He Was Young, Gay, and Sold For Sex. How Jose Alfaro Escaped a Trafficking Nightmare

He Was Young, Gay, and Sold For Sex. How Jose Alfaro Escaped a Trafficking Nightmare

He Was Young, Gay, and Sold For Sex. How Jose Alfaro Escaped a Trafficking Nightmare

A survivor from Texas speaks about his harrowing experience, his uncertain road to recovery, and his mission to save others from the predatory trap that ensnared him

As a kid growing up in the small Texas town of Navasota, Jose Alfaro spent his summers playing in the pastures and creeks near his home, examining bugs and frogs, crawfish and turtles. “It was one of those towns where tractors hold up traffic,” he says. Trains slowed things down, too, rumbling by on historic tracks that crossed the downtown streets.

Life at home was less peaceful. His parents, high school sweethearts who wound up raising three kids in their early twenties, worked long hours — his dad at a metal-parts company, his mom at a hair salon. The family was poor, but Alfaro didn’t realize it at the time. He just knew that when his father came home, he was often angry and exasperated, ruling the house by fear.

One thing that riled his father: Alfaro’s interest in dolls. “I loved playing with Barbies,” he says. “My father knew how feminine I was, and he would correct me. If I did cheerleading or dance moves with girls, he’d say, ‘Don’t do that.’” Tensions deepened during Alfaro’s teenage years, with his father eventually kicking him out, unable to accept that his son was gay. With no place to live, Alfaro logged on to Gay.com, an early social-networking site, looking for companionship and help. There, he connected with a man in his early thirties, Jason Daniel Gandy, who introduced himself as a wealthy entrepreneur and offered to lend a hand.

“I was in such a vulnerable place,” Alfaro recalls. “I spilled my whole story. He was understanding. He said he had the means to help me — a nine-bedroom home in Austin,” a couple of hours away. “I thought about my options — I had nowhere else to go. He picked me up at sundown.”

Gandy was on the lookout for boys who had slipped through the cracks. He was a predator — a prolific sex trafficker who manipulated boys into performing sex acts with men through his erotic-massage business.

The scope of sex trafficking is difficult to measure, and the exact number of victims in the United States is unknown. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one in six of the more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing in 2021 who had run away were victims of child sex trafficking. “There is a commonly perpetuated belief that victims of child sex trafficking are almost exclusively female,” a 2018 study by the center found. “Though males may comprise a smaller proportion of victims, their numbers are significant.”

Further complicating the picture: Our modern moment of baseless conspiracy theories about trafficking, often springing from the far right, postulating that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles in the Democratic party and Hollywood are running a global sex-trafficking ring. The people spreading these lies claim to be fighting trafficking, but experts agree that the disinformation serves a counter purpose by undermining true stories, like Alfaro’s, whose experience is essential to understand if the goal is to minimize the risk of a vulnerable young person being taken advantage of by traffickers.

The Department of Justice secured convictions against 309 traffickers in 2020, which was a decrease from the previous year’s 475, but there were delays in trials and investigations due to the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Regardless, the numbers don’t provide the full picture, Alfaro says, as victims don’t always report crimes to law enforcement due to factors including fear, shame, and confusion. Alfaro himself was confused as a teenage boy in the grips of a trafficker — a man who pretended to be a protector and friend. Alfaro had heard the term “trafficking” but didn’t know what it meant or how it occurred. “I had heard of girls being trafficked,” he says. “I didn’t know it could happen to boys.” It wasn’t until years later that Alfaro realized he had been the victim of a crime.

Indeed, traffickers know how to silence and control their victims. “Predators have learned how to manipulate vulnerable individuals by determining what the victim thinks they need and providing that to them,” says Sherri Zack, an assistant U.S. attorney and a prosecutor on the Gandy case. “They have learned to use and exploit every situation to their benefit.” They prey on “desperation,” notes Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the nonprofit Human Trafficking Legal Center, which connects survivors with pro bono representation. In her experience, traffickers have targeted people with vulnerabilities, including learning disabilities, drug issues, mental-health issues, and homelessness after being kicked out for being LGBTQ+. Regardless of gender, “the desperation and the vulnerability are the same,” she says. “What I find is that boys are more reluctant to come forward because of the stigma associated with victimization.”

