It was a Friday.
I remember because I was in my bathroom getting dressed to go to my friend Lorina’s house. I had just turned 15 two weeks before I was taken. My mom and grandmother picked my best friend Alyssa and I up at the bus stop and took us over to get frappuccinos from Starbuck’s. We window shopped at a near by boutique and shortly after went home. My grandmother was in from North Carolina for a visit, so I assumed it was just a nice, normal time with family. Little did I know it was to distract me so that a man and woman could hide in my house to kidnap me. Alyssa and I made plans to hang out later and we said our goodbyes; I had no idea, but it would be for years.
My mother was going through a divorce so our home in Texas was up for sale. While I was in my bathroom, on the phone, getting dressed my mother knocked on the door and told me there were some buyers that wanted to look at my bathroom. I walked out into my connecting bedroom and there stood a towering, muscular man with a long black pony tail. I thought he wanted to buy my house at first, but all of a sudden he very quickly rushed me and threw my phone against the wall. He tackled me on my bed and I started screaming for my mom, but no one came. He then started explaining to me that I was going with him to Mexico and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was so confused, scared, and shocked so I tried to run. In came another woman I had never seen and they held me down and hand cuffed me on my bed. Crying and screaming they drug me out of my room and down the stairs. At some point my instinct told me to try to get away while we were going down the stairs. I started fumbling with the hand cuffs and realized that they were fake. I tried to time it just right so we could be at the bottom of the stairs so I could run. At this point my mother and grandmother were blocking me, but I managed to get out of the hand cuffs and throw a coffee pot. The big man tackled me and forced me into the back of a rental car. He told my mom to grab belts to hog tie me, because I was kicking and screaming and trying to get away. By this time I knew my mom was in on this and I was tied up. I saw Alyssa through the front window of the car crying with her mom. I think her mom had explained what was going to happen to me when we got home from Starbuck’s.
He then started explaining what was going to happen to me. He said that I was going to boot camp so that I can be good, that it was in Mexico, and we were going right then. He told me that we are driving there and unless I wanted to drive from Texas to Mexico this way that I need to stop trying to escape. Tired, scared, and coming to the realization that I was trapped, I agreed. I said my pleading goodbyes tearfully to my mother and grandmother, and we drove away. I immediately and not obviously started thinking of ways to escape from this child locked backseat. I am 15, I have no money or resources, and I’ve just been kidnapped by some greasy 6 plus foot, prison looking man whose name was Charlie. I don’t remember what they woman’s name was, but she was pregnant. I know because during the struggle I had kicked her several times in the car and remember actually feeling bad about it. I asked her why she would have this kind of job in her condition, and she just replied that she was bored and needed the money. Years later looking back at that statement I guess she liked doing it. For hours we drove and they asked me if I was hungry. I wasn’t but I wanted to get the car stopped so I could have some kind of chance to get help. When he got to the drive through I thought of screaming for help. They had trusted me enough at this point to let me have my window down and I started trying to eye ball the handle of the outside to escape. The woman saw my eyes or something because she rolled it up quickly and locked it. I didn’t eat that night… I just couldn’t. I was getting over the flu so we stopped and go some cold medicine and they let me use that bathroom. After I took the medicine I just passed out all night.
When I awoke all I could see where red mountain rocks, and sunshine. We were in the middle of no where, no cars, no buildings, just giant red mountains. Even though I was being kid napped I can still remember thinking how beautiful it was. We continued to drive for hours just talking; I don’t really remember what about except he told me that he knew it wasn’t all my fault. He said that my grandmother had told him that my mom was an alcoholic and just isn’t doing well with me. The more we talked the more I grew to like them; I think the more they grew to like me. Finally we arrived at the border and there was a payless shoe store with a pay phone outside. Charlie allowed me to call my mom and she picked up. I cried and begged her to let me come home but she told me it was the best thing for me and I was going. Apparently they weren’t supposed to let me call her because it was against the rules; I never asked why he let me but I think it’s because he understood better. We got back in the car and drove across; I don’t know how we got in seeing as though I never had a passport and still don’t to this day. I don’t remember how much farther we drove but we came to a long dusty road until we hit a giant, twenty foot, chain gate. The gate had to huge doors that opened up so we could drive inside, and I wasn’t allowed out until they were shut and locked.
