ORLANDO | After nearly two decades of abuse, two kidnappings, escapes and almost getting killed, human trafficking survivor, Flor Turcio, is ready to share her story of terror and how Catholic Charities helped her through it.

The horrific tale began at age 9. That’s when Turcio says she was molested and eventually had to leave home. For six years she stayed with friends or lived in homes where she worked. “I was a young girl belonging to no one. I preferred it over returning to the abuse,” says Turcio, author of Esclava de un Infierno (A Slave in Hell).

Then one day she met a man who began “speaking of love,” recalled Turcio. She was 17. “I was vulnerable. I wanted a home and children. I wanted someone to take care of me and protect me.” Turcio says it was the first time anyone told her they loved her. “It was very motivating,” she said. “I believed him. He won my love and trust.”

Almost immediately, he took her more than 30 hours away to another town with the promise of marriage. He was a human trafficker and she had been easy prey – with no education and no family.

Arriving in a small town, she discovered many other women, and even more men. Her fiancé began mistreating her, forbidding she speak with the other women. He paraded her around the local bars, introducing her to alcohol.

One night, Turcios says her captor put something in her drink. She awoke the next day to his screams and accusations of her sleeping with his brothers. With no recollection of the previous night, she learned she had been given over to several other men. He had set her up. “If you want to be a prostitute like the others, that’s fine,” he ranted. “I was ashamed that everyone judged me. I was afraid to return home,” she recalled. That night, he bought her nice clothes, make-up and a handbag. She learned he had four other women. It was too late. She became a “sex slave”, a term she prefers because it is more accurate.

Three months later Turcio became pregnant. When her daughter was born, the child was taken to blackmail Turcio into staying. Within three months, Turcio was pregnant again. She would have three children in three years whom she barely saw. She was told her escape would cost them their lives.

Turcio explained most of the men had an average of five women they managed. “We were all afraid they would hurt our children. We were trapped. The police were already bribed. There was no one to turn to.” The nightmare continued for almost 20 years.

In 2004, “Since I was no longer young and pretty, they sent me to the United States,” said Turcio. “They moved us from house to house. Then one night (six years later), I was given to a client as his birthday gift.” The man called her “a woman of leisure” and informed her he did not care to spend the night with her.

The judgement infuriated her. “Do you think it’s easy not knowing if you will live or die or what day it is; to be taken by drunk men?” They spoke and over time, the two became friends. “He was the only man who never touched me. So I trusted him,” she recalls. Eventually he involved the police without her knowing, to protect her and they were able to catch several traffickers. She and many other women were freed. She had spent almost 20 years as a hostage.

During the following years she served as a witness for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who brought her children to the U.S. They were between 7 and 9 years old and were strangers to her. She eventually married her rescuer and tried to live a normal life. Catholic Charities in Tennessee provided services to reintegrate her into everyday living. “They were like family,” said Turcio. “I could talk to them.”

Despite hiding her face from the media and living somewhat secluded, her face was all over the news as it was a high profile case. Members of the cartel, against whom she testified, came after her twice, trying to kill her. She escaped her captors who received life in prison. That’s when she made a promise to herself to never again hide from a life she did not choose. “I knew I had to speak out so other women did not have to live the hell I had lived.” She wanted women to gain courage and find hope. But it would take time.

By now, she relocated to Florida and Catholic Charities of Central Florida was managing her case. “It was challenging at first,” admitted Rosa Alamo, her new caseworker who had never dealt with a trafficking victim. Alamo recalled the first time they spoke. “I was in shock. It was something like a movie you would see that you didn’t think was real, but that was her life and that of so many others who haven’t come to our office.” Alamo hugged Turcio and reassured her of a personal commitment to help. “That was a turning point,” said Alamo. “It helped her (Turcio) a lot because she always had to be careful of who to believe, of who to trust. That moment made a difference in our relationship as a caseworker and a client.”

Yet the years of trauma had left Turcio scarred, leading to a breakdown and hospitalization. “I remember the only person who came to see me at the hospital was Rosa,” recalls Turcio. Alamo encouraged her not to give up. “She was no longer my caseworker,” said Turcio. “She was my friend. Once again I found a family there (at Catholic Charities).” Alamo and Karen Kanashiro, an employment specialist, helped her find a job, get counseling for her and her children, and enroll in English classes. “I looked at them and thought, I can be like them; I want to be like them. They motivated me to study,” Turcio said.

In time, healing began and Turcio established, Fundación Libre de la Esclavitud Sexual (Foundation for Freedom from Sexual Slavery), to help trafficking survivors; to help others avoid trafficking; and teach women how to escape it.

She says her faith in God propelled her, as well as her children and her family. In her book, she dedicates a paragraph of thanks to Alamo. “When I had given up, I didn’t find help. I found a family in Catholic Charities,” says Alamo. “My faith helped me through it all – to believe that I would see my children again and would be with them; that one day I would leave that world and be a normal woman.”

Alamo and Kanashiro continue to keep up with Turcio. Last year they joined her at her book signing. “It’s been great to see how she went from being that person to the woman she is now – secure and willing to help others who went through the same things,” said Alamo. She adds, “It was a great opportunity for me, as a human being, to grow as a Christian.” Alamo said her interaction with Turcio taught her to be more merciful and compassionate. “I am grateful for that.”

Today, Turcio is studying to become a detective and currently works with several government agencies to fight human trafficking. She is specializing in victim assistance and hopes to educate women and young girls so they will not be victimized. She shares her testimony across the United States and Mexico and feels God is with her every step of the way. “Today, my faith tells me that I can help other women,” she said. “My faith always helped me not fall.”

To support Catholic Charities of Central Florida and its mission to end human trafficking, contact Christine Commerce, Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator, 407-658-1818 ext. 1122.

By Glenda Meekins