was really possible to purchase a sex slave.
Posing as traffickers from America, 48 Hours
crews went undercover, hoping to rescue a victim of this
insidious industry. To infiltrate this world, crews hired
streetwise journalists Paul Radu and Daniel Neamu as guides.
Like many poor Eastern European countries, Romania has
become a popular place for international traffickers looking
to recruit, or even purchase, girls.
After dark, the 48 Hours team ventures into
the older sectors of Bucharest, to see what money can buy.
Within minutes, the crew finda what looks like the kind of
pimping and prostitution you can see in any large city. But
soon it learns that some of these girls are for sale as
"You can buy 10 girls in one night, if you want to. You can
say I want a 13-, a 16-, a 17-, and a 21-years-old, and you
can buy them all like that," says Iana Matei, who runs a
shelter for trafficking victims outside Bucharest.
Matei agreed to take in any girl that 48 Hours
could rescue. "Young girls and women, bought and sold, first
to work in prostitution. That's slavery. We choose to
believe that they are prostitutes and we don't look into
it," says Matei.
She says that many of the girls on the street look like
prostitutes but are actually slaves, ready for purchase and
export to Western Europe or the United States.
"It’s on the street. It’s impossible not to see," says
Matei. "It’s not a secret industry. It’s right in your
A woman named Francesca claims to have girls all over
Bucharest. Over a meal, our undercover team explains to
Francisca that it wants to buy her girls, and bring them
back to the United States. The team asks if the girls have
the proper documents to cross the border.
"No problem," says Francesca, who is hungry to close the
But 48 Hours decides to do business with
another trafficker, Nadia, who says she has a young, blonde
girl for sale.
Nadia brings out the girl, "Nicoleta", to meet with Van
Sant. She and her business partner and husband, Costel, put
Nicoleta on display in the filthy apartment where she
To rescue Nicoleta, it is crucial that Van Sant and the 48 Hours team convincingly play the role of
Nicoleta undresses. “They usually show the girls to see she
doesn’t have any marks, any skin disease so they can show
she’s good to be used," says Matei. "It's, like, when you
say, sell a cattle in the market."
"To you, it's a human being. To them, it's not," adds Matei.
"To them, it's income. It's a way of making money."
Van Sant offers to pay $1,000 for Nicoleta, but suddenly
there is a problem: Nicoleta doesn't have any ID on her.
However, Costel assures 48 Hours that the
issue will be resolved the next day.
The plan is to return to the traffickers’ apartment the next
day, buy Nicoleta for $1,000, and then bring her to Matei’s
shelter, and let Nicoleta reclaim her life.
But within minutes, negotiations hit a snag. Now, Nadia
wants $2,000 for the sale. Why has the price doubled
overnight? “Obviously, they understood that you are going to
take her overseas," says Matei. "So she goes overseas, the
price goes up $1,000."
Nadia says much of the money will support Nicoleta's family.
In the end, Van Sant offers $1,800, and the deal is settled.
But even though the traffickers haven't produced Nicoleta's
ID, 48 Hours wants to get her out of there.
Nicoleta leaves with only the clothes on her back.
Once in the car, 48 Hours hands over the rest
of the cash. In less time than it takes to buy groceries, 48 Hours had bought a human being.
"I want you to know that you are absolutely safe with us,"
Van Sant tells Nicoleta. "You've got nothing to fear."
It’s now a very difficult decision for Van Sant, who is
trying to decide whether he should tell Nicoleta that the 48 Hours team are undercover reporters. He's
concerned that Nicoleta might jump out of the car, think
that he is lying to her, or believe that he is part of the
But Nicoletta is convinced that Van Sant is her new owner.
During the drive, she tells 48 Hours that this
is the first time she's been outside in more than a year.
She says her owners brutally beat her, and that she was fed
like a dog.
How did she become a slave? Nicoletta says her mother
abandoned her at an orphanage: "Then, they threw me out.
With no family, I didn't know where to go."
She says she eventually came to Bucharest, where she spent
years living in the sewers and shantytowns with other young
runaways. The traffickers found her by the side of a road.
They promised her food and shelter. But they ended up making
her bad world worse.
After nearly two hours of driving, Van Sant tells Nicoleta
the truth: "We are journalists from the United States. We
have bought you because we want to set you free."
Exhausted and a bit stunned, Nicoleta hugs our translator,
and says: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart, that you
saved me from that hell."
48 Hours arrives at Matei’s shelter after
midnight. Nicoleta gets a change of clothes and a hot meal.
How does Nicoleta look? "She is tired, obviously. Not well
taken care of," says Matei. "She doesn’t have self worth,
self respect, self esteem."
Matei says it will be months before Nicoleta trusts her
enough to tell her the truth – but she isn't optimistic. "My
first opinion is, it will be very difficult to work with
48 Hours says goodbye to Nicoleta, promising
to check back in a few months.
