Law & Order: SVU Season 23, Episode 17, ‘Once Upon a Time in El Barrio’ Recap & Spoilers

The following contains spoilers for Law & Order: SVU Season 23, Episode 17, "Once Upon a Time in El Barrio," which premiered Thursday, April 7, on NBC. This article also contains descriptions of sexual assault.

In Júarez, Mexico, three girls await a modeling audition with dreams of living in New York together. Valeria is chosen, but can't pay the $5,000 fee. The booking agent says she may have another way for her to pay, though. Then things flash forward to a group of women being unloaded from a van in Manhattan, clearly trafficked. Lovely. When one of the girls refuses to give up her phone and take the pill they give her, the man beats her to the ground and lights her on fire. Honestly one of the most horrendous SVU scenes in a long time, more at home with the "cutting out the unsuspecting guy's tongue" scene in this season's Organized Crime. Valeria watches on in horror. Welcome to her new life.

Back at the squad, Rollins is still away helping her mother while the other half of Rollisi, Carisi, takes her daughters on vacation. Detective Fin Tutuola then asks Captain Olivia Benson if she knows why Elliot Stabler supposedly got booted from Organized Crime, unaware of his undercover status. Then Detective Velasco bursts in -- a pastor from his mother's hometown needs their help, as 13 girls have gone missing from the town. He plays them a voicemail from Valeria, all screams and cries. Time for SVU to step in. After a phone trace, they find the original call came from East Harlem but that their phones then went dead. Fin then gets in a call reporting the burnt body found.

svu s23 e17 fin

Velasco and Fin check out the body. It's burnt to the true definition of a crisp, but Velasco recognizes her cross necklace as belonging to Maribel. He makes the hard call to Father Daniel to let him know as he vows to keep searching for Valeria and Sofia. Another squad is brought in to help with the case, but Velasco is indignant about outsiders coming in on a personal case. Not able to follow orders to stay home (a little more of Stabler in him, day by day), he visits a street full of sex workers looking for Mexican girls, hoping to find the trafficked girls. He finds a girl to talk to and, just his luck, it ends up being an undercover cop: Detective Rosanny Chavez. Though he proves he's a cop himself, Captain Don Kubiak still arrests him, remarking that he thought Benson had told Velasco to take a step back for now. Whoopsies.

Like parents being called into school, Liv and Fin come down to pick up Velasco from holding and vouch for him actually being on a case. He looks up, sheepishly, as Liv tells him McGrath is as unhappy as she is. Ugh. McGrath doesn't need any more ammunition. (Imagine how Richard Belzer's John Munch would have handled this.) While they're there, though, Liv and Fin look at the evidence Kubiak's been collecting on these trafficking rings. Chavez offers one of her contacts to interview, Señora Juana Ramirez, and brings Velasco and Benson to talk with her. Ramirez is willing to help, as she's been trying to help the girls on her own. She tells them a new group comes in every week from the motel across the way, ushered by a cold-eyed, large, bald man... the same man who burned Sofia. Benson gives Ramirez her contact information and Señora Juana sends them off with pan dulce.

svu s23 e17 kubiak

They interview workers at the motel, but no one claims to know anything, as expected. Velasco and Chavez then talk to a girl working as a maid who recognizes the pictures of the girls Velasco shows her and breaks down crying. They ask her to let them help her, but she's too frightened still. Chavez goes back in to talk to her as Velasco reports to Benson. Liv, Fin and Velasco get a call from Chavez that Lucia's ready to talk, so they go back to Señora Ramirez's to meet her but (as the tense lighting and music was leading up to) the bad guys strike. As Lucia and Chavez cross the road, an SUV guns it and plows them down, sending Chavez flying through the air and leaving her gravely injured. Lucia is nowhere to be found.

The next day, Chavez has passed from the attack and the case becomes even more personal. Bureau Chief Phillip Baptiste joins the squad as they meet with Kubiak, ramping up personnel, as Fin and Velasco go back out in search of Lucia. They're reluctant to tell Velasco where the undocumented go for medical care, rightfully fearing police overstepping, but eventually Señora Ramirez tells him a place. As he walks back into the makeshift clinic, he finds Lucia, who is frightened to see him. She agrees to come back to the precinct, though she is terrified to answer questions.

svu s23 e17 velasco fin baptiste

Though still a little mistrustful, Lucia starts to talk a little. It turns out Lucia owes some dangerous people money. Benson assures her they'll keep her safe -- and will free the other girls, if only she'll help them out. Lucia tells them the girls are going to be sold to another sex trafficking ring. She doesn't know where, but maybe "the policeman does" -- the captain. Captain Don Kubiak is a big ol' villain who was forcing the girls to have sex with him and letting the traffickers have free rein.

Benson calls in Kubiak under the guise of working together. Kubiak seems a little worried that Chavez might have talked to Lucia but Fin and Liv play it cool. Velasco then comes into the room and shares info about the bogus modeling agency, run by the trafficker's sister. The trafficker, Jorge, pimps the girls out from East Harlem and Liv feigns surprise at the locality of it all, asking Kubiak if any of his guys might know Jorge since that's his beat. Velasco also says they pulled phone records and there were a lot of local calls made in the last 48 hours. They call one number from the list in particular, and ding ding ding, the captain's cell rings. "It's your life sentence calling, dude," Fin says jovially as Kubiak lawyers up.

svu s23 e17 Senora Juana Ramirez

Bureau Chief Baptiste is on the job, stacking charges against Kubiak. Fin says he pulled Kubiak and the man has hundreds of allegations against him. Liv is unfortunately not surprised that he made it to captain with that litany -- it's an old boys' club, after all. They bring in Lucia to pick him out of a lineup and, though she's scared he might retaliate, she correctly identifies Kubiak as the man who assaulted her and the other girls: the policeman who forced them to have sex. Kubiak's lawyer, of course, says there's no case, only the word of a sex worker against a cop.

In interrogation, Kubiak tries to say Lucia was a consensual encounter and that he doesn't know about any other girls. Liv isn't playing though -- she's going to dig up his entire history from the past ten years and he needs to stop lying to himself that he's not a rapist. Is he complicit in Chavez's death, too? Full of injured pride, he lashes out at Benson to give him more respect but says he knows where the other girls are being shipped to after all. He'll talk -- for a deal. Then Fin enters with some news that swings the tables all in SVU's favor: Lucia, who he admitted to having sex with, is 15. Liv threatens him with a life sentence, marked as a pedophile rapist cop in prison and he finally folds.

svu s23 e17 baptiste fin benson velasco

Kubiak calls Jorge's driver with SVU tracing the call. He says he found Lucia and asks where to bring her. He then says it's too dangerous to drive a van of girls by himself -- he'll drive them to Buffalo himself and flash his badge if there's any trouble. It's time to head out, detectives in tow. Kubiak goes to meet Jorge's delivery, Velasco posing as a buyer alongside him. Jorge demands to see Lucia and they show her lying, bound, in the back of their van. They head back to the motel so that Jorge can load up the next girl for transfer. It's Valeria. Kubiak asks where the rest of the girls and, after agreeing on a price, Jorge loads the rest of them into the van.

As the money's handed off, Jorge pulls a gun and wants to take back over driving. Too bad! Cops swarm him as Velasco pulls out his own gun. Liv, Fin and a number of waiting officers surround him and Jorge eventually drops his gun. Liv frees the girls in the van, as happy an ending as possible. Velasco calls the Father to let him know they found and saved Valeria, Sofia and the other girls, giving him a modicum of peace.

New episodes of Law & Order: SVU air Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

svu s23 e16 benson and fin
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