The Good Men Project interviews a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations about sex slavery in the U.S.—which is far more common than most people think.
The promise that we’re working to effectuate is actually the 13th Amendment promise that no one in the United States shall be subjected to involuntary servitude. It doesn’t matter whether that’s in a farm, in a brothel, or as a domestic servant. If somebody is being forced to work against their will, if they’re trapped, can’t get out, then that it is somebody who would be considered a victim of modern slavery.
—Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. State Department
We have written extensively about the many facets of the sex industry, making clear that there is indeed room for many points of view when it comes to porn, stripping, and even prostitution. But now I am going to talk about an under-reported problem that is less morally ambiguous: sexual slavery.
Sex trafficking within the U.S. is legally defined as commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age. The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is between 12 to 14 years old.
The federal law is very clear on this issue: Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.
Sex traffickers frequently target vulnerable people with histories of abuse and then use violence, threats, lies, false promises, debt bondage, or other forms of control and manipulation keep victims involved in the sex industry. Sex trafficking exists within the broader commercial sex trade, often at much higher rates than most people realize or understand. Sex trafficking has been found in a wide variety of venues of the overall sex industry, including residential brothels, hostess clubs, online escort services, brothels disguised as massage parlors, strip clubs, and street prostitution.
To understand this problem on the ground, I recently spoke to a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
MATLACK: How do you define human trafficking?
AGENT: Two ways: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is basically modern-day slavery, people working and not being paid for their work, living in god-awful conditions. And then the other side is sex trafficking, people that are forced into commercial sex acts against their will.
MATLACK: When you’re dealing with young girls, does the definition of the girl being young enough make it human trafficking?
AGENT: If the girl’s a minor, she doesn’t need to be forced into it for it to be human trafficking. If it’s a 15-year-old girl and you’re her pimp, even if she wants to go out and have sex for money, that’s still considered human trafficking. Once somebody’s an adult, you have to be able to prove that through force, fraud, or coercion that this girl was forced into those sex acts.
MATLACK: And so what’s the breakdown in terms of the cases that you’re pursuing between minors and not minors?
AGENT: I would say it’s almost 50-50.
MATLACK: Can you help me understand how common it is?
AGENT: It is a lot more common that people think. Most people can’t differentiate between human trafficking and human smuggling. People think that this could never happen here, when actually it’s there. You just may not see it, may not know about it, may not hear about it. But, believe it or not, it’s a pretty common occurrence.
MATLACK: So how much of what you’re doing is folks who are bringing girls and women into the country?
AGENT: At Homeland Security Investigations, we’re usually dealing with foreign nationals. But that’s not to say we don’t have cases that involve sex trafficking with U.S. citizens, whether they’re minors or adults. But for the most part, we tend to see more foreign nationals. I’m on a task force that’s made up of several federal and state law enforcement agencies.
MATLACK: So when you find confirmed sex trafficking, are you then trying to prosecute the johns, the pimp, or what?
AGENT: For the most part we focus on the traffickers. Unless the john’s having sex with a 12-year-old girl and it’s readily apparent she’s a minor, then that’s a whole different thing. But for the most part, the johns don’t necessarily know that this girl is being forced into sex. Most of them think, “OK, she’s a willing prostitute, I paid her for sex, she had sex. She’s OK with it, I’m OK with it, no problem.” It’s the traffickers and their organizations that we try and prosecute.
MATLACK: Are they mostly sole proprietors, or are there larger networks of human traffickers?
AGENT: There are networks. Some are just very small, one or two people—maybe a couple of brothers or something—and others are a little bit bigger. For the most part, it’s not like a drug organization, where you have 100 people, from the ones that pick the coca leaves, to making it, turning it into cocaine, and then bringing it from Columbia to wherever, into the United States. They’re usually not that intricate. They do have people in foreign countries that help provide girls, and so there are multiple players that have their own specific roles.
MATLACK: So just walk me through how it works, and how the coercion works, and what kinds of girls end up in this position.