To be sure, girls and women face stigma as well, Vandenberg says, including being blamed for their predicament and later ostracized. Boys and men face their own challenges with gender bias, says Shari Botwin, the author of Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing. “We live in a culture where men are assumed to be perpetrators and women are the victims; gender bias in this area leaves men feeling shamed and disbelieved,” she says. “Male survivors often suffer in silence for decades — most of the men I have counseled did not start speaking about what had happened to them until their late fifties or early sixties.”

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Alfaro with his sister Amanda, left, in Navasota, Texas. The two supported each other through tough times in their childhood. COURTESY OF JOSE ALFARO

All of this can prevent boys from reporting being trafficked, contributing to the challenge of measuring the problem. “In all sexual-exploitation cases, you are always going to have issues with reporting,” says Zack. “The more we can inform the public and the potential victims that they could or are being exploited, the closer we will get to actual numbers.”

To that end, Alfaro is telling his story, as he has done in criminal and civil court, providing deeply personal insight into how traffickers ensnare young men and boys, exploiting them emotionally, physically, and sexually. An unexpected twist in his tale ended up helping him change his fate, and now he wants to help others do the same. “If the proper awareness and education had been out there, I could have gotten the help I needed much sooner,” he says. “I want to help others identify as survivors of human trafficking and help spread awareness. I don’t want to see others have to go through what I did.”

Alfaro, now 31, sits in front of a bay window lined with plants in his Boston apartment, revisiting his past. Songs reflecting different stages of his life play as he speaks. One that particularly resonates: Jensen McRae’s haunting ballad about predators, “Wolves,” in which she sings, “I was 15 … first time I met a wolf in person.” Music has helped him come to grips with his experiences, Alfaro says.

His expressive dark eyes light up as he recalls, as a child, dancing to J. Lo, Britney Spears, and Selena. In the fourth grade, when a choir teacher noticed Alfaro could sing, he began competing in local contests, dreaming of performing on Broadway. He remembers singing at a family barbecue when he overheard his father say that everyone would think his son was gay. “I thought, what’s ‘gay?’” As a child, it was the first time he had heard the word.

Around this time, his grandfather found him playing behind a shed with some boys from school, touching one another. The boys were just curious about their bodies, Alfaro says, as children often are, but his father was furious. “He whipped me,” he says. “I felt so ashamed. I blamed myself.”

Alfaro didn’t feel he could turn to his mother for help; he could see that she had her own problems, trying to raise a family, go to work, and deal with a volatile husband. Looking back today, Alfaro has empathy for his father. Born in Mexico and raised in Texas, his dad “was a child trying to provide for his family,” Alfaro says. Both his father and his mother — who was born and raised in Texas to Mexican parents — were teens when they had their first child, a baby girl.

Nonetheless, his father missed an opportunity by punishing his son instead of talking to him. “He could have talked to me about touching, about the good and bad kind,” Alfaro says. At the time, Alfaro had already experienced the bad kind.

Alfaro’s parents did not respond to requests for comment. His younger sister Amanda shared memories of a difficult childhood in the house, noting that she, like her brother, has empathy for her parents because they were young and worked hard to provide for the family. “There was a lot of abuse,” she says of her father. “I did witness a lot of it.” Amanda recalls how her father would sometimes come home and start arguing with her mother, and “we would all run to our rooms because we didn’t know what kind of attitude or temper he would have.” She and her brother would hold each other in her room “because we never knew how bad it would be.”