Charlie and the woman had never taken anyone to this particular facility so they couldn’t give me any information on the program. They told me they would stay with me for a while and we were greeted by one Mexican named Papa Miguel and two Mexican women. It was a large dirt track covered in sand and little pebbles and on the side what seemed to be a broken down couch or back seat of a car. There was no roof over this huge chain gate facility and on one side there were two big chain doors that lead into the boy’s side and one to the girls. We opened the gate and I heard a loud, angry, Spanish voice scream “swaylo.” All around me I saw girls immediately hit the deck with their arms over their heads; Some girls were laying in the dirt so I was really confused. This part looked similar to the track part except it had a big, hunter green, cloth tent with a concrete slab in the middle. The sides of the tent were rolled up and inside was a bench table and suit cases lined up and down the sides. The girls were called out of “swaylo position” and lined up to get there mats out. They all sat down and just began staring at the floor. Along the sides out side the tent there were four of five dog cages with sand and rocks on the bottom. There was also a concrete outside bathroom out of a horror story. It had no door and had only cold water. The three showers were divided by small concrete walls and a big drain in the middle. Also there were two dirty sinks and three toilets with trash cans beside of them because it was not equipped to flush paper. Beside the bathroom was another fence to hang what I guessed to be was a clothing line and a hole cut out in the wall where the women stayed at night while we slept. Along the fence and tent were lines raked in different directions to show us where we shouldn’t be stepping, which we did as part of morning chores. The kidnapers and I sat down at the bench and Papa Miguel called one of the girls over to start explaining the rules to me. She was considered trusted to be able to help the workers because she was leaving in a few days. She was young, maybe 14, wearing purple sweats which I thought was strange because it was so hot. They make you wear them all day while running and at night when its freezing cold you must earn your warmth. She looked almost scared to look into my eyes and asked Papa Miguel for permission to roll up her sleeves. She was granted permission and began explaining the rules.
- No talking to anyone for any reason
- No looking anywhere but the floor at anyone, anywhere for any reason.
- You can not burp, go to the bathroom, roll up your sleeves, stand up, or move without permission.
- You will be marching (running laps on the track) for four hours a day, in sandals.
- You must complete 2,000 laps to graduate this program and everything you do wrong will result in laps you have earned being taken away (thus being farther away from going home).
- You will have chores, exercise, and six hours a day of Alcoholics anonymous tapes, accompanied by worksheets of each tape.
- She explained to me when you are bad you will be sent to the dog cages until you comply and must remain in what they referred to as R.R position on your chin and not be able to count the laps you run for the day if you are lucky enough to get out.
When she finished Charlie and the women got up. They looked shocked too. They told me they felt bad about leaving me there and I started crying because I have grown to find what little comfort I had left with them. They hugged me goodbye and I was shown to my cut out piece of carpet mat.
The girls were still all sitting on their mats motionless staring at the floor as they started going through my bags. They took the bathing suit they told my mom to buy me and everything except for two sets of clothes, bras, underwear, socks, toothbrush and shampoo. I was immediately getting into trouble because I was no used to looking down all the time; it was a complete loss of freedom in every way possible. When you wake up every morning you hear a loud, angry, Spanish voice scream “Winnos dias chickas” and you have ten seconds to fold your blanket, roll up your mat, grab your tooth brush and be in line. If you don’t in time you must do one hundred push ups less than thirty seconds of waking up. If you can’t or refuse you are sent to the dog cages in R.R. Position all day. When you are in line you must perform the High Impact family head count, which consists of screaming that phrase and each girl individually calling out a number. We were allowed seconds to brush our teeth and a minute each to use the toilet. If you took to long for anything you were punished with push ups. We could not flush the toilet until all the girls were done and the person with bathroom duty that morning would fill a bucket over water and flush it all down. After bathroom time we put our toothbrushes away we lined up, heads down till all girls were done. We were then given chores ranging from picking up small rocks, racking lines, bathroom duty or sweeping the tent. We washed our clothes once a week with a bar on soap on a scrub board and hung them to dry.
