by Nick Hahn
“A drone is often preferred for missions that are too dull, dirty, or dangerous for manned aircraft.”
Her name was Casita. She was eighteen but looked fourteen. One of nine children from a poverty stricken, dangerous barrio on the outskirts of Panama City, her brother, Javier, had been snatched from the streets of El Chorrillos six months earlier. He was thirteen and beautiful.
Casita completed high school, spoke fluent English and Spanish, but her education was earned on the streets of El Chorrillos. There she was known as jefe mujer (boss woman). In the developed world she would have been a CEO, respected by her peers and feared by her competitors. Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, had recruited Casita at seventeen. She was smart, street savvy, motivated, pretty – the perfect candidate for Interpol and their undercover investigation of human trafficking. Casita would be a Drone.
The graffiti was in Spanish, neon colors highlighting the varicose cracks in the wall. It smelled of urine and pot. The front door was metal with four bolt locks. The windows were frosted glass, embedded with chicken wire. They swung out and up like fake eyelashes supported by notched adjustment bars.
This factory building was on the near-west side of Cleveland in an industrial area on the Cuyahoga River known as The Flats. There was a sweatshop garment factory, a warehouse for imported cheeses, then a crack den for teenage potheads. It was now headquartering for Magic Slim, the only pimp in Cleveland with his own film studio, a training facility, and a dormitory fit for the Ivy League.
Life in his building was good, and he intended to make it better. Slim’s girls came from nothing. It was a big improvement for them. Slim understood this too well. He knew about poverty, cold, and hunger. The West Side of Chicago was his training ground. He would never go back. He weighed 140 pounds soaking wet. No one knew what held his pants up. He would just say, “It’s magic”. The name stuck.
I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. My father was a Rastafarian pothead who walked out on us when I was two. My mother, Juanita, worked nights cleaning office buildings to make ends meet for my three younger sisters and me. She did a little hooking on the side, the latter always more profitable.
She worked Rush Street on weekends. Her pimp promoted her as ‘the best trick in the Loop.’ Most clients agreed, at least the sober ones. She could do ten to fifteen tricks a night without complaining. The average time with a client was fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on services rendered. Pimp, the only name she ever called him, took care of her, often paying her a performance bonus.
There was a lot of competition on the street. Pimps would entice the better performers to join their stable for a bigger cut or access to the best corners. Top girls were often tattooed with the pimp’s initials. Branding was a growing trend, and Pimp liked to stay ahead of his competition. Juanita refused to let him put his stylized P in red, white, and blue anywhere on her body. Some things were sacred, after all, and she might opt for free agency one day. This was a business like any other, only in this case you were a renewable resource, albeit one with a limited life span. Like a professional athlete, when the girls hit forty, they either retired or moved into a management role.
When Juanita got home late, I knew it meant business was good and there’d be extra food on the table. She didn’t take food stamps or welfare. She was a naturalized citizen and felt it was unpatriotic. She was a businesswoman and an entrepreneur who paid her taxes. It was the American way.
I was a street kid who lived by my wits, not by my anemic brawn. My friends looked to me for solutions, not muscle. I was clever and dependable, and everyone in the neighborhood knew it.
By the time I was fifteen I had saved twelve hundred dollars in small bills running errands for the South Side cartels. I appreciated the value of a dollar and didn’t spend foolishly. I stashed my money in two tin cans, one nested inside the other, and stored it under the housing project in Pilsen, the Latino barrio on Chicago’s lower West Side where we lived. The rats were my only concern. They were as big as cats and ate anything not nailed down, so the double cans provided double protection.
The streets in Pilsen were dangerous for most, but not for me. I thrived on the competition between the cartels. They needed the services of a neutral currier, one who kept his mouth shut and was dependable. I was more preferable to them than a phone call as there was no record of the transaction if the Feds were tapping them. Curriers were expendable.
I never argued. I believed that negotiation was better than confrontation. “Always leave something on the table” was my motto. My clients left feeling good about the deal and good about Magic Slim. A smaller cut of a bigger pie made sense to me. Why risk market share by being greedy?
When I turned eighteen and decided to leave home, Juanita pushed a crisp hundred-dollar bill into my shirt pocket, gave me a big hug and a kiss, and wished me well as I boarded that Greyhound for Cleveland. For her it was one less mouth to feed. I never told her about the money under the building that was now hidden in my tattered backpack. I learned early to trust no one but me. Even your own mother could be compromised.
