Neli Delgado said she slept with at least 30 to 40 men a month for money
Just about everyone who stops by "La Familia" restaurant in Mexico City is welcomed with Neli Delgado's warm smile.
Delgado's restaurant is a small, rotisserie chicken, take-out establishment located in a working-class neighborhood. But to its owner, La Familia means much more than just four walls and a rotisserie oven: It's a sign that she's once again free to dream big again.
"This is very beautiful to me. It's the first step, but we will soon be growing and adding new dishes," Delgado said.
Delgado says her life turned upside down when she was 18 years old. "My father died the month before I was to finish high school and my family completely collapsed," she said.
Homeless, penniless and grieving, Delgado says she was easy prey for a charming man who promised to care for her, offering marriage and eternal love.
"I used to eat cheap apples and coffee. That's all I could afford," Delgado said. "I was suffering a lot, and when he approached me offering to help, I felt I had no other option."
But the promise of marriage was just a trick. Her suitor was, in reality, a human trafficker.
"One day he told me 'I gave my life for you and you're also going to have to give yours for me. I'm struggling financially so you're going to have to help me by being a sex-worker in Mexico City,'" Delgado said.
'We were shown off as merchandise'
Delgado was soon forced to work in an alley in La Merced, a notorious red-light district in Mexico City.
"Those of us girls who were new would stand at the entrance. They would show us off as if we were merchandise," Delgado said.
Delgado says she was forced to have s*x with 30 to 40 men every night for a month, until a police raid finally set her free. She says that she was not the only victim of human trafficking. "Ninety percent of those of us there were human trafficking victims," Delgado said.
Her trafficker was convicted and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison. It took some time to put her life back together after regaining her freedom, but Delgado says once she got there she formed an ambitious plan to make something out of a second chance.
That's when she thought of opening her own restaurant, a dream Delgado had ever since she was working on getting her business degree after regaining her freedom. Her new dream is growing her business enough to make it a franchise in Mexico City.
"This represents everything for me," Delgado said. "Now I'm free to do whatever I want. Back then I wasn't free. He would use me as an object clients could buy as they please at any time, and now I have the freedom to do what I like."
Strength to prevail
She partnered with Luis Narciso, and old friend and classmate from business school. Narciso says he's awed by Delgado's determination.
"I wonder where she got the strength to overcome so much and prevail, because you need a lot of will power to get back up again," Narciso said.
And his partner has no plans of slowing down. Delgado says she would like to open another chicken rotisserie in about a year. They're currently in conversations with UberEats. If successful, they would be added to the list of restaurants that cater to the office buildings in Polanco, an upscale district in Mexico City.
In the last few years, Delgado has also become an activist, raising awareness about human trafficking and urging authorities in several countries to take steps to curb this crime.
Delgado participated in the "One Billion Rising" event held in Paris in February 2016, which called for "systemic changes towards ending violence against women and girls once and for all." She also gave her testimony at the Vatican Youth Symposium last October, where she briefly met Pope Francis. She was recently invited to travel to Malta by the Mediterranean country's government to give her testimony at an event there.
Learn more about the fight against human trafficking with CNN's Freedom Project
Delgado is also thinking about giving back to her hometown. One of her dreams is to propel economic activity in her community so that other young women like her to become entrepreneurs.
"I used to be discriminated against because I was poor and dark-skinned," Delgado said. "I would like to empower women so that they can become suppliers for the business group I'll have in the future."