For her brother, life at middle school in the early 2000s in his “small, conservative, religious town,” he says, wasn’t much better than home. Alfaro wanted to dance and do gymnastics, and he played with girls who shared his interests. “Boys would taunt me,” he says. “I was called a ‘sissy,’ ‘a wuss,’ ‘a little girl.’”

His first year in high school, Alfaro began exploring his sexuality. First, he cuddled at a sleepover with a boy he met on a school-choir trip, marking his first romantic connection, but the boy stopped communicating afterward. “Finally I got in touch with him and he said, ‘I’m not gay.’ I said, ‘I’m not either.’ I couldn’t admit to myself, ‘I’m gay.’ Gay was ‘bad.’” Later he met a college student on Gay.com. Fifteen years old at the time, in 2006, Alfaro began his first sexual relationship with the student, secretly meeting with him in his apartment or the football stadium at his school at night. Texts flew back and forth all day, although the two told each other they weren’t gay.

Alfaro feared his parents were growing suspicious, and he was right: One day when he left his phone in his room while taking a shower, his parents nabbed it and saw a stream of incoming texts from the college student. “If I didn’t text him back immediately,” Alfaro explains, “he would be afraid I was seeing someone else.”

The incident sparked a crisis. “My mom said, ‘Your dad wants to talk to you.’ My dad was lying on his bed, with the TV on, the lights off, glaring at me. He said, ‘What is this? What are all these messages? Are you gay?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not gay.’ I didn’t think I was.” According to Alfaro, that’s when his father got violent; Alfaro managed to scramble away to call 911. His father then “grabbed the phone and threw it at the wall,” Alfaro says. A police officer came and talked to his family; Alfaro was surprised when the officer advised him that it might be best for him to leave the house.

Alfaro fled to his boyfriend’s place. “I showed up crying and banging on his door,” he says. “I told him, ‘This is probably the last time we see each other.’ I knew my dad would never allow it.” When he returned home the next day, his father came to his room. “He said, ‘How are we gonna fix you?’” Alfaro just wanted to escape. “I said, ‘Send me somewhere new — send me to a new school.’” His parents sent him away to live with a relative in San Antonio.

Alfaro’s cousin Christina Schwedler remembers the time he suddenly left home to attend school in San Antonio. A young teen herself at the time, she had heard from adult relatives that he had gone to study in the city because there were “better opportunities,” she recalls. But she soon learned it was a “fake story,” she says. “Jose came to visit and said, ‘Yeah, none of that’s true … my father hit me and kicked me out.’”

It was a move that would set off a devastating chain of events.

At a new high school in San Antonio, Alfaro went looking for friends on MySpace. He connected with a man in his thirties, a good-looking guy with a Marine tattoo. The two met outside of a Starbucks, and the man said Alfaro looked underage. Nonetheless, he invited him to his apartment, where he promptly went to his bedroom, masturbated to porn, then had rough sex with Alfaro, who was under the age of consent in Texas, which was 17 at the time and remains so today.

Alfaro, eager for companionship and acceptance, kept seeing him in secret. That summer, he went back home to Navasota, where his mother showed him a video: “It was about a ‘conversion therapy’ camp. My parents said it was a church camp,” he says. By this time, Alfaro knew he was gay and that no camp could change that. In frustration, he told his parents to accept the truth. “I just said it: ‘This is who I am. Just deal with it.’ My father cried. He said, ‘I will not have a gay son. If you’re not gonna go to the camp, just get the fuck out of my house.’ I think they thought I would go to the camp because I had no other alternatives.”

But he did. He called the older man in San Antonio, crying hysterically. “I said, ‘My parents kicked me out. I want to move in.’” Instead of getting the teen any kind of professional help, the man said they could live together as “friends.” Since he was not a legal guardian, he told Alfaro to enlist a homeless shelter to help him enroll in school. The teen did so, telling the shelter he would be staying with an adult friend. Alfaro moved into his home, and into his bed. “No one was paying attention,” Alfaro says. “The system failed me. Society silenced me before my trafficker did.”