Going to Cleveland was a gamble, but I figured it was better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Cleveland was a growing market largely ignored by the cartels. In Cleveland I planned on becoming the most successful pornographic film producer and sex-for-hire distributor in America. My studio would be a key link in a human traffic supply chain stretching from the former Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe to the United States. Trafficking is an estimated $32 billion annual trade.
Market research would drive my business. I would eliminate all but the most profitable segments of the market – sexual exploitation of minors and pornographic film production. I would be the best of the best.
It was a seventy-mile drive to a remote jungle clearing outside of the city. The front gate was imposing, iron plates welded together eight feet high connecting concrete walls topped with barbed wire and broken shards of glass. There was no sign, no indication what was hidden on the other side of those gates. Human trafficking added more to Panama’s economy than tourism and Canal traffic combined yet wasn’t reflected in their GDP or tax revenue. Trafficking was endemic to Central America and Panama was the leading statistic.
The Interpol recruiters advertised for students who fit their profile. Emotional stability, strong academics, physically fit, youthful appearance and pretty. They had to be pretty, with a prepubescent allure.
Pornographic film producers in the States ran blind ads in the classified section of small-town newspapers. They promised high paying careers in the movies for teenagers who fit the profile and completed an audition. The ads targeted runaways, kids escaping parents for a life of glamour in Hollywood. You could call an 800 number for a prearranged Greyhound Bus ticket to LA. A producer representative would meet you at the other end.
Interpol wanted to answer these ads.
They were initiating a worldwide drive to connect the dots and identify supply routes. Central America, Brazil and Eastern Europe were prime feeder areas for the US, competing with Thailand as the most lucrative market for child pornography and prostitution.
The Interpol representative was a woman with a serious demeanor; she was looking for motivation beyond escape from the Barrio.
Casita had lost a brother; she was articulate and intense during the interview. Her school transcript, English proficiency and youthful appearance fit the Interpol profile.
The interview covered every nuance of Casita’s personality and motivation. She passed this first level which included physical and mental evaluations, an IQ test and a Rorschach. Next would be a fitness test and a series of interviews by highly trained Interpol physiologists and experts on mental stress. Prolonged periods of time undercover with constant fear of discovery is mentally corrosive, it can breakdown the hardest of seasoned professionals. Interpol did everything they could to expose weakness in a candidate before accepting them for the world’s best and most intensive eight-week training program.
The compound looked like a prison; I was expecting a campus.
The Interpol instructors were young and disciplined. They gave you their best and would accept nothing less in return.
The classroom instruction covered language skills, basic covert operations and cultural assimilation.
Four recruits left the first week. They walked out after learning that under deep cover we’d be performing in pornographic videos and doing tricks with Johns from Los Angeles to New York.
Our simulation exercises were realistic but like military exercises were only approximate. The reality of combat with men dying around you can never be assimilated. You knew in the back of your mind it was an exercise with a safety net. Much different than knowing one mistake would expose you as a spy with deadly consequences.
I’ve been trained to know my own strength and minimize weakness. We worked weights, endurance and martial arts. We also learned dirty tricks, how to bring a man down with a kick to the groin or incapacitate him with a finger in an eye. There were no rules, this was survival training. I was first in my class to earn black belts in both, my street training in El Charillos was my basic training.
Then there was the sex. Our job was to infiltrate the chain as performers. It was a short step from video performance to bedroom performance. Top porn stars were in demand. The internet had changed everything. Now you could watch talent in the comfort and privacy of your own home or more likely, hotel room. This avoided discovery walking into those seedy porno shops with surveillance cameras in every corner. The girls, and boys, who looked good on YouTube were soon being specified by high-end clients. At these prices they were “clients” not “johns”, $5 to10K a night, sometime more for S&M.
I was number one in my class, Interpol selected me for advanced training in accounting, business planning and management. All the disciplines they suspected were being employed by a traffic mastermind. I had to recognize the economic issues that drove the business. How did they avoid taxes, how did they move money around the world, what laundering techniques did they use, did they get paid in cash, cashier’s check, direct deposit, credit card, PayPal? I would have an iPhone, a Square account and a swiping device that was connected to the earphone port. Clients could use credit or debit cards payable to a front company for innocuous goods and services. How did they check a client’s credit, bad debt history and discretion?
So much to learn, but I was a fast study. Too bad I wasn’t at Harvard preparing for a corporate career instead of Interpol preparing for a pornography career. I’d be best in class for both.
