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Sinister Industry


The Galapagos Islands are famed