Journalist Kitty Sanders went undercover to expose sex and organ trafficking networks around the world

I noticed two girls in the brothel. No older than 10 or 11, they cried and hugged me. “I don’t want to go with that dad,” they pleaded. Without hesitation, I scooped one up in my arms and took the other’s hand, escaping into the jungle.

  • 2 months ago
  • March 8, 2024
10 min read
Undercover journalist Kitty Sanders narrowly escaped with her life as she exposed trafficking networks and prostitution rings around the globe. | Photo courtesy of Kitty Sanders Undercover journalist Kitty Sanders narrowly escaped with her life as she exposed trafficking networks and prostitution rings around the globe. | Photo courtesy of Kitty Sanders
Kitty Sanders went undercover as a journalist to expose sex and organ trafficking networks around the world
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Kitty Sanders currently serves as a specialist in security, human trafficking, and smuggling. She worked for eight years as an undercover journalist exposing trafficking networks and rescuing victims. She is the author of books such as Outbreaks Trampled: Pro-Governmental Youth Organizations and Prolegómenos al Libro Carne, a book based on her journalistic investigation of the commercialization and trafficking of people and immigrants. Kitty infiltrated brothels and strip clubs to anonymously carry out her investigations into trafficking networks in different countries around the world. She is a member of the committee of experts of the Argentine Chamber of Professionals in Integrated Security (CAPSI), founder of Trata Zero Tolerancia (Treat Zero Tolerance), among other associations.
Background Information
Human trafficking is the exploitation of human beings for profit. This crime is considered a serious violation of human rights that severely affects people’s dignity, integrity, and freedom. Trafficking consists of the recruitment, transfer, reception, and exploitation of a person for sexual, labor, and/or organ harvesting purposes, both within the national territory and from or to other countries. Trafficking networks use force or other forms of coercion such as violence, threats, deception, abuse of power, and kidnapping. The UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was signed in 2000 and ratified in 2002. In 2008, Argentina enacted Law 26,364 incorporating the trafficking crime into the National Penal Code and established a broad catalog of rights for victims.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina ꟷ For more than eight years as an undercover journalist, I infiltrated brothels, fake modeling agencies, and places where girls and boys suffer sexual exploitation. I went into my investigations in more than 20 countries in the role of the victim and they treated me as such. Today, at 36 years old, I actively work against human trafficking to fight this plague.

Journalism took hold for me at just 14 years old when I saw crime in the streets of my marginalized neighborhood. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to break myths and reveal the truth; to help the weak and change the world. In university, I wanted to dedicate my thesis to the topic of prostitution, but my journalism professors refused my proposal. They argued the topic was nonexistent, opening my eyes and kicking off my journey into the underground.

Read more trafficking stories from around the globe at Orato World Media.

As a journalist, I entered dark and dirty places to show the reality of brothels, porn, and prostitution

When I started my investigations into places of sexual exploitation, I hid my purpose. Telling no one of my plans, I avoided snitches selling my information to the police or criminals. I started slowly, going into cabarets, and contacting prostitutes. Through the interview process, I paid them to tell me their stories. After a few months, I felt the desire to go deeper – to thoroughly investigate these experiences. I made a stark decision to become one of them to access the criminal underworld. If I made a mistake, I could pay with my life.

Standing on the corner of Saint Petersburg wearing provocative clothing and makeup, I looked like a different person. Selling myself on the streets proved incredibly easy and soon, the pimps approached me. The best rate I could negotiate left me with just 20 percent of my earnings. They took 80 percent. Knowing I could escape anytime as a financially independent person, I decided to press further. I wanted to know more; to understand the psychology of victims and pimps, how they structured themselves, and what the recruitment process looked like.

I soon saw it – how they approached fragile and vulnerable girls, barely 14 or 15 years old, lying to them about job offers in other countries. The pimps offered them fake documents and passports, while the police on duty remained complicit. Once the girls crossed borders, the pimps issued their threats. “You are illegal,” they said. “You must obey me.”

Soon, these girls became prostitutes, mules, and even victims of organ trafficking. Unaware of their rights, when the girls tried to escape, the pimps threatened to publish nude photos or hurt their families. These pimps and traffickers are like snake charmers, moving in the shadows with deception and fear as their weaponry.

As the “loyal girl,” I started helping victims escape

For years, I worked in Europe as a dancer or erotic model. I experienced brothels, street prostitution, porn, webcam modeling, and strip clubs. Eventually, the pimps subdued me and threatened my life, before permanently transferring me to other locations. Through it all, I helped girls escape.

It began by gaining the pimps’ trust as a “loyal girl,” while I put together a secret plan. A few times, I lost my freedom, but that’s the price you pay. I continued to gather information from the girls and stole money, before disarming the guards. As I fled with the victims, I found myself successfully emptying the brothels. Sometimes, my captors put me in containers or trunks of cars to move me around, but I never felt afraid. I settled in and got used to it, but I also learned to fight.