The training was intense; physically, intellectually and emotionally. If I couldn’t find solutions to problems, I’d improvise outside of the training manual. This annoyed the instructors, but they couldn’t help but admire my tenacity. I was always first to reach an objective no matter what it took, for me the end would justify the means, any means that worked.
The only time I hesitated was in the technology lab. The white coats were about to implant a microchip behind my left ear. This was state-of-art technology. With this tiny GPS device, the Interpol handlers could track my location and broadcast instructions with a low decibel code. The device was virtually undetectable, made from a new alloy designed by the Swiss. The power source was the electrical beat of your heart. I asked them if during sex there a surge and danger of would be blowing a fuse, they barely smiled in assuring me that would not be the case. The swiss are micro engineers with the patience of watchmakers, Interpol turned to them for solutions to complicated eavesdropping problems.
The plan was for me to work my way to the States. I would have Interpol operatives helping me to the border, from there I’d be on my own. Once in the US I’d be contacted by my handler, a woman named Maria, based in in Washington, DC. Maria would track my movements with a sophisticated receiver that showed me as a blue dot moving on a map, like a GPS driving aid in a truck. She would also be able to transmit brief coded messages that I would feel in my ear, not hear. Similar to Morris code dots and dashes without the clicking. I would be able to respond with four simple codes, one tap behind my ear for emergency help, two taps for yes I understand, three taps for no need to revise and a long press meant we need to meet. This was 2013, undercover work was becoming a technology game with both hunters and hunted having state of the art devices and software. Agents had to be trained IT experts with deep understanding of how systems worked and knowledge of “work arounds” when we confronted with secure firewalls.
The graduation ceremony was private, no family or friends or caps in the air. This was not Princeton; this was hard reality. This was the culmination of twelve weeks of grueling physical and mental training combined with mind numbing classroom sessions. We got no letters after our name, just a chip in the ear and an unspoken designation, we were now Drones.
Our commencement speaker was Gunther, there were no last names in Interpol. He was German or Austrian maybe with a heavy accent. His demeanor and military bearing convinced you immediately that he would not suffer fools lightly. The muscle twitch of his jawline as he spoke accentuated chiseled good looks. His closely cropped hair was prematurely gray, this business had a way of aging you ahead of your time. There was no humor, this man had a sober, serious demeanor as he spoke about a criminal enterprise that was infecting the fiber of our youth and the future of our civility. These traffickers were depraved and amoral with not an ounce of compassion. They would stop at nothing to achieve their ends. I wondered if Gunther realized that in his audience was a woman who shared the trafficker’s credo, I would stop at nothing to achieve my ends as well. I would find Javier and inflict my vengeance on these androids, these subhumans with no moral core. Magic Slim and others like him were about to experience their greatest nightmare and she would appear in the guise of the sexiest performer in the stable.
THE TRIP NORTH
My trip North started on a tramp steamer, working as a cook’s assistant. The captain was an Interpol operative; he knew in advance I didn’t have papers. Operatives were aware that human drones, trained by Interpol, were lethal weapons. The cook was disgusting, fat, unshaven, smelly with rotten teeth. He did not know who I was, when he grabbed me by behind that first night out after dinner service, I turned and feigned interest while I took his left hand gently in mine and with my right bent his middle finger back until it snapped. This seemed to be the traffickers preferred discipline, it worked pretty well on cook as well, his scream was drowned out by the sound of the diesel and choppy waves against the bulkhead. I wondered if the chip behind my ear picked up the cracking sound of that middle finger.
I was put ashore in Matamoros on the way to Houston without further incident. There was decidedly less work to do as cook’s assistant.
The Matamoros waterfront was notorious, don’t ask don’t tell was the rule. Law enforcement, especially immigration control, was negotiable.
My connection there would be Jose’, the proprietor of Chipotle’s, a waterfront dive serving frijoles and chicken covered with hot sauce to hide yesterday’s cooking. The streets of Matamoros were filthy even worse than El Chorrillos, I didn’t think that was possible.
Chipotles was wedged between two adobe store fronts, a tattoo pallor on the left and a massage pallor on the right. Funny, seemed like only men were getting massages today. The front door was painted blue, Mexicans love blue, especially in combination with yellow. The neon sign flickered with static, sounded like a patio mosquito zapper as the letters c and a dimmed on the failing CAFE sign.