The situation soon descended into chaos. When Alfaro discovered the man was having sex with someone else, he felt hurt and betrayed, and a raging fight ensued. “He pushed me out of the bedroom. He said, ‘We’re just roommates. You’re sleeping on the couch.’ I was so angry, I started going through the cabinets and throwing stuff on the floor,” he says. Alfaro cried himself to sleep that night and called his parents the next morning. They picked him up and brought him home.

Back home in Navasota, a tense silence pervaded the house. Alfaro enrolled again at school. But before long, his father snapped. “He said, ‘I can’t have you living here. I can’t stand that you’re here.’ He chased me out of the house.” A classmate said he could stay at her home for a night.

With one night to find a new place to live, Alfaro went back to Gay.com, where Gandy lay in wait.

Gandy looked “attractive and fit” in his picture, Alfaro recalls, and seemed like a friendly guy, asking the teen how his day was going. Gandy knew just what to say when Alfaro confided in him, presenting himself as an older, wiser protector and confidant — a typical one-on-one approach traffickers use to ensnare boys, according to Zack, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting Gandy’s case.

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Jason Daniel Gandy was convicted of seven counts related to sex trafficking. Alfaro says he was “in a vulnerable place” when he met Gandy. “He said he had the means to help me.” U.S. IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT

Gandy and a friend picked up Alfaro from outside a local store and drove to a condo apartment in Houston; Gandy said he was staying with his friend there and doing some business. That night, Gandy emerged from a shower, naked, and approached the teen. “He said, ‘I’ll give you a massage.’ We didn’t have sex, but he ejaculated,” Alfaro says. “He gave me the massage to introduce me to massage therapy.” Indeed, Gandy had a plan for Alfaro — to use him in his erotic-massage business.

Gandy manipulated the teen, saying he would help him finish school, get his own place, and start a career. Alfaro didn’t realize that Gandy was using classic grooming tactics that traffickers use to build a relationship and exploit their victims. “Predators develop a bond with their victims by acting like good listeners who care deeply about the victim’s feelings or circumstances. Once they gain the trust of their victims, they fulfill their needs,” says Botwin, adding that “victims of childhood abuse and abandonment are especially susceptible to trafficking due to feelings of unworthiness and shame.”

Gandy said the teen should learn a skill so he could support himself one day and that the two could massage clients together. Gandy also issued a warning: “He said, ‘You’re not 18 and you don’t have a license, so if anyone finds out, you’re gonna get in a lot of trouble.’” Alfaro thought he had no choice. Gandy began using him to solicit clients, posting photos of the shirtless teen in the Craigslist Personals section (which has since been shut down), promising massages from “an 18-year-old.”

The first massage session is seared into Alfaro’s memory. Gandy had a massage table set up in a bedroom at the Houston condo. After speaking with the client privately in the room, he beckoned Alfaro. The teen entered and saw an adult man lying facedown on the table, naked, a fancy-looking suit draped on the bed. “The door shuts behind me,” Alfaro says. “Gandy starts to remove his clothes. He looks at me and nods. I remembered that he had said, ‘Everything I do, you do.’ I was shaking. I thought, ‘If I leave, where am I gonna go? If I go to law enforcement, I’m gonna get in trouble.’” Feeling trapped, Alfaro followed Gandy’s lead and removed his clothes.

“As I started to do the massage, I thought, ‘I’m rubbing an old man’s flabby butt, but I’m not getting raped, I’m not getting hurt, my heart is not getting hurt,’” he says. At least not yet. After the massage, Gandy let the man sexually abuse Alfaro. “He started fondling me,” he says. “It was nothing I wanted.” But he felt he owed Gandy. “I thought, ‘He saved me, he helped me; I need a place to stay.’”