Everyone was so scared we never formed bonds or even knew each others names. The workers were all Spanish speaking and really didn’t care if you understood them or not. Even though they spoke Spanish 90% of the time and I didn’t speak a word, it’s amazing what you will just understand because your well being depends on it. It made it even harder though because you can not look them in the face so you have to just react on gut instinct. They were angry and mean to us every second of everyday. There were two alternating teams of people who would switch staying in the tent and working every week. Every communication from them was frightening and abusive. After chores was an hour of exercise in sweats… in the Mexican desert. Sit ups, jumping jacks, and even crazy stuff they would make up. Next was breakfast which was a bowl of oatmeal and if you had a “good” morning you get an apple. After breakfast was marching which meant running on the track and every time you completed a lap yelling your number in Spanish. Even though I was never an in shape child this was one of my favorite times of the day. Maybe because you can move, its actually something that your doing to graduate, but mostly because it was my time to think. I remember thinking about my friends and family and what they were doing. I however don’t ever remember anything clicking about what was actually happening to me. I think when you are in survival mode your mind shuts of rational ways of thinking. Maybe because I was in shock, maybe because I was so young, who knows? One time after marching I was so thirty I saw white foam coming from my mouth and raised my hand to ask for water and was denied. Maybe out of desperation or just stupidity I asked another worker and they found out. I was put in the dog cage for manipulation and had laps taken away, I was not given water. In addition I was labeled manipulative and given a 30 pound book bag to wear for weeks from the time I woke up till the time I went to sleep; only to remove the bag to shower. That was one of the many times I was put in the dog cage.
After marching we were to stand in line and given minutes to take a shower. The shower was freezing cold and our parents sent us bathing suits to wear but we were made to shower naked while they watched us. There were no hair brushes, mirrors, and I can’t even remember thinking or caring about anything like that. You just can’t, there isn’t any room for those kinds of things in your mind when you are captive. Right after everyone was done showering we had to do more exercises in the dirt with wet hair. I think it was just to keep us dirty but I don’t know. After we were given lunch which was one small piece of chicken cooked on an open fire by on of my fellow captives. It was always bloody, slimy and gross and was accompanied by a bowl of rice without salt. The chicken was so bad I never wanted to eat it even though I was so hungry but they made us eat all our food because if you didn’t they viewed it as a suicide attempt. They said if you throw up you have to eat it but I never saw that happened. If you refused to eat the food you were put in the dog cage until you finished if it took all night long. I know because it happened to me; so I learned to put the rice along the bottom of my tongue so that I didn’t taste the chicken. Dinner was also the same meal everyday and night. After eating was more hours of marching, exercise, A.A worksheets all rotating all day long, and then bed. Everyday was the same. At night when we were allowed to go to sleep it was my favorite time of the day because I knew for a couple hours I didn’t at least mentally have to be there. When you are depressed or being held against your will sleep in the only escape you know, and it becomes something other than rest. It’s the most exciting part of the day just because you don’t have to be in this world. At that point even the scariest dream I ever had was nothing compared to my reality. We slept in the tent on the concrete slab on our cut outs of carpet and were allowed one small blanket but no pillow. The tent had electrical bright lights at the top and there was a radio for the woman who had to watch us while we slept. They always kept the lights on and played the radio with Spanish music but every once in a while I would hear a song I knew and it was comforting.
It was so cold at night I learned to sleep on my stomach on top on my arms for warmth and put my blanket over my head. I had the soundest sleeps. Maybe from exhaustion and the fact I have always been someone who sleeps through the night, but one night I didn’t. I opened my eyes and peered out of my blanket and saw the woman sleeping. I don’t know what it was but something told me to get up now. I didn’t have to go to the bathroom but in the corner of the tent there was a bucket they we had to use to go to the bathroom at night and I went toward it. I thought if I got caught I would at least have an explanation to why I was up. I didn’t even have a plan; actually I don’t know what I was thinking. When I saw she didn’t wake up I peered out of the cloth sides that are put down and tied to the ground at night so no one can slip out. I didn’t see anyone, it was cold, in the middle of the night, I had no shoes on, I was in Mexico and 15 but something told me to run and I did. I snuck out the sides and ran to the first gate leading out to the track and it was unlocked. I opened it and ran to the next gate where the car that took me originally drove in. It too was unlocked. Even if it wasn’t I think I would have still tried to climb the gate. I was ready to die rather than stay there anymore. I opened the gate and RAN! I ran as fast and as far as my legs would carry me and just screamed FUCK! FUCK YOU! Stupid, scared, and not knowing where I was; I found myself running along the dirt road I was brought in on. I remember being scared but feeling free and looking up at the sky because I hadn’t had control of my body in what felt like forever. Shorty, I don’t know how long, maybe 5, 10, 15 minutes I saw a yellow truck and it was coming for me. Two Mexican women jumped out, slammed me into the back of the truck, and drove back to hell. If I thought everything had been bad; I had no idea what was in store for me next. When we arrived I was immediately put in the dog cage on my chin.