Nicoleta is just beginning to deal with what she's endured
in Romania, another young woman – more than 6,000 miles away
in southern California – has spent years recovering from her
48 Hours talked to "Olga," 25, who's also a
survivor of a million-dollar sex slave trafficking ring in
Russia. Her ordeal began in 1999, in her hometown of Moscow,
a growing supplier of sex slaves to the United States.
She was the perfect target for traffickers. Both her father
and boyfriend had been murdered by the Russian mob. She was
scared and desperate to get out.
A friend introduced her to a man named Alexander Rashkovsky,
who was looking for girls to work in America. Rashkovsky
offered Olga a chance at a new life: a job as an assistant
and transportation to the United States.
"The only thing that I knew: that America is really secure –
a person has rights," says Olga. "And everywhere would be
pretty much safer than being in Moscow."
Jolene Smith, executive director of the Free the Slaves
Foundation, says Rashkovsky's come-on is a typical tactic
for a slave trader. "And then the harsh reality sets in.
There are threats. And that's where the person realizes,
'I'm trapped. And there is nothing I can do.'"
After Rashkovsky spent the money on the plane tickets, he
made it clear there was no backing out. "If anybody try to
run away, he's not going to deal with you," says Olga. "'I'm
just going to cut your head off.'"
Olga got on the plane with four other Russian girls. In that
instant, they became the personal property of an
international slave trader. Olga's plane, however, was
headed to Mexico. Rashkovsky was planning to smuggle the
women across the notoriously unsupervised border between
Mexico and the United States. He brought the women to a
hotel in Tijuana.
Olga, a consultant to 48 Hours on this report,
returned to Mexico to retrace her steps. "It’s just old
memories," she says. "The older I get, the more scarier it
is to think about, what could happen to me."
Girls like Olga are sometimes put to work in Mexican strip
clubs before heading north. But Mexico is more than just a
transit country and training ground for Eastern Europeans.
In its own right, Mexico is the No. 1 country providing
slaves to the United States, accounting for the majority of
federal trafficking cases.
Many girls come from the central Mexico region of Tlaxcala,
an infamous haven for modern-day slave traders. Two years
ago, "Rosaria" was kidnapped. She was 20.
"They had me working overnights. It was worse than prison,"
says Rosaria. "No freedom. Doing things I had never done
before. It was like hell on earth."
Rosaria recently escaped from a Tijuana brothel before she
could be taken from the border. "They told me they will kill
me. They even threatened me with hurting my family, if I
tried to escape," she says. "They told me that I was going
to work in the United States. They had girls working over
Many of those girls never return. 48 Hours met
"Elsa," one of the mothers of the missing. The last time she
saw her daughter was on her 20th birthday, in June 2001.
Elsa claims that the people behind her daughter’s
disappearance are an allegedly well-known family of slave
traders called the Carretos. She alleges that members of the
Carretos abducted her daughter on her way to work, and
eventually brought her daughter to the United States. But
first, Elsa says they brought her to Calle Santo Tomas, one
of the many brutal training grounds in Mexico where
traffickers "break in" new girls like Rosaria.
Rosaria said she was beaten: "They just looked at me and
told me to go to work. I was so scared of being killed, I
did everything they wanted me to."
"One of the key tools that modern day slaveholders today use
is to break the person's will as soon as possible," says
Smith. "The sooner the will is broken, in many cases, it's
easier to transport that person. It's easier to force that
person to work."
On Calle Santo Tomas, you can find dozens of girls, day and
night, parading in a slow circle. A crowd of clients stands
around them, while a vendor sells snacks. The pimps
overseeing matters are suspicious of outsiders, but 48
Hours got in with hidden cameras.
The girls bring their clients into a warehouse-like
structure, and the sex takes place inside filthy curtained
cubicles. Elsa says her daughter was helpless: "They
threaten the girls. They say, 'If you leave, I will kill
your family. I will kill you and cut you to pieces."
But for Olga and the other Russian girls, a different
version of the "training process" took place on their first
night in Tijuana.
Rashkovsky brought some men to the hotel and began putting
his new slaves to work. Olga convinces them she is too sick
to perform, but she now sees a horrible future ahead of her.
"He [Rashkovsky] wouldn't care at all," she says. "We could
die, and he would probably step over us and keep walking.”
And now, just as Elsa is determined to free her daughter,
Olga is determined to escape. "This is my chance," says
The border crossing between Tijuana and California is the
busiest land border in the world. Rashkovsky was behind the
wheel, and Olga and another Russian woman were passengers on
the road to becoming Rashkovsky's newest sex slaves in
But first, they had to pass the last obstacle: getting
through the border checkpoint.
Olga, who at the time didn't speak any English, was given a
two-word crash course in English by Rashkovsky: "Yes. U.S."
It was something she would have to say at the border.
"I knew that it wasn’t easy to cross the border, so as soon
as I get there, I should try to escape," says Olga.