Gandy used Alfaro in several more massage sessions during the next couple of weeks in Houston, as Alfaro later testified in criminal and civil court. While the teen was deeply uncomfortable, he felt he had no other options. “I told myself, ‘I can deal with this,’” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what adults do.’” In the second week, Gandy spirited Alfaro away to his house in Austin. The house was a far cry from the nine-bedroom mansion Gandy had described. “It was filthy,” Alfaro says. There were a handful of bedrooms, partitioned with sheets. A few people were living there — an older man, along with some young men Gandy said were college students renting the rooms.

Gandy put the teen on a strict diet of greens and protein — “no more Doritos or chocolate chip cookies,” Alfaro says — and took him to a gym daily so he would look superfit for his Craigslist photos. Gandy was controlling — and cheap, Alfaro says, recalling how he once told Gandy he craved Mexican food and wanted to go to a restaurant. Gandy obliged, ordering tortillas and a couple of side dishes — then pulled a container of meat out of his backpack to complete the meal, much to Alfaro’s chagrin. Other times, Alfaro says, Gandy made him steal protein bars and eat them in the store.

The two did daily massage sessions in Austin, each ending with clients fondling Alfaro. Over the next couple of weeks, Gandy started engaging in sexual activity with Alfaro. “I thought, I owe him this,” Alfaro says. “He had helped me.”

The exploitative massage sessions grew more aggressive, with Gandy letting the men perform oral sex on the teen. After several weeks in Austin, Alfaro had an experience so violent that he knew he had to escape. He remembers Gandy speaking longer than the usual few minutes with a client before summoning Alfaro. Gandy directed the teen to take off his clothes and lie on the massage table, saying the client would massage him this time. Then Gandy left the room. Suddenly, Alfaro says, “a heavyset man is on top of me, raping me.” Afterward, the man put on his wedding ring, which he had set aside before the assault, and said he had a son the same age as Alfaro. Then he kissed the teen’s forehead. Alfaro was sobbing when Gandy returned to the room.

The next day, he told Gandy he felt ill so he wouldn’t have to do any massage sessions. Alone in Gandy’s room, he started looking through his belongings. There, he found chilling images of very-young boys appearing to perform oral sex on Gandy, as Alfaro later testified in criminal court. It was time to go. He called the older man he had lived with in San Antonio. The man picked him up the next morning.

Back in San Antonio, Alfaro spiraled, reeling from the sexual abuse and a lack of emotional support. As a gay Latino teen, he felt like he “just didn’t exist,” he says. “I went unseen.”

Living with the older man again, Alfaro felt unable to trust him, and the two often argued. Thoughts of suicide circled Alfaro’s mind. He tried to get his life together, finishing high school at an alternative school and enrolling at Northwest Vista College with the help of financial aid. But the emotional turmoil continued, and he wound up in jail after shoving the man he lived with amid a heated argument. His parents bailed him out.

He went home briefly, then started college while working as a waiter in San Antonio. Still, his past traumas haunted him. He felt worthless and unable to become who he wanted to be — the ripple effects of abuse. “Everything I had gone through fell on me,” he says. He sought an escape in alcohol and drugs — which is common for people who have experienced trauma, says Botwin — then left school and started doing sex work to support himself, posting photos on Craigslist, just as Gandy had taught him. It’s the only job he felt he could do. Arrests for public intoxication and marijuana possession followed. His father bailed him out both times.

Alfaro needed an attorney to help him deal with the charges, so he found a way to make more money: He went to a male-escort site called RentBoy.com (which was later shut down by federal authorities), where he connected with wealthy clients, or “sugar daddies,” who would pay him to travel or live with them for a time. He knew it was risky, but his life was at such a low point, he says, “I thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Thus began a new phase, as men flew him around the country — Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami. Before that, he had never flown anywhere. “There were a lot of firsts,” he says. “I went to Nordstrom for the first time. I ate fresh seafood, oysters.”