Morning came in what seemed shortly after and they woke the girls and told them what I had done. He informed them that they would be running their laps today without shoes for my misbehavior. After all the girls were starting their day Papa Miguel came to my cage. He started off by telling me I was a stupid little girl and that my parents had signed away all guardian rights to them. He told me that we are not in my country and if I ever did anything like that again he would shoot me in my legs. When you are in the cage you must remain on your chin, spread eagle, palms up and legs bent upward. I stayed this way for seven days for seventeen hours a day. Papa Miguel then sat on my back and started ripping off all the blisters I had gotten on my feet from running with sandals. I screamed and tried to get up but he was too strong and only twisted and bent me harder when I tried to struggle. Because on the impact on my chin from the dirt and rocks it started building up around my face and when I was allowed to get out at the end of the night it would be stuck on my face. I was never allowed to remove this dirt and it started building up day by day until covering my chin. I still to this day have a scar from the scar tissue build up on my chin. After he was done punishing me, he left. Every morning I was immediately put in the cage in R.R. Position with my book bag on top. I had to wear sweat pants but they always rolled the bottom of my pant legs up. From the sun I got huge, bubble welts all over the back of my legs from sun poisoning. When we would get new girls they would bring them to the cage to show them my legs and show them what would have to them if they were bad like me. I was never given any medical treatment or exceptions and they looked at the blisters as if they were happy about it. When I was allowed to eat I had to eat with my hands at the bottom of my dirty cage. Looking back I guess I was lucky they fed me at all. I stayed in the cage for up for 17 hours a day; so long that I would be so dizzy every time I stood up. I was only allowed out of my cage to go to sleep at the end of the night after the girls were all asleep. At night I was allowed one five minute shower before bed. It was freezing cold and so was the water in the showers. When I awoke every morning I was sent back to my cage and continued for seven days. While in the cage I was not allowed to use the toilets and they made me dig holes to use and was not given toilet paper. They had to fire the woman who fell asleep when I escaped so I was treated even harsher but all the staff. One day I didn’t have to go to the cage and I started the same routine as all the other girls once again.
One day the women approached me and told me I had minutes to pack my belongs because I was being transferred to Jamaica. I was crushed; after my escape they threatened to send me to Jamaica which they had told me was much worse. Come to find out my boot camp was the behavioral modification program they send you to if you get kicked out of other WWASP programs. I had hoped though that Mexico would be the end and that I would go home after. Another girl that was graduating the program was also leaving that day. We both packed our belongings and started driving out down the same dirt road where this nightmare began. We drove to an airport in California where we were met by the other girl parents. She ran and hugged them; we still had never spoken but when she looked back at me it was an understood look between the two of us that we had made it out. Allie one of the directors of the program took me to a McDonalds in the food court and bought me some food and told me that I was going home. When we got up to order they had ran out of everything except, your guessed it… CHICKEN! But believe me that was the farthest thing from my mind. I was out! She was being super nice to me and when you are treated like an abused animal every second of everyday for almost two months; it really does confuse you. She hugged me goodbye and I let her. Maybe because I was so happy to be going home but if I could go back now I would have done something much different. I got on the plane and was sent to go live with my father in Florida. When I got on the plane I went into the bathroom and shut the door. It was the first time I had been alone other thank my brief escape. I ran my hands through the hot water and remember thinking how wonderful it felt. For the first time I looked in the mirror and I saw how thin my face had gotten. When I got home my grandparents and father didn’t even recognize me. My hair was all knotted up from never being brushed and I was a mess but I can’t think of any more reliving feeling than that moment.
