There are people who make bad choices. Then there are people who only have bad choices. They are people under the control of a human trafficker, someone who took control of them, maintained it and then used that control for their own greed.
It’s estimated that 50,000 people a year are trafficked in the U.S., including people brought into the country for that purpose. The trade earns over $32 billion per year putting it line with the huge profits made off illegal gun and drug trafficking. Human trafficking ranks up there with gun and drug trafficking as the largest money making schemes of organized crime.
This ugly crime might be closer to you than you could imagine, whether you live in a major metropolitan area or in a small town. You may question the real business of a massage parlor in town, but did you think of it as human trafficking? Or do you assume everyone there has free will? Movies like “Taken” and “12 Years a Slave” dramatize the cruelty and bondage. But that’s just Hollywood, not a lens into real life, right?
The United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime recognizes human trafficking as a worldwide epidemic. It has grown into the third largest business of organized crime, falling behind only gun and drug trafficking.
According to U.S. Federal law, human trafficking is defined as:
- Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
- The recruitment, harboring, transportation provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
The CNN Freedom Project is more blunt.
“Slavery occurs when one person completely controls another person, using violence or the threat of violence to maintain that control, exploits them economically, pays them nothing and they cannot walk away.”
If you think you could tell whether someone might be a potential kidnapper you would be wrong. If you think you could tell someone is the victim of trafficking you would be wrong again. It is a crime that often can occur right out in the open and no one can tell.
The FBI and other organizations with a mission to fight this ugly crime have discovered cases like Ariel Castro, the Cleveland Ohio man who kept three girls imprisoned in his home for nearly ten years. He literally grabbed each girl off the street. They were bound, sometimes with chains. Over those years he exploited them for sex.
Castro was able to hide the girls almost in plain sight. His own son, Anthony Castro, wrote a story about the disappearance of Gina DeJesus, less than three weeks after it happened. The Plain Press in Cleveland assigned it to him. Despite his attention to the issue he had no idea what was going on in the house even when he visited his father. All he could tell police later was that there were locks on certain doors and he wasn’t allowed in those rooms.
The 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report includes recent reports of the abuse of deaf domestic workers in the United Kingdom, addicts forced to labor in fields in the United States, people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities enslaved in Chinese kilns, and persons with developmental disabilities forced to work as peddlers on the streets of India. Persons with disabilities remain one of the groups most at risk of being trafficked.
There are sophisticated traffickers who can use guile rather than brute force to capture their victims. Consider Brianna, a bubbly high school student, a girl anyone would think was safe. She had a stable home in a small town and worked after school in a diner. A normal appearing couple built trust with her by visiting the diner and engaging her in friendly small talk. They used that trust to mine her for information about the boys who attracted her. In fact the husband, Richard, was actually a veteran sex trafficker mining the young student for vital information he would use to try to lure her into a world of strip clubs and prostitution. Eventually he approached her directly inviting her to party with him which she declined.
Soon the man of Brianna’s dreams appeared in the diner. Nick played a gorgeous blond football player dressed to look financially well off. Brianna later said, “He flirted with me and made me feel so special and beautiful.” Nick invited her to visit him in Seattle. Despite her parents’ efforts to keep her home he convinced her to break her ties with them and move into his spare room. He suggested she could attend college while doing a little work on the side like dancing in a club where she could earn “tons of money doing little work.”
He made it sound safe enough with advice on how to avoid the wrong men and the money was too tempting. She willed herself to take the job with the idea that she would be naked only for a matter of minutes. In three nights she made $850—ten times what she made in a good night at the diner. For Nick’s next move he offered to take her on a trip to Arizona and Nevada, where Brianna most likely would have been completely cut off from her friends and family and disappeared into forced prostitution.
Brianna is one of the lucky ones though. Her sense of obligation to her parents led her to return her family’s car. She called a trusted friend who perceived the danger and alerted her family. Brianna resisted their efforts to break her trust until Linda Smith, founder and president of the national anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope was able to open Brianna’s eyes to the patterns and come-on lines of sex traffickers. In Smith’s discussion, Brianna recognized every line Nick had said to her.
Brianna had to make major changes to avoid any efforts by Nick to track her down. Now she tells her story educating girls about how polished traffickers can be in their traps. In partnership with Shared Hope she released Chosen. A kit for educators includes the video to teach children how careful they must be.
The thought of children being forced into sex or sweatshop labor is too horrifying for people to accept. To believe it is happening all around us is almost unfathomable. Didn’t slavery end with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s triumph in the Civil War? No. It did not. Slavery has existed and continues to exist on virtually every continent and it happens to people of all ethnicities, genders and ages.
The U.S. is part of the world community putting together the tools and manpower to end trafficking. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA are working together to fight it. There are task forces cooperating with all levels of law enforcement and in partnerships with the United Nations, hundreds of countries, and working groups to identify and arrest traffickers.
But this is an insidious crime that is especially attractive because it can fly so far beneath the radar. We need to recognize that prostitutes are not “working girls,” they are victims. It is immoral to ignore the fact that cheap clothing and goods are cheap because an employer workers in dangerous conditions with virtually no pay. There are even children among us who end up in slavery just because they are young and vulnerable.
The only way we can really end it is to deliver information to those who can use it to track down these predators. Learn the signs of trafficking and be on the lookout, before another Gina Dejesus can suddenly disappear from your neighborhood.
To join the fight against human trafficking learn how to spot it. You can start by visiting http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking or http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/identifying-trafficking-victims.cfm.
If you think a person should be investigated as either a victim or the criminal contact the FBI at http://www.fbi.gov/report-threats-and-crime or the Polaris Project at http://www.polarisproject.org/take-action/raise-awareness.