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After fleeing Gandy’s home in Austin, Alfaro struggled to find stability. He eventually began working as male escort via Rentboy.com. RICHARD LEVINE/ALAMY

In 2012, Alfaro spent a few weeks with a man in Boston, who urged him to continue his education. “He said, ‘You can stay here under one condition: Go back to school.’” The experience became a turning point — someone had cared enough to encourage him. He began going to cosmetology school in Boston and got a job as an assistant at a hair salon. Later, he started dating and formed a loving relationship with a young doctor. Finally feeling some acceptance and support, he says, “I had a vision of what I wanted. I started focusing on my career, life.” But he still hadn’t dealt with the trauma, which reared up in panic attacks that left him bedridden for two weeks. He went to a doctor, who diagnosed him with severe anxiety and PTSD.

Meanwhile, his trafficker kept operating. In July 2012, Gandy boarded a plane in Houston with a 15-year-old boy and flew to London. Gandy had been exploiting the boy in his massage business, just as he had done with Alfaro, and he planned to drum up more business with the boy on the sidelines of the 2012 London Olympics. But this time, someone was paying attention: When he landed in London with the child, U.K. immigration officers asked him some questions, learning that the 35-year-old man was traveling with a boy who was unrelated. Believing something was amiss, the officers sent them back to Houston on separate flights.

In Texas, officials from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, met Gandy and the teen. The authorities detained Gandy on the charge of transporting a minor and began an investigation, eventually finding that he was trafficking young men for sex through his massage business. A court ordered that Gandy be detained pending indictment and trial.

Alfaro had no idea that Gandy was in jail until two years later, in 2014, when a friend from his party days in Texas pointed him to a news story about it. As Alfaro read the article, the full picture began to come into focus: He had been a victim of sex trafficking. But still, his first thought was to keep it to himself, for fear of getting in trouble — an idea that Gandy had drilled into his head. “I thought I could go to prison,” Alfaro says.

But that night, after having some time to think it over, he decided to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline, listed at the end of the article he read. “I texted at, like, three in the morning. Someone answered and asked, ‘Are you OK? Are you in a safe space?’” When he described his experience, the hotline worker assured him he was not in trouble. The hotline soon connected him with Homeland Security Investigations officials, who set up a video call with the Houston office. “I told my story; I was so emotional,” Alfaro says. “Suddenly I was engulfed, reliving it all.” The officials explained that they were investigating Gandy. Afterward, he says, “I felt free because I had said it — I had said it to people who are going to do something about it.”

Four long years followed, due to repeated delays by Gandy, including changes in defense attorneys and failed plea agreements. It’s another tactic of traffickers — trying to buy time to get victims to change their minds about testifying, says Zack. “There are often situations where traffickers believe that if they can convince the victims to retract or take back their statements against the trafficker, the case will go away,” she says. “To that end, traffickers, despite no-contact orders, will try to locate victims, threaten their families, offer them bribes to get them to recant or fail to honor subpoenas.” Indeed, Gandy offered money to one of the survivors during a phone call from jail, according to court documents. Zack said Gandy did so to get the witness to change his testimony; Gandy said the call was misconstrued.

Alfaro, meanwhile, learned more about his legal rights from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and decided to pursue a civil suit against Gandy. The Human Trafficking Legal Center tapped the firm Fish & Richardson to take on the case pro bono. Andrew Kopsidas, who led the legal team, says that as a father of three girls, the case felt personal. “After talking to Jose, I was just so compelled by the story that I felt I had to do this case,” he says. Alfaro finished cosmetology school, became a hairstylist, and continued his relationship with the doctor.

At the long-awaited criminal trial in 2018, a nervous Alfaro told his story in detail. When the prosecutor displayed a selfie Alfaro had snapped in the Houston condo where he gave his first massage, Alfaro broke down. “That boy looked so innocent,” he says. He pauses for a moment, feeling emotional at the memory.

Alfaro felt good about his testimony immediately afterward, but the next day battled feelings of suicide, as the experience “reopened old wounds,” he says, including the fact that his parents weren’t there to support him. He realized he had a long way to go to recover.