I wish this story ended that I came home and called newspapers and told the cops or did something. But I didn’t, I didn’t do anything for those girls I left back in Mexico. I just came home and tried to have a normal life. I was so happy to be home and so freaked out and just not mentally the same. I mean I told every one of my friends, family or human that would listen to me. No one ever seemed to care of even believe me. After all the times that I told the story and got the same response I started feeling like maybe I was crazy. Maybe it didn’t happen to me; maybe it’s not as big of a deal as I am making it out to be. I tried to start barring all these emotions and eventually they started to fade, at least until one day I goggled high impact and I found all this information on the WWASP programs. I found that my program and many other WWASP programs have been shut down due to child abuse and neglect. I found message boards with other survivors of the programs and since have been researching information on the programs. I was so relived to find all this information because I finally had proof to show all of my family and friends who I assumed believed me to be crazy. I also showed my parents and my mother looked at all the materials I found including videos and photos. She told me that high impact unlike other programs was only 28 days so it was much cheaper than the year long programs. They were also misinformed, lied to, given broachers, and of course my family did not properly look into where they were sending me.
When I got home at 15 I saw the website for high impact with kids hanging out wearing book bags…they were smiling. It’s been eight years now since I left Mexico but the rage remains the same. I have no trust for anyone and always feel like someone is trying to fool me. I have been afraid to be alone for a long time now and afraid to trust anyone. I hope that someday I can use my experience to help others. I believe that is the only way any good can come from this happening to me.
Caroline Elise's story took place year 2001. The boot camp was raided in 2002. But it wasn't the first facility run by the World Wide Association of Special schools and Programs (WWASP), which was closed down by the authorities in the countries they were located.
- Already in 1996 the first school - Sunrise Beach in Punta Sam, Cancun, Mexico was closed
- In 1998 the Czech republic closed Morava Academy down, because their laws forbit use of isolation room for teens due to their strained past.
- Caroline Elise did not enter the WWASP system the normal way as most teenagers did during those year. They had an intake hospital - Brightway Adolescent Hospital - where all the teenagers were diagnosed with the same problems before being sent to the other programs. The state of Utah stopped this method in 1998.
- Their largest program at the time - Paradise Cove in Samoa - was forced to close in 1998. As an odd twist one of the participants in the 2008 version of American Idol claimed that the director - her father - moved back to the United States for her to have a career.
Since 2002 a number of their schools have been raided or put under political pressure to close in Costa Rica, Nevada and Jamaica. The State of New York fined one of their schools for issuing High School Diplomas without local permission.
As of June 2009 we have knowledge of at least one program in operation located in Rosarito, but we recognize that we are far from being fully informed, so maybe there are still such programs existing. The staff from High Impact were never punished. What they are doing today, we don't know.
However, one question Caroline Elise properly would have asked herself is why her parents did not research the program better. To their defense there was not much information out on the internet or elsewhere back then where they could find independent information. They had to rely on the marketing material which was misleading with a mild word.
Also we have to remember that around year 2000 the fashion in the behavior modification and correctional industry did also favor the use of boot camps. Teenagers like Martin Lee Anderson, Anthony Hayes, Gina Score and other victims who's names never reached the headlines but who's cases were settled out of court were not dead at the time. Research that showed that Boot Camps don't work to rehabilitate youth had not been conducted at the time. So even if Caroline Elise's parents had guessed that it was a boot camp with intense exercise none at the time would have critisized them for choosing that solution for their daughter.
Third even today in our modern society with all the stress where less time is being spent with our families and the entire pupulation still demands tough sentences for crimes comitted, we don't really care about the conditions troubled youth are living under when they are removed from our homes. Even here in Denmark we can read one horror story after another about teenager being sexual abused or being punished in a way which would have put parents in jail if they had done it themselves.
There is only one answer. Regulation and even tougher regulation!
Troubled teenagers are humans. There is no child born evil. It is a myth. They really don't want to fail. We fail them! We spoil them, we lie to them, we do those things we forbid them and forget that they have ears and eyes, we promise them things and forget about it.
Of course the laws of our society must always be obeyed. We want structure. But we should be able to treat human decent in the process and involve our children in our court system, so they know why we need to punish them for a crime committed but also give them opputunity to re-enter our society when time is done.
We need to learn from Caroline Elise's story. She suffers from her experience even today but have chosen to tell her story to the public in order to start a healing process.
Let us stop such programs!