When the car pulled up to the border guard, Olga made her
move. "I just hope they were going to stop our car," she
She began speaking in Russian, and says Rashkovsky was
furious. But her gamble worked. Everyone was ordered out of
the car by the border patrol, and detained. Rashkovsky was
questioned on video, and tried to convince his interrogators
that he had just met the girls in Tijuana.
But it didn’t work. "An older gentleman in the company of
two young females who had heavy Russian accents, you know,
just didn't pass the litmus test," says Special Agent Mike
Unzueta, who worked the Rashkovsky case for the Department
of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as "ICE."
Rashkovsky was arrested for attempting to smuggle human
beings across the border.
"He was basically a monster," says Olga. "Really a monster.
Investigators later learned the ugly truth: Rashkovsky had
raked in more than a million dollars, trafficking young
Russians into the Los Angeles area.
"The money that they were making was going right into
Rashkovsky’s pocket," says Unzueta. "These women basically
were going to be treated as slaves."
Olga was taken to a safe house in San Diego and placed in
protective custody. She was one of the lucky few to be saved
before she was forced into slavery.
Sadly, it was totally different for Elsa’s daughter. Members
of the Carreto crime family of Tlaxcala, Mexico, allegedly
brought Elsa’s daughter and other girls all the way to
"In New York, threats, force, violence, rape used to force
these Mexican women into prostitution, six, seven days a
week," says ICE Director Mike Garcia.
For years, ICE agents have been investigating the pipeline
that brings Mexican girls to the quiet Queens neighborhood
where the Carretos were allegedly running their operation.
48 Hours sent an undercover researcher into
the Latino neighborhood in Queens, where Elsa's daughter was
brought. He soon finds a pimp who steers him around the
block and down into a basement.
Under the careful eyes of their keepers, the girls are
working in two small rooms, separated by a bed sheet.
“When we think of how trafficking victims are surviving
within our own countries today, I can only imagine that it's
something like this," says Smith, who was shown the
undercover tape. "What's interesting to note about this
particular case is that it seems to be happening in a
middle-class residential area. This further proves the point
that we all need to be vigilant. This could be happening
At another popular location, a girl tells the undercover
researcher that she is 22 and from Vera Cruz, Mexico. He
asks the men running the place if they have anyone younger.
They promise him a 16-year-old girl.
48 Hours can’t say for sure if these girls are
being held against their will, but when Elsa’s daughter got
her first chance to call Mexico, she contacted her mother
and pleaded for help.
"She was afraid because she had been threatened," says Elsa.
"And I cried very much when I heard her voice.”
Despite the danger of speaking out against the Carretos,
Elsa was not intimidated. She went public with her story in
The New York Times magazine, and filed a complaint with the
Mexican federal police.
"I saw the way to find justice. I made the move," she says.
"But I still worry a lot about my daughter."
Elsa’s determination paid off. Members of the Carreto family
were arrested last year. Authorities say they eventually
will be going to trial in New York.
Elsa's daughter was rescued and now assisting in the
investigation. She hopes to be reunited with her mother.
Alexander Rashkovsky ended up in prison in California after
Olga testified against him at trial. He died of pneumonia
behind bars in 2003.
Olga was allowed to stay in the United States under a
special visa the federal government offers to victims of
trafficking. Now, she's trying to build a real estate
As for Nicoleta, the girl that 48 Hours bought
in Bucharest for $1,800 and then freed? 48 Hours
returned to Romania three months later to find out how she's
doing. She's still in recovery at Iana Matei's shelter for
"She's doing better than I expected her to do, honestly,"
says Matei. "She's doing quite well in the shelter."
For the first time in her life, Nicoleta has people around
her who care. "They're a really good family," she says.
And they are her only family. It has taken months for Matei
to learn the true details of Nicoleta's life, including her
true age, 26. She believes that Nicoleta, homeless and
mentally challenged, was picked up by traffickers and spent
years as a sex slave.
Just the mention of her past life reduces Nicoleta to tears.
48 Hours went back to the apartment where
Nicoleta was held captive, to confront her former owners,
Nadia and Costel, but they were nowhere to be found. The
traffickers seemingly melted into the back alleys of
Bucharest, as Nicoleta picks up the pieces of her shattered
"I was quite impressed, honestly," says Matei. "I am pleased
to say there is hope for Nicoleta."
Today, it's the simple pleasures of freedom that make
Nicoleta happy – like having her own room, working in the
shelter's tailoring shop, and being able to walk outside.
Now, perhaps for the first time, she can look forward to the
"I want to learn to read and get a job," says Nicoleta. "And
maybe one day have a family."
Elsa’s daughter, who was rescued in New York, is expected to
be a key witness against members of the Carreto family.
Their trial for sex trafficking is expected to begin this
There are an estimated 4,600 women currently held in the
United States as sex slaves.