SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As president of one of the world's few associations for women miners, Simona Broomes travels regularly to gold and diamond mining camps in the South American country of Guyana to rescue underage girls working as prostitutes.
Many consider it dangerous work given the rugged, isolated and male-dominated environment she encounters, but that has not deterred the 43-year-old mother of three. This week, she was one of nine people worldwide that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry honored for their work in helping fight human trafficking.
Broomes recently began carrying a gun after she was assaulted during one of her trips earlier this year, and she began organizing barbecues to help raise money to pay for her trips after death threats forced her to close her mining equipment business about two months ago.
"I'm not going to say to you that it's not risky," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "(But) I have a passion for it. ... As a mother, as a woman, it is hard. I can't leave them."
Broomes was honored Wednesday when the U.S. issued its 2013 report on human trafficking, which again criticized Guyana for allowing girls and foreign women to be forced into prostitution and for relying on child labor.
The report accused Guyana of not doing enough to protect victims or hold trafficking suspects accountable. It said traffickers are attracted to Guyana's interior mining communities because there is limited state supervision.
That's where Broomes has stepped in, U.S. officials say.
"Ms. Broomes is a consistently powerful, vocal advocate against trafficking in persons and continues to take direct action — often at great personal risk — to protect and assist victims of trafficking," the U.S. Embassy in Guyana said in a statement.
After Broomes established the Guyana Women Miners Organization last year, which now has 440 members, she quickly turned her attention to helping underage prostitutes. She has rescued 11 girls so far, allowing some of them to temporarily live with her to avoid the poor conditions at some Guyanese shelters for abused women.
Broomes said she takes the girls to church and to the beauty salon to help reintroduce them to society.
"When you hear the stories, and the things that men do to them ...," Broomes said, her voice trailing off.
She said some of the rescued girls are not picked up from the shelters by their mothers because the women cannot afford to care for them. The mothers generally already had given the girls over to strangers who promised to find them legitimate work in Guyana's interior. Broomes said.
"After they find themselves there, there is no help, there is no security, there is no communication," she said.
When Broomes embarks on one of her trips, she approaches a mining camp director and asks permission to educate those at the camp about human trafficking.
"While doing that, in many cases, I will look to see the language of the girls," she said.
She then quietly takes some of them aside and asks their age.
"They start to panic and cry," she said. "One of them said, 'Miss Broomes, I'm 18. I want to leave and I can't leave ... could you help me out?'"
Sometimes girls seek help from authorities, but even then they could face danger. Broomes said one girl went to a police station to report she had been sexually assaulted, only to be assaulted by an officer.
The U.S. says cases against human trafficking suspects rarely make it to court in Guyana, and officials say no one has yet been convicted of sex or labor trafficking.
Guyana's deputy police chief, Seelall Persaud, told The Associated Press that he could not comment on the report because he was in a meeting but would be available later for an interview.
Broomes said she hopes she can work together with government officials so the U.S. can be less critical of Guyana in next year's report.
"I use the report as motivation to stand to the challenge and say my country will not continue to be on the radar," she said.