Imprisoned in the American Nightmare

Freeing the silent sufferers of human trafficking and bringing their captors to justice


     Most educational efforts also strive to refocus the law enforcement mindset; where officials have been taught to arrest those who have broken the law. Officers may be reluctant to intervene in sex trafficking situations, for example, believing subjects willingly participated. But while prostitution is a crime, McDevitt stresses authorities may need to reclassify some offenders as victims because someone else forced, threatened or coerced them into breaking the law. "Officers must look at things that indicate they are victims, and treat individuals as victims until they know better," he explains.

     Appropriately identifying victims begins with knowing what trafficking really is, says Young, who begins his courses by defining human trafficking, explaining that officers typically encounter two types: sex and labor trafficking. He also describes the difference between smuggling and trafficking because the two are not one in the same as some people believe. (See "Trafficking vs. Smuggling on Page 50.) Once officers understand the basics, Young launches into red flags that point to trafficking, including things such as living in squalid conditions (where multiple people are crammed into a tiny, substandard dwelling), deplorable working conditions and restricted movement. "The evidence we look for includes: Are these victims completely dependent on the trafficker to sustain life?" Young explains. "It can be as simple as missing documentation or as severe as actual cages or restraints to keep victims in a certain place." (See "Questions to ask" on Page 55.)

     Specific queries about victims' circumstances helps officers sum up a situation and bring aid to desperate sufferers, says Flores, who points to a recent case in Cleveland where a Mexican woman paid a trafficker to smuggle her into the country. Upon arrival, the trafficker informed her the deal had changed and she would need to prostitute herself to pay him back. This went on until a routine traffic stop where an officer found it strange that a woman traveled alone with five men. He took her aside and inquired about her situation, and quickly discovered her plight. The Ohio case is not unusual, notes McDevitt, who reports Northeastern University's study found 52 percent of the time law enforcement learns about human trafficking while investigating other crimes.

     A good community policing program also plays into law enforcement's awareness. A public that embraces the law enforcement function willingly acts as the eyes and ears of the police and calls in suspicious circumstances. Police recently cracked a Korean brothel case in Washington, D.C., because the public intervened. Residents reported that every Sunday taxis picked up and dropped off women at a neighboring home. It turns out the operation was moving women from brothel to brothel to avoid detection. "This is an excellent example of community policing," McDevitt says. "A good relationship with your community can be a wonderful way to get intelligence information."

Shattering the silence

     After escaping the commercial sex trade, Flores kept quiet for 20 years. "I didn't know what had happened to me was called human trafficking," she explains. "I knew it was rape. I knew it was gang rape. But I also knew it was way more than that. Those things happen one time; they don't last for two years." It wasn't until the mother of three attended a human trafficking conference in Columbus, Ohio, as a social worker, that she finally learned the term for her victimization.

     Victims often fail to realize that what is happening to them is a crime, states Young. Traffickers tell individuals from Day One they are not victims and they got themselves into this mess. Captives begin to believe they are at fault and there is no way out. "One of our main responsibilities as law enforcers is to get trafficking victims to self-identify," he says. "They need to understand this wasn't right, and it is a crime."

     It can take dogged persistence to scale the barriers victims erect and get them to a point where they want to cooperate, not only with law enforcement but in their own rehabilitation. Northeastern University found 70 percent of agencies surveyed reported lack of victim cooperation as the primary reason these crimes remain underground. Victims fear retaliation toward themselves and their families, and lack trust in the criminal justice system — all of which can hinder investigations.

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