Shortly before midnight on a Saturday in November 2002, a friend dropped Susana Trimarco off near a bar in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Tucumán, Argentina. "If I'm not out in an hour, call for help," Susana told her friend.
As the youthful 48-year-old grandmother, dressed in a leather miniskirt, black stockings, high-heel boots and a low-cut shirt, approached the bar, she noticed its windows had steel rods on them. This was no ordinary bar. It was really a brothel where she had heard kidnapped girls were forced to work as prostitutes.
"I'm here to see the owner," Susana told a large, tough-looking man blocking the front door. "We have an appointment."
He motioned her inside. When her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, she saw four scared-looking girls sitting around the sparsely decorated room. Dressed in bikinis and knee-high boots, they looked to be in their late teens. Nearby, a burly man kept a close eye on them. Susana noticed what looked like the outline of a pistol beneath his shirt.
Susana found the owner. After making some small talk, she told him she was setting up her own prostitution operation and was looking for girls. The owner said she couldn't help, but gave Susana the names of several "bar" owners in La Rioja, a city of 295,000, about 400 kilometres from Tucumán, where she might find girls.
When Susana met up with her friend later that evening, she was more determined than ever: She had really gone to the bar in search of her missing 23-year-old daughter, María de los Ángeles Verón. The story about looking for and employing prostitutes had been a cover.
Susana's nightmare began on April 3, 2002, when Marita, as everyone called her, did not return from a morning doctor's appointment. Even though Marita had her own apartment in Tucumán, a city of 1.3 million about 1300 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires, she and her three-year-old daughter, Micaela, had spent the night at Susana's house. They visited so often that it was like a second home.
As the day wore on, Susana and her husband, Daniel Verón, grew more concerned because Marita hadn't phoned them, which she normally did if she was running late. That afternoon, after searching the hospital where Marita had her appointment and asking around her neighbourhood, they went to their local police station to file a missing persons report.
"You will have to wait 72 hours before we can open an investigation," a uniformed policeman told them dismissively. "She's probably just off with a boyfriend and will return in a day or two.
Undeterred, Susana and Daniel organised a search party. With some 50 relatives and friends of Marita, they blanketed Tucumán with handmade posters with Marita's photo and some contact phone numbers.
Susana was cleaning her kitchen three days later when she heard frantic knocking on her front door. It was a neighbour who had just received an anonymous call from a man saying that he had seen Marita.
"What did he say?" Susana pleaded.
A red Fiat Duna with tinted windows pulled up behind her as she walked along the sidewalk," the neighbour said. "Two men jumped out and grabbed her. She fought hard to get away, but they hit her and threw her into the back seat.
The news only got worse. Three days later, Daniel was handing out posters in the city's main park, a popular hangout for prostitutes, when a young girl told him that she had seen Marita in a brothel in La Rioja.
The police didn't follow up on the girl's statement. Only after repeated pleas from Susana and Daniel did they start to take action. In early May 2002, the couple accompanied ten officers on a raid of a La Rioja bar where it was suspected Marita was being held. The girls inside were lined up and Daniel told them, "If you are here against your will, come forward now and we'll take you out of here."
After a long pause, one girl looked around nervously and stepped forward. Later, she told Susana and Daniel that Marita had been whisked away shortly before they had arrived with the police. Clearly, someone had tipped off the owners about the raid.
Other raids followed, but turned up nothing. Susana realised that if she was going to find her daughter, she would have to do it alone. "If we don't move forward to find Marita, nobody will bring her back to us," she told Daniel.
In December 2002 she quit her job as an advisor for a nearby town and began crisscrossing the country on crowded buses, looking for answers. Susana, often disguised as a prostitute, ventured into seedy bars, such as the one in Tucumán. She would engage the girls in conversation to learn if they had seen Marita or knew anything about her whereabouts. She also showed Marita's photos to prostitutes on the street.
To pay for her investigation, Susana exhausted most of her savings and sold her house, Marita's house and two cars. Her single-minded obsession also led to her and Daniel separating.
Because Marita was last seen in La Rioja, Susana focused her efforts there. However, the local police seemed determined to stop her. Several times the bus she was riding into La Rioja was stopped by police and officers would board with barking dogs. "Are you the mother of Marita Verón?" they shouted at her. "What are you doing here?"