At the sentencing, a defense attorney for Gandy said his client had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, making it difficult for him to relate to others and to deal with incarceration. Gandy agreed, saying, “I feel a lot of people hate me. I guess there is something wrong with me, for me to be hated by so many people.” He said he had tried to kill himself “more times than I can count,” adding, “I feel that maybe these victims would like me to kill myself.” His lawyer admonished him not to address the victims.

Gandy said he believed he suffered from mental illness stemming from the loss of his mother to cancer in 2008. He said he’d always wanted to help people with his massage therapy, recalling that as a child he thought his hands were big, and his mother said that perhaps he could use his hands to “heal” people one day. “I went to massage school, and I got my license. I was very good at massage,” he said in court. “I’ve never asked any of these people to do anything but massage,” he said of the victims. Further, he suggested that the survivors were testifying against him for financial gain. “I believe that it’s possible that these people are saying things negative to try to get the restitution,” he said. “I’m going to have no money left once I’m done with this.”

Judge Lee H. Rosenthal didn’t buy it. “Mr. Gandy has proven to be an abuser of human beings, vulnerable human beings,” the judge said. “Mr. Gandy says he’s empathetic. Mr. Gandy’s life does not reflect that. It betrays it.” (Gandy could not be reached for comment.)

Alfaro gave a statement at the sentencing, and discovered that putting his thoughts down on paper felt liberating. He began writing his life story, which he hopes to publish one day. “That’s when I started understanding everything,” he says. His feelings of anger and blame began to fade.

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Since Gandy’s conviction, Alfaro has given presentations on sex trafficking to law enforcement officials and become a victims’ advocate. TONY LUONG FOR ROLLING STONE

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Alfaro walks through his neighborhood to a favorite bakery for lunch. Over a bacon-and-egg sandwich, he recounts another triumph: In April 2019, he was awarded $1.43 million in compensatory and punitive damages in his civil suit against Gandy. He has yet to see the money — his attorneys are working on finding Gandy’s assets, says Kopsidas — but it was more validation.

Around that time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston asked Alfaro to give a talk to law-enforcement officials. He realized he could use his experience to make a difference. He became an advocate for victims, joining the board of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, where he began advising survivors on their legal rights. He gave more presentations — to lawyers, police officers, law students, survivors. He also spoke to U.K. immigration officials at a webinar, where he met the man who had stopped Gandy at the airport — an emotional moment, he says, “meeting someone who made a difference.”

Among those Alfaro has advised is a survivor who testified against Gandy. After the trial, the young man, who asked that his name be kept confidential, thought he had filed properly for restitution — a court-ordered payment by the perpetrator of a crime to the victims. But amid the trauma from abuse and stress of the trial, he wasn’t “thinking about the technicalities of a submission form,” he says, and didn’t file correctly. When nearly a year passed and he hadn’t received the expected money, he contacted Alfaro. “He advised me to get legal counsel,” he says, which turned out to be “instrumental” in helping him get the money he needed. “None of that would have happened without Jose.”

Recently, Alfaro has also been serving as a consultant to Bob’s House of Hope, a nonprofit safe house in North Texas for young men who have survived sex trafficking. Founded by humanitarian Bob Williams, it’s the kind of place that Alfaro could have used as a teen. “There’s nobody stronger than a survivor who’s been through something horrific and then done their healing work in order to get back and help others,” says executive director Landon Dickeson.

As Alfaro describes his activism, he scrolls through his phone, reading messages he has received from people on the social audio app Clubhouse, where he has shared his experience. He smiles softly as he reads one of the notes aloud: “I don’t know you, but you are an angel to many.” Telling his personal story and using his experience to help others has helped him gain perspective and move forward. “I was always searching for someone to love and support me,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize I’m the one who needed to love myself.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888 or at humantraffickinghotline.org.