By Elizabeth Daley
NEW YORK, Dec 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three young Hungarian men have helped dismantle a U.S. gay prostitution ring that enslaved them, marking a victory for local prosecutors but highlighting the difficulty in reaching and helping male trafficking victims, campaigners said.
The men's accounts of being raped, locked up in windowless rooms, and their lives threatened led to the conviction this month of Andras Janos Vass, 26, for helping to operate a male prostitution ring of gay Hungarians in New York City and Miami.
Sentenced to 11 years in prison, Vass, a Hungarian national, was the first person convicted in Florida for trafficking gay men under the state's tougher human trafficking law that took effect in 2012, authorities said.
The men told the court how they were lured to the United States in 2012 with the promise of well-paid escort jobs but found themselves held as sex slaves and abused daily.
"When somebody asks me about what did I do in the United States, I freeze as I relive again all those bad things," one survivor said through a translator at the Miami-Dade Circuit Court trial. "My soul is still held in captivity by them."
Another victim described being haunted by his 17 months in captivity when he was raped, starved, and sleep-deprived.
"When I see something with red or purple color, it reminds me those red and purple colored rooms where I was locked in," he told the court in a written statement. "I'm afraid that one day I'll be woken up in this windowless room and everything starts over again."
The case marked a victory for the human trafficking task force of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which teaches prosecutors and law enforcement to look out for signs of trafficking, said one of its founders, Jane Anderson.
Red flags might include girls arrested for shoplifting sexual lubricants or family disputes in which teens will not disclose to their parents how they got expensive gifts.
"Now when a woman comes with a black eye, and her occupation is listed as a dancer, we don't just assume that the guy who did this is her boyfriend," said Anderson, now an attorney advisor to AEquitas, a Washington-based group that provides resources for prosecutors in sexual violence and trafficking cases.
The prosecutors also may add charges of racketeering to enhance penalties for traffickers, she said.
Vass and two other Hungarian nationals were accused of racketeering, human trafficking and profiting from prostitution for luring Hungarian men to the United States through a website called GayRomeo.com.
The two other men are due to go on trial next year. Their attorneys were not available for comment.
The men they lured from Hungary believed they would be in well-paid, legal jobs in the United States as escorts, prosecutors said, and could go home after a few months.
But when they arrived in 2012, they were kept as slaves in New York and later in Florida, forced into prostitution and to perform on web cams. The captors allegedly threatened to kill them or hurt their families in Hungary, prosecutors said.
"They never let me sleep, if I wanted, eat if I starving," said one survivor in a written statement. "After a year I was ready to take my own life. I felt worthless, unwanted and felt I could never face my family again.
"(I) look back at that 20-year-old boy and I cry for him," he said. "I wish so bad, I could travel back in time."
The investigation into the prostitution ring named "Never Sleep Inc." began in late 2013 after a call to a tip-off line that reported suspicious activity at a house in Miami. The three men were arrested in 2014.
Nathan Earl, who counseled one of the Vass witnesses through Ark of Freedom, his group which helps male and transgender victims of trafficking, said the victims' experiences illustrate the challenge of reaching male trafficking victims.
He said such victims often struggle with their own sexuality and self-worth, and may find it hard to admit they are victims while under pressure to meet certain standards of masculinity.
More than 4,000 human trafficking cases were reported in 2015 in the United States with about one in 10 involving men, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
"Any type of outreach poster ... regarding trafficking is typically the teenage girl with pigtails," he said.
"Just seeing that formally encourages that stigma that you are weak, that you are effeminate if you are a victim. There is still such a stigma attached to male victimization."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)