Inside a modern U.S. house of slavery

Don't act like you know me. Please!

The middle-aged woman from Central America, who has been held hostage in a Southern California drop house for the last two years and eight months, is desperately trying to signal her niece.

Shhhhh, she mouths.

No one can know they're related. It will make life hell. If they find out, these kidnappers with guns, they may keep the aunt longer or the niece indefinitely. They may hurt or kill one of them. Already, the men have told the older woman she knows too much.

The niece doesn't understand at first — why are you making funny faces? — but she trusts her aunt. On this morning, with a new load of "chickens" roaming through the house, the women are convincingly unattached.

Later, the niece will be startled by what her aunt tells her in stolen moments away from the men. About the extra fees. About the lack of freedom. About the abuse.

Up until today, the aunt had a clear conscience and a clear path out of this place. Work hard, cooking and cleaning, and pay off her debt to the traffickers $50 a week. But with only four months and $800 to go, her pretty, 26-year-old niece walked through the door and changed everything.

One day soon, the men will learn their secret, and it will spin their lives in directions they never imagined.

For now, the aunt worries.

What will happen to us?

The young woman didnt come to the United States for herself. She came for her family.

In Central America, she thought life was pretty good. Her parents were poor but they had enough for food, clothing and to send her and her brothers to school.

They were all together, happy. And that was enough.

Then her father got sick. The doctors said he had the beginnings of prostate cancer. A school bus driver, he could no longer sit for long periods. He started missing work.

I have to help, she said to herself. Help provide for my family.

But jobs in Central America couldn't pay enough.

So the young woman, who had studied accounting at the local university for two years, planned her trip north. She used the same coyote her aunt did a couple of years before, unaware of what happened to her on the other side.

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