AGENT: What’s common in some of the sex trafficking from other countries, like Mexico, for example, is that it kind of tells a story. The girls meet this guy who treats them like gold, and promises them the world and tell them, “Hey, we can go to the United States, there’s work over there, and we can make money and send money back our families, and save money so we can build our own house in Mexico eventually …” So they get these girls and basically jerk them around, into falling in love with them. And once they’re here in the U.S., all of a sudden, the grass isn’t so green, or work’s not there, and then right off the bat it’s sort of, “Hey, well, you’re here now, you belong to me, this is what you’re going to do.” Or they sometimes take a little more of a softer approach: “You know, times are tough, we need to pay rent, this is something you can do to help. You don’t need to do it for long, just bring in some extra money.” So psychologically, a lot of the times the guys take over these girls, and next thing you know, the girls are being forced against their will into it.
And usually, when the time comes where they say no, there’s a lot of physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse. I mean, a lot of these women feel like they’re worthless at this point, and they don’t know what else to do. Some girls think this guy really loves them and knows what is best. It’s amazing—we have girls in front of us that we know are victims, and even though they didn’t want to do this, they don’t see themselves as victims right off the bat. They thought that they were doing it because they love this guy, and he’s the best thing ever, and he wouldn’t do that to them. The guys have such a hold on them mentally.
And there are times where they’ll force these girls in with drugs. They’ll get the girls hooked on narcotics, heroin, cocaine, whatever it may be. Then it gets to the point where girls can become so addicted to that that that’s the only way that they’ll be able to get their fix is to go out and do this. Between the mental, physical, and verbal abuse, the traffickers usually have such a strong hold over these girls that they have no control over what is happening to them. And they have no control, for the most part, of being able to get out of it.
MATLACK: What’s the youngest girl in a case that you’ve been involved with?
AGENT: I think she was 13.
MATLACK: So if you can’t get them to admit, you can’t prosecute, even if you have other evidence?
AGENT: We can. We can use other evidence that has been gathered during the investigation to use that against her traffickers.
MATLACK: So in the cases where you are able to intervene and prosecute, what happens to these girls?
AGENT: We have a guy that’s assigned to us full-time; he’s called the victim assistance coordinator. He’s not a gun-carrying, badge-carrying person. He’s a licensed therapist. If we find the girls, besides him being able to talk to these girls, he also helps set up getting them to a shelter, getting them whatever sort of treatments they need. That’s what we try to take care of first. If it’s a minor, obviously they go right to a shelter because of her age. But, again, she has to want that. We can’t force anything on these girls.
And then, later on down the road, depending on where the person is from, if she is from another country and here illegally, there are things that we can do to help give her status, whether it be temporary or permanent while we investigate and seek help.
MATLACK: Do you know what the recidivism rate is?
AGENT: I don’t know, but that is always a concern of ours—that the girl could go back to what she was doing. Often, too, these traffickers will threaten the girls’ families, and that’s one of the big problems we have because these girls have been told, “I know who your mom is, I know who your sister is, where they live. If you ever say anything to the police, we’ll kill your family, and we’ll kill your kid.” There’s usually a lot of threats that keep these girls from running away or turning themselves in to the police.
MATLACK: How do you convince them to believe that those threats aren’t real?
AGENT: Well, we don’t necessarily try to convince them that the threats aren’t real, because we don’t know if they are. But we just try to explain to them that the situation that they’re in is not right, and that we can help them. We do our best to convince them that what has been done to them for so long is evil and wrong. At the end of the day, it’s really up to them. We can’t force them to do anything or say anything, but we do everything within our power to help them realize what happened to them, and what they can do with themselves.
MATLACK: Is there anything that you’re trying to do on your side to offer an alternative, other than getting these girls into a safe place? Or is that just not part of what you’re focused on?
AGENT: Well, it is. There are things in place for us to be able to provide these girls with some sort of immigration relief. I’m talking about a girl from a foreign country. There are visas for trafficking victims, that, if she is a documented trafficking victim, she can apply for. So, that being said, besides the help that we offer them right off the bat, trying to get them into the shelter, I do my best to explain that, first of all, it isn’t right what was done to them. Nobody should ever have to go through that.
