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Reina dreamed of being rescued — maybe one of the johns, one of the older, married men, might show pity. Reina imagined the face of her rescuer much as she had imagined Arturo’s face before he, like a dust devil, swept her north from Tenancingo. She prayed to a God who grants heroes, who reveals Himself in His saviors. Other girls in the ring also dreamed of their white knights. One drew a map and listed directions to 528 Citrus Avenue, the address where she was imprisoned, one of many houses and apartments in North County where the girls were kept. She wrote at the top “casa de prostitución” and slipped it under the door of Rick Castro, a deputy sheriff in Vista.

Don’t Mess with My Bitches

Rick Castro’s head is shaved so close that the hair underneath the scalp looks like an ink stain. In dark glasses, saddled with badge and gun, he seems unshakable. But, said one female friend, he’s also gentle, “testosterone mixed with mellowness.” Castro has been working prostitution crimes for seven years. As the only Spanish speaker on the force, he was assigned to bust up the prostitution ring in Vista. His boss told him, “Here’s a problem. Solve it. That’s what you’re paid to do.” “Sure enough,” Castro said, “within a few months, I organized a raid.”

The first raid came in 1996 and was followed by a dozen more. By late 1998, Castro, along with federal and other local authorities, had shut down 25 houses of prostitution in North County and deported some 300 immigrants. Among those busted was Tomás Salazar-Juárez, whose brother Julio is suspected of being at the center of Vista’s sex ring. Tomás Salazar-Juárez was arrested for beating a young woman. Castro told me that he beat her with “a wire clothes hanger on her back so hard that her skin ruptured. It popped right open like [she’d been cut with] a filet knife.” He tortured the girl for two hours in front of other girls, who may, Castro says, have been victims of prostitution. “Just imagine the lasting impression those other girls had. Do you think they’re going to run away or testify against them?” For Castro, the message was clear: “ ‘This is what will happen to you if you try and leave us. We own you. We control you.’ ” Though Salazar-Juárez was charged with a crime of domestic violence, Castro thinks it wasn’t just domestic violence — it was the violence of intimidation.

During the preliminary hearings, the girl stuck to her story that she was beaten. “When she came to testify,” Castro recalled, “she totally recanted and said [the beating] happened [not in Vista] but when she was crossing the border.” The testimony from other witnesses, however, corroborated the girl’s initial tale. So did the “clothes-hanger evidence.” Castro said the jury felt her retraction made no sense. Salazar-Juárez was convicted of torture and mayhem and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, although that sentence has been reduced on appeal.

Whenever a prostitution raid or court case plays in the local press, the number of tips goes way up. Raids typically help a “culture of denunciation” grow. Not only do the tips increase, but the pimps collaborate. After one raid, a sign in the window of a known house of ill repute read, “No More Women Here.”

Still Castro didn’t suppose that his dozen raids had wiped out the pimps, but he knew he had disrupted their operation. By 2000, he figured the pimps were reorganizing. Since Castro was the number-one prostitution lawman in the county, calls often came in, inquiring about his schedule. When were his days off? Was he testifying that day in a trial? Once, at a community-outreach program, Castro was asked, “What are you doing about prostitution in Vista?” His answer revealed neither time nor date of an impending raid. He eventually learned that the select men at these programs were planted by the pimps to gather information. In addition, harassing letters from the traffickers arrived. One read, “Don’t mess with my bitches or you’re messin’ with me — so back the fuck off.”

Castro was contacted by Marisa Ugarte, a crisis counselor who worked at Escondido Youth Encounter. Ugarte, a woman of fiery dedication to helping Mexican minors in the United States, had several young female clients who spoke openly about other girls practicing prostitution in the migrant camps. With Castro, she developed a plan, believing they’d soon have a case — a girl or young woman, who had been trafficked, who might inform on her abusers, and who would need the kind of life-building skills Ugarte could supply. For years, Ugarte had been guiding social service and law enforcement agencies in the United States and in Mexico into one corral, the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. The idea was simple. If pimps and smugglers were trafficking women — from Central America and Mexico, across the border to California, Oregon, and Washington — Ugarte’s coalition could outpost the same routes with support services for women and minors. Her idea was to set up safe houses for trafficked victims along this transcontinental corridor, much the way the Underground Railroad once provided safe houses for slaves.

The pimps of North County were devising outposts of their own, a string of open-air brothels along river bottoms and in chaparral. Some sites would be near the workers’ camps or close to footpaths the migrants frequented. The idea was to rotate the women to five locations every week. Weekdays, business would be limited. Sunday, though, would be the busiest, the one day of the week the migrants got to loiter.

Among the sites are three named for local landmarks. Beside Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad are high-voltage towers, and beneath them is a prostitution site called Las Antenas. Also in Carlsbad, next to strawberry fields, is a long ditch with cardboard shacks covered in brush named Las Fresas. And in Oceanside, in the dry bed of the San Luis Rey River, there’s the most notorious spot of all, accommodating scores of men every Sunday, called the Reeds.

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