Jose’ was a part time mole for Interpol, an informer and useful, if not broken, link in the chain. He was contract, paid for performance, with a year-end bonus for good work. His job was to get me connected to a mule going North across the border. He had seen hundreds like me; young, pretty girls from Central America sent north by their families to find work. Girls with no papers, no money and no future accept what he and his trafficker connections could offer them. I was different, I was an Interpol assignment. Jose’ would behave himself, he knew better than to fuck with me.
The truck had been converted from a livestock hauler. The open sides were now covered with corrugated sheet metal. Small air vents were added near the roof. It had a rollup back door concealing wooden scaffolding, six openings across and eight high built to accommodate 48 young hogs.
We were loaded in one girl at a time with just the clothes on our back. No parcels, no plastic bags, no stuffed animals. The pat-down search was rough and seemed to concentrate on the chest and crotch, apparently a perk for the Mexican peasants hired to lift us onto our designated rack.
Other than the small air vents there was no ventilation, no hygiene and total silence at all times. The driver was native American, a Navajo, who spoke fluent Spanish. There was a Mexican national sitting in the passenger seat holding a sawed-off shotgun. “Nate’s Kosher Tortillas” was printed across the side panels.
We couldn’t hear much but the muffled Spanish sounded like they had a friend with the US Border Patrol, another Navajo, an officer with a growing family and a meager income. Mexicans understood this better than most, in this case the US entry fee would be in cash, dollars, not pesos.
The stench in the truck was overwhelming, the girls were urinating, defecating and vomiting while the truck dove into one pothole after another along the unpaved cattle trail leading to the meeting place.
These girls and the families they left behind were desperate.
My family knew nothing of my secret. Interpol would transfer my pay to an independent account. I was to make intermittent withdrawals for my family consistent with a low paying job in the US so as not to arouse suspicion.
Acting and thinking as I had been trained was key to survival. Thinking outside the Interpol training box produced unintended consequences and discovery. Performance was measured in the HUMINT (their acronym for human intelligence) we produced, and this required strict adherence to protocol.
They transferred me from an instructor in Panama to my Case Officer in the states. She would be my handler now and sole contact with Interpol.
Stationed in New York with three drones under her direct control, we knew her only as Maria. As the assignment progressed the HUMINT would be transmitted to Maria through a series of covert transfers on its way to Panama for interpretation.
We fell out of the back of that tortilla truck like human detritus. The Navajo and the Mexican had on surgical masks, the warm night air carried the stench across the desert like a noxious gas as we tried to stand and find our balance.
The Navajo held a sawed-off shotgun motioning us in a huddle to the side of the road. He had a half-filled case of small water bottles with the wrapper still holding them together that he kicked into the middle of the huddle.
Some of us didn’t make it, the Mexican climbed into the truck and pushed three young bodies out with his foot, he was chocking through the mask.
You could see this wasn’t the first time they made this trip; the coyotes would work on the evidence and buzzards would finish the job at daybreak.
The dust devil was moving towards us in the predawn darkness. Navajo held a flashlight, one of those long black ones, like cops’ use. This devil was not a mirage, it blinked its lights one, two, three times. A large bus-like vehicle emerged from the cloud, it was painted black with hooded headlights. Navajo answered the signal with three blinks of his own.
This was a transfer; our mule would deliver us to a distributor who did the training. These girls had never been in bed with a man. The Interpol training videos had given me a good idea of what to expect. My life as a covert agent for Interpol living in deep cover with the lowest form of life on earth was about to begin.
This wasn’t a bus, it was a large RV with mirror tinted windows, the kind you could look out but can’t look in.
It slowed and moved towards us with caution, the driver wore sunglasses in spite of the predawn darkness.
He stopped a safe distance away ready to escape if this was a sting.
Navajo handed the shotgun to the Mexican and walked to the driver side window of the RV, the glass slid back and words were exchanged.
He walked back to the door which swung open as he approached, this was business, the transaction would be completed in the privacy of the bus and Navajo would be on his way back to Mexico and another consignment.
The interior of the RV was luxurious by our standards. Converted to rows of individual seats but still with amenities; a ceiling mounted TV screen, an on-board bathroom and a well-stocked galley. It was large and roomy inside, bigger than it looked from the road.
There was the driver with sunglasses, a partner in the passenger seat and two guards armed with revolvers, the old fashioned six shooter type, not the automatics you see on TV crime shows.
We were treated like human beings for the first time since leaving Mexico, they passed out water and a box lunch, chicken wrapped in soft tortillas, they knew we were thirsty and hungry.
The salsa music playing over the sound system was Mexican, not Panama but not bad.
The driver muted the music when his partner stood before us in the aisle, he had a hand mic.