Susana refused to be cowed and as the year wore on, her search started receiving media coverage. Several radio stations in Tucumán, following up on the posters of Marita around the city, interviewed Susana. Feeling the pressure of publicity, police stepped up raids on bars and brothels.
With the bar owners and traffickers feeling the heat, a campaign of intimidation began against Susana. In November 2003, she was talking to a friend in front of her house when she noticed a car with tinted windows speeding towards her. She jumped out of the way at the last second. Instead of fleeing, Susana ran after the car screaming, "I'm not scared of you!"
Susana also started receiving threatening phone calls and text messages. "The next message I send will be a bullet in your head," read one text message. Finally, after two more attempted hit-and-runs, her house was placed under 24-hour rotection by a special provincial police force.
As the police raids continued, more and more captive girls came forward. And Susana, who often accompanied police, started learning about the shadowy world of the sex trade.
Andrea Darrosa escaped from a La Rioja prostitution house in May 2003. After hearing about Susana's search, she recalled that she had seen Marita. She went to the police, who arranged a meeting with Susana.
Speaking with Susana in her home, Andrea recounted how she had spent eight years in a living hell of psychological and physical abuse. She was forced to take drugs, and was beaten severely to break her will. She saw pregnant girls undergoing forced abortions with a coat hanger. Once, Andrea witnessed the owner of a prostitution house kill a girl by breaking her neck.
Andrea asked Susana if she could stay with her. "This house is your house and I will take care of you," replied Susana.
"I will not allow anyone to do you further harm." She also arranged for Andrea to receive psychological counselling.
Other girls who came forward told Susana equally harrowing tales. Many had been lured by ads for modelling or acting jobs; others were grabbed off the street and driven away.
Susana saw a little bit of Marita in each of them. When she lay in bed at night, she not only prayed for Marita's return, but added, "I promise to do everything I can to help these girls."
Growing media coverage of Susana's efforts began forcing Argentine society to confront the long-ignored issue of sex trafficking and the official corruption that facilitated it. Tapping into her network of mothers of missing daughters, she led more than 200 protesters through the streets of La Rioja in April 2005 to demand greater government action in finding girls who were being forced into prostitution.
Her crusade started drawing attention across Latin America. In July 2005, Paula, a Chilean women's magazine, called Susana an "icon" in the fight against human trafficking.
Mothers from around Argentina whose daughters had been kidnapped were now calling Susana instead of the police for help. She responded to each one and did whatever she could.
On March 12, 2006, 20-year-old Jessica Cativa was grabbed near her house in Tucumán and thrown into a car. Jessica's mother called Susana for help. The police, knowing that Susana would call her media and government contacts if she wasn't happy with the investigation, responded quickly. Within hours, officers were looking for Jessica and spreading the word that whoever had her should free her. The message got through: Jessica's captors released her two days later.
More than 200 girls who were forced into prostitution owe their freedom to Susana, either as a direct result of her actions in brothels, or by the pressure she brought to bear on traffickers.
In addition to helping victims and their families, Susana has travelled the country lobbying politicians to enact a law that would make human trafficking a federal crime. She is also pressuring government officials to establish a federal office to help victims.
Susana was at home in early March last year when she received a phone call from the US Embassy in Buenos Aires: she was one of ten women selected to receive an International Women of Courage Award. On March 7, Susana was at the State Department in Washington, DC. "Your brave fight makes me proud to be a woman," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told her. "May your shouts be heard throughout Latin America and throughout the world."
Eugenio Ambrosi, Latin America director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), agrees that Susana has made an enormous difference. "She has put herself in great danger while saving many people and shedding a lot of light on how big the problem of human trafficking is in Argentina."
According to the IOM, nearly 500 women disappeared in Argentina in 2006. It is suspected that most of them were either kidnapped or lured by sex traffickers. Many of these girls are forced to work in brothels throughout Latin America; others are sent as far away as Europe and North America.
Following the Women of Courage Award, the governor of Tucumán asked Susana if he could help her. She demanded that he set up a special high-level police force dedicated to investigating and pursuing these crimes. Since July 2007 its officers have investigated 110 cases and rescued 15 girls.
"My mission is no longer searching just for Marita," Susana declares, "but for all the girls who have disappeared in this country and to help an---d protect those who have been freed."
In October, Susana opened the Fundacion Maria de los Angeles Por la Lucha Contra la Trata de Personas in Tucumán and Buenos Aires. It helps victims of sex trafficking get medical and psychological treatment and job training, and provides food and shelter.