WHEN LUCY MWAKA WAS was 17 years old, she took a job as a nanny for a government official in her native Kenya. Mwaka had just had a baby, and wanted to help support her.
Mwaka says she was paid and treated well. Eventually, her employer was posted to the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., and she convinced Mwaka to accompany her, promising, Mwaka says, to further her education and give her access to the medical care she needed after a bad car accident.
But barely a week after arriving in this country in June 2010 and moving into a rented home in Rockville with her employer and the employer’s son, Mwaka says she found herself the victim of a bait and switch. “Everything changed,” she says.
According to Mwaka, now 24, her employer—Waithira Njuguna, then a newly named second secretary at the Kenyan Embassy—became abusive, forcing Mwaka to work 16- to 18-hour days during the week and even longer on weekends as Njuguna hosted a nonstop round of parties. In addition, Mwaka says she was frequently loaned out by Njuguna to clean and cook for other embassy employees.
Despite a written agreement, Mwaka says her agreed-upon salary of more than $350 per week shrank to $250 per month with no days off. Promised educational and medical benefits never materialized, and—except when dispatched to work in the home of another embassy employee—Mwaka says she was forbidden by Njuguna to leave the house or communicate with family members or friends.
When Mwaka tried to talk to her employer about these dramatic changes, she says she was met with veiled threats. “I knew she can easily find my child,” she says, referring to Njuguna and the baby she left behind with her parents in Kenya. “So I don’t call nobody. I want to, but I can’t.”
In March of 2014, Mwaka finally summoned the courage to call the 24-hour hotline operated by the Washington-based National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which arranged what is referred to among advocates for trafficking victims as an “extraction.” Several days later, Mwaka was out of Njuguna’s Rockville home, ending what she says was her nearly four-year ordeal.
“I have given speeches on this, and people sat there with their mouths open,”
says Bobbe Mintz, chair of the Montgomery County Human Trafficking Task Force.
Advocates say that Mwaka was the apparent victim of what is known as labor trafficking or domestic servitude, a form of human trafficking that they say is not uncommon in Montgomery County and other close-in Washington suburbs where diplomats and other foreign officials often bring workers from their home countries.
“In terms of what we’re seeing in Montgomery County, domestic servitude is a big issue,” says Lara Powers, a program specialist with the Polaris Project, the organization that operates the national hotline that Mwaka called. “The vast majority of victims of domestic servitude are foreign nationals.”
An ongoing analysis by the Washington-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center of civil suits filed nationwide against alleged labor traffickers supports the notion that the crime is a significant problem here: While the overall number of such suits filed over the past decade is relatively small, nearly 4 percent of them mentioned individuals or locations in Montgomery County.
During the final year of her self-described ordeal, Mwaka lived in an upscale townhome in Rockville, just blocks from Richard Montgomery High School and less than three-quarters of a mile from the Montgomery County courthouse—underscoring the fact that trafficking is a crime that often occurs in our midst.
“What is going on in the community…is not well understood,” says Bobbe Mintz, who chairs the Human Trafficking Task Force created last year by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. “I have given speeches on this, and people sat there with their mouths open.”
DUE TO A LACK OF reliable statistics, it’s hard to say how much human trafficking is taking place in Montgomery County. The FBI only began collecting data on human trafficking in January 2013, a spokesman said. The first release of FBI data, in April 2015, included information from a limited number of police agencies in 13 states. Although data from Maryland was included, Montgomery County was not.
“In Montgomery County, we have the perfect storm: money, access and a low crime rate,” says Sgt. Kenneth Penrod, who heads the county police department’s vice and intelligence unit.
The Polaris Project, which uses its toll-free hotline and other resources to compile one of the few current databases on the extent of human trafficking nationwide, says there were 16 cases of human trafficking in Montgomery County in 2014, divided almost evenly between labor and sex trafficking. The organization’s state-by-state breakdown of trafficking cases found that there were a total of 135 in Maryland last year, putting the state in 10th place nationally, with about three times as many sex trafficking as labor trafficking cases for the state as a whole.
The Montgomery County Police Department’s Vice and Intelligence Unit, which focuses almost exclusively on sex trafficking cases, reports 16 arrests in 2012, 11 in 2013 and 5 in 2014. According to Maryland’s Administrative Office for the Courts, approximately 250 trafficking cases were adjudicated statewide from June 2013 to June 2014.
Officials who deal with human trafficking suggest that such figures understate its pervasiveness both nationally and locally. “The numbers seem low, and I think what in reality is happening is we’re seeing human trafficking kind of emerge like domestic violence did 30 years ago,” says Amanda Rodriguez, who until recently oversaw human trafficking policy at the state’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. “The more people are becoming aware, the more these numbers are going to go up, because it is absolutely happening next door and in the community.”
In large measure, what links labor and sex trafficking is federal law defining both as involving the use of “force, fraud and coercion” upon the victims. The two occasionally merge, according to victims’ advocates, in instances such as massage parlors where women are forced to work without wages and generate income through prostitution.
But labor trafficking more often than not involves servitude without a sexual element. And if labor trafficking in Montgomery County is primarily driven by foreigners, local sex trafficking appears to be largely American-made.
“You say human trafficking, and people think…international cabal, organized crime, kids coming from Southeast Asia in cages. That’s not what it is,” says Montgomery County Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Mays, who has prosecuted numerous sex trafficking cases in recent years. “Most of it is homegrown guys who are exploiting vulnerable women and children in their own communities, or traveling them around, up and down the East Coast.”
INCREASINGLY, sex trafficking in Montgomery County is taking place in well-appointed hotels that do not fit into the red-light district stereotype of eras past. In August, Armand Theinkue Donfack, a Germantown soccer coach, was charged with prostitution and human trafficking after an undercover sting at a hotel off I-270.
In 2013, Mays was the lead prosecutor when the state’s attorney’s office won a sex trafficking conviction against Nahshon Kornegay, a Prince George’s County resident who was operating a prostitution ring out of the Hilton hotel on Rockville Pike in Twinbrook. In that case, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy charged that the defendant—who was sentenced to 10½ years in prison—controlled the women by giving them drugs.