“Buenos Dias Senoritas”, his Spanish was perfect if not his dialect, he spoke with a Texas drawl.
“You ladies are fortunate you’ve been selected for your beauty and charm and are about to embark on an exciting career where you’ll meet movie stars, politicians, business tycoons and sports stars.”
“Please pay attention to the TV screen, we’ll show you a brief training video the kind you may star in someday if you’re lucky”
The video flickered on the screen, this was a homemade production, but the music was ok, low and rhythmic like you’d hear for a slow dance in a disco.
A young woman walked out on a patio, there were sunning chairs and a pool, it was a glamorous setting.
She wore a beach wrap over her long beautiful legs. She was blonde and trim with large breasts.
She said “hi there” to an unseen person and stepped out of her wrap. The bikini was mini, she wore no top, her full breasts were firm and the nipples were already hard.
As he walked into camera view it was clear the man was ready, the bulge in his Speedo trunks said enough.
So, this was to be our orientation, a peek at the glamorous world of pornography, I wondered how many of these uneducated young girls had any idea what lie ahead for them beyond the glamorous poolside setting of this video shoot.
They’d be taught how to fuck like porn stars, their training sessions would be videotaped and distributed over the Internet. Those with acting skills that were photogenic would be sold to porn studios in LA and syndicated. With luck they might become stars in their own right and command a per click premium on paid sites.
Those not selected for video were ranked and sold to pimps across the US on a sliding performance scale.
The video was graphic, intended to shock us, there was nothing left to the imagination. The actors demonstrated with camera close-ups exactly what was meant by hard-core pornography and this was just the beginning. It wasn’t till a young girl, no more than 5 or 6, came into view and the older woman took her by the hand, gently showing her how to touch a fully aroused man at least five times her age. The child looked scared and hesitant, clinging to the woman’s leg, as she gently pulled her loose and put her hand on the man, his smile was benign.
“My god I can’t do this”, the scream was guttural. The girl sitting next to me was shaking as she buried her face in her hands and began to sob uncontrollable. Her name was Jimena, from Guatemala, the oldest of ten in a strict catholic family. She believed the ads in the local newspaper, “Young women wanted for lucrative careers in North America. No skill required, just good looks and a desire to make money in the Hollywood film industry.”
Her scream quieted the bus, everyone looked down at their hands as the speaker put down the microphone. He paused the video on the laughing child and slid the remote into his pocket. He calmly walked down the aisle between our seats. He stood over Jimena; she was still sobbing with her face in her hands. He put his left hand under her chin and gently lifted her face towards him; with his right he pulled the revolver from the small of his back and aimed it point blank at her forehead, without saying a word he pulled the trigger.
The sound was deafening. The back of her head exploded with blood and bone fragments. I couldn’t hear, the ringing in my ears was so painful.
The others screamed, I didn’t.
I wiped what was left of Jimena’s brain off my face with the back of my forearm and glared at the speaker. He didn’t see me, he was blowing the smoke from the barrel of his gun and calling for silence.
“Does anyone else on this vehicle have a problem with our training film” he asked as the RV screeched to a halt and the pneumatic door hissed back.
He looked at me; “pull her off the seat” he demanded. Jimena was heavier than I had thought for an anorexic. Her body was limp and had slid forward on the seat cushion. I stepped over her legs and from the aisle pulled her by the arm to the floor. The speaker motioned to a fair skinned girl on the seat opposite mine, she took the other arm and we pulled Jimena to the door.
The speaker pushed her out with his right foot like the Mexican had done in the truck. There seemed to be a skill to this, catching the toe of your shoe under the waist where the weight was balanced then moving your leg up and forward in one motion.
Jimena left the bus the way she arrived; faceless and nameless. She was human refuse, a statistic that would show up on a PowerPoint presentation to an International NGO with human trafficking on their agenda.
This was the world I had chosen for my life’s work; it was dirty, abusive and ugly. The danger for an undercover agent was pervasive requiring mental toughness and nerves of steel. The men who control it are totally amoral with the ability to act like mindless robots, they torture and kill at will without hesitation without remorse. Like the drug cartels in Mexico, they systematically eliminate anyone or anything that stands in their way with a ruthless business-like efficiency. For them it’s the bottom line; it’s about cost containment, processing, logistics and product quality. If any link in this chain weakens it is summarily fixed, no discussion no excuses, no options.
(this is an unedited work in progress, there are more chapters drafted and there’s a conclusion in mind but not finalized)