Beaten and burned with cigarettes, I began practicing martial arts avidly. At times, I used those techniques against unarmed guards or clients who became rude – hurting them, but not killing them. On one occasion, a photographer snatched me from behind and began to brutally cut my body to make a sadistic porn film, and I got away.

Kitty Sanders, while working as an uncover journalist, was subjected to prostitution, trafficking, and transported internationally by crime networks. | Photo courtesy of Kitty Sanders

Perhaps one of the most shocking stories I recall happened in a brothel in Germany. I saw girls passing by in front of me naked, and they had no nipples. It seemed so strange; I began to carefully investigate. Getting the local pimp drunk, I found out the truth. He had a client with a fetish, buying women’s nipples every month to masturbate to. He bought these body parts from the pimp and when they began to rot, he asked for more. Horrified, I tried not to let it show as my body shook. “I am in hell,” I thought.

She found two little girls and escaped into the jungle

One night, in Rio de Janeiro, I noticed two girls in the brothel. No older than 10 or 11, they cried and hugged me. “I don’t want to go with that dad,” they pleaded. Without hesitation, I scooped one up in my arms and took the other’s hand, escaping into the jungle. As we fled, branches tore our clothes and cut our bodies. Covered in blood, we hitchhiked until a truck stopped.

The empathetic driver hid us in the back, avoiding detection at two police stops. As the cops searched the truck, I felt my heart in my mouth. We didn’t make a sound as the girls’ bodies trembled beside me. Eventually, we arrived at a house, and I got the girls to safety.

Many view Kitty as a superhero. This graphic image was created to depict her harrowing rescue of two little girls from a brothel as they escaped through the jungle. | Image courtesy of Kitty Sanders

Nothing feels better than seeing the light radiating from the gaze of a rescued boy or girl. I am happiest when I put an end to torture. In Chile, I encountered girls in brothers who so normalized the experience, they possessed no urge to leave. By talking to them, they began to understand the abnormality of selling their bodies when they possessed the ability to sell knowledge instead.

I began offering them English lessons in secret so they could become tour guides and, one by one, they got out. When I tried this again in Antofagasta, something very different happened. Just another migrant Russian whore, I danced with a live snake. The bosses began noticing the girls leaving and understood I influenced them. They worked with the police to set up a false case, accusing me of stealing the snake. At the police station, I quickly understood if I didn’t call the press, I could end up in prison.

Undercover journalist’s identity revealed, mafia places bounty on her head

When the police gave me my one phone call, I contacted a media outlet in Chile. They went to my apartment, found the documents proving my ownership of the snake, and went public. All the print newspapers revealed the true story, and the police were forced to apologize. In a public statement, they said they had no idea I was an international journalist, and they made a serious mistake.

With my face in public, I was forced to stop working undercover. The pimps threatened my life, so I fled back to Argentina. In the aftermath of my work, in 2013, I began two years of psychiatric treatment for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At first, when I tried to talk about my experiences, I cried and had panic attacks, but little by little, I overcame it.

Attracted to the good disposition of the Argentinian people, I continued to approach the brothels and help the girls. They trusted me and took risks, and we got them out of those dens. I began investigating trafficking networks in Argentina and discovered the main connections in the European Union – unlike Brazil which networks in the United States. Many Argentinian victims wind up in France, Germany, or England.  

Today, the mafia and prostitution networks worldwide know my name and have a bounty on my head. I know this mafia. In my last location in Europe, they held me in Russia. I escaped in the trunk of a car and made it to Ukraine. The mafia came for my head, but I made it out.

Zero Tolerance network fights trafficking, former undercover journalist continues to save victims

I have reinvented myself now, helping search for victims of trafficking. Those being held see me as an equal, which makes them willing to trust and share information. For this reason, I will not join a formal investigative force, but rather work as a volunteer. Sometimes, I go to the police station to talk to the girls to get to the pimps.

Very recently, we rescued two five-year-old boys from trafficking. They were nearly mute. One of the boy’s throats was severely damaged from sexual assault. The situation broke me, physically and psychologically. At five years old, the little boy told me he no longer wanted to live in between sobs.

Returning victims to society remains a difficult and complex step. Their lives are shattered. Many contracted AIDS, syphilis, and other diseases. Some became addicted to drugs or alcohol and suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. They face chronic depression and rejection from families.

Kitty now speaks around the country and has written books on her experiences. | Photo courtesy of Kitty Sanders

So, I tour the provinces, visiting schools, municipalities, indigenous communities, and security forces. I talk about awareness and prevention. Many volunteers accompany me – psychologists, lawyers, students, and doctors. When we rescue victims, we offer shelter and psychological support. I have grandmothers in a network called Treat Zero Tolerance who receive them.

Sometimes, I start to feel overloaded. Each new situation adds to my scars and I need to disconnect. At times like those, I wander up to the roof and sit, looking at the sky as I clear my mind. I take deep breaths until my attention is fixed and I empty myself of those images, one by one. Immersed in deep silence, I sit for five or six hours, alone. I unplug, but I’ll never be able to empty myself completely of all that I’ve experienced. These marks are like splinters; they will always live in my heart.

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