Jackson Heights, Queens has long been known as a neighborhood where practically anything could be bought for the right price, from stolen clothes to false social security numbers. But in recent years, police say the hottest black market item has become women,  as the melting-pot barrio fast becomes the city’s epicenter for human trafficking.

As immigration laws grow ever tighter in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, traffickers have expertly targeted young Latin American women desperate to immigrate, luring them with promises of green cards and New York restaurant jobs. Once here, the girls–some as young as 15–discover they’ve instead sold themselves into prostitution, with no way out.

Typically, say police and activists, the traffickers transport the women directly from their homes in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, among other countries, straight to New York. Once here, they’re kept under a close watch, and are often unable to escape in an unfamiliar enviroment. “Most of these houses are run by gangs,”  says Detective Al Rojas of the 110th Precinct in East Elmhurst. “Sometimes the girl’s passport and identity is taken [which makes it harder for them to] leave.” The women earn only about $10 per trick out of the $40 each man pays, leaving them with little economic power. Plus, their bosses may threaten them with retaliation if the women try to escape–or even insinuate they’ll attack the girls’ families back home if they turn rebellious.

Rojas says the best tool police have to help these women is to arrest them, since many of them don’t realize the city has services in place to help them. At this point, says Rojas, the 110th Precinct makes 30 or more such arrests per month.

None of the women–or their “johns”–were willing to go on the record with us,  so it’s hard to determine much about their lives. But, according to Ximena Morgan, director of programs and development at the Hispanic AIDS Forum, there’s been one clear shift in recent years: the women’s age. About a decade ago most of the women involved in sex trafficking were in their mid-30’s to mid-40’s, says Morgan, but within the past year, she’s noticed a lot more younger women, between the ages of 17 and 18.

Those familiar with the trade suspect it’s also had a larger impact on the neighborhood: a rise in HIV infections.

“Girls get raped, and HIV increases,” Rojas says. “Guys then transmit HIV to their wives.”

In 2006, Queens had more people living with HIV/AIDS than in 40 states, and while health workers have no way of knowing how much of that is thanks to the sex trade, empirical evidence seems to point to that the number is growing. A major problem is that since many undocumented immigrants lack health insurance, or are afraid to access public health care, those who are infected with HIV  may go undiagnosed for a longer time than others, creating a longer window for them to infect others. (And sadly, the New York Times tells us they may be taking the disease to rural Mexico.)

Centers such as the Hispanic AIDS Forum, Administration for Children and Families, Elmhurst Hospital Center, and Safe Horizon are some of the resources that offer counseling services for young people with HIV/AIDS, as well as victims of sex trafficking.

However, says Morgan, it’s extremely difficult to get the women to step forward. “Sometimes they don’t feel like pursuing [help], because they have to dedicate all this time and money,’’ she says. “Like a rape victim, they have to prove that this actually happened, and the courts aren’t extremely friendly either.”

As it is now, “Sometimes it’s more important (for them) to not get hit that day…or to eat that day,” said Morgan.