But they need to ask, because, at the end of the day, if the girl is from a foreign country and just says, “You know, send me home, I’m illegal, I want to go back to Mexico,” or “I want to go back to Brazil,” if that’s really what she wants, and that’s what she asks for, we can’t stop that from happening. But we do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen, because we know that she’ll go back there, and she’ll be back in the same position.
MATLACK: And in terms of the federal government’s stance on this being human slavery, how seriously do you think the government’s taking this?
AGENT: They take it very seriously. Human trafficking is basically at the forefront of my agency, Homeland Security Investigations. There’s lots of attention, lots of resources, lots of money put into it to make sure that we can do our job as effectively as possible.
MATLACK: I was listening to the Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department talking about how we’ve measured human trafficking all around the world and never measured ourselves, and now we’re beginning to do that because, obviously, there is human trafficking here. Do you have any sense of how we compare to other countries?
AGENT: I really don’t know. But we can’t be too far behind, and I think that our government is realizing that, and the people are realizing that. People do think, “Oh, that happens somewhere else, not here in the United States,” but every day it seems to surface somewhere. So if I were to take a guess, I would say we’re about as high as most countries. We’re probably not at the top, definitely not at the bottom, but I don’t think we’re lacking in terms of human trafficking that is occurring in the United States.
MATLACK: How do we solve the problem?
AGENT: Like anything else, education and information. Like I said, I don’t think most people really realize what human trafficking is, but more and more people know what it is. I find myself having fewer people say, “Oh, human trafficking? You mean like the people just jumping the border from Mexico?” And then I have to explain to them that no, that’s not it. But education, educating the populace, putting it out there, letting people know what it is and how they can stop it.
Do I think it’ll ever stop? No. It’s a moneymaker, and therefore there will always be somebody who will want to make an easy dollar. Whether or not that’s manipulating another person to make that dollar, it doesn’t matter.
MATLACK: How do you think about it compared to the sex trade in general, whether it’s stripping or non-human trafficking prostitution, or whatever? Do you think they’re related in any way, or is it a completely different kettle of fish?
AGENT: Like just regular prostitution?
MATLACK: Regular prostitution, stripping, porn. There’s obviously a great proliferation of the sex trade in general. I’m just wondering whether you think that’s at all related to sex slavery, or if it’s just a kind of completely different thing.
AGENT: I don’t really know. Do I think that the porn industry has anything to do with human trafficking? No. Prostitution, obviously, like everybody says, is one of the oldest businesses, one of the oldest jobs in the world. It’s not going away. Are there outside things that influence it? Yeah, probably, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the porn business, or the stripping, or stuff like that, really has anything to do with it. It’s not even a fine line. It’s a pretty distinct line between willing and not willing. So I can’t really say one way or the other. But there’s a big distinction between human trafficking and just prostitution.
In the United States, because there is such a correlation between child sexual abuse and child prostitution, a lot of times it might be somebody who has that ability to figure out which are the vulnerable girls, whether it’s eighth, ninth, tenth graders. Maybe they have been abused at home. Maybe they’re willing to run away from—mom has a new boyfriend or what have you or they might be wrestling with an addiction.
The pimps seem to be able to look at the women around them, look at the girls around them, find that vulnerability. But then, they basically offer glamour, a better life, even love. So it’s very similar to what we see with international trafficking as well. It’s basically they offer hope, and they deliver with a nightmare.
We have a president who has the Emancipation Proclamation in his office, not a copy, the Emancipation Proclamation. And I think that he sees it, and I certainly see it in the work that I do, as we’re delivering on a promise that was made 150 years ago by President Lincoln and by the people who went and fought for freedom. So I think it’s entirely appropriate for us to call this a modern abolitionist movement.
—Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. State Department
Learn more about human trafficking at Polaris Project, an NGO dedicated to “combating all forms of human trafficking and serving U.S. citizens and foreign national victims, including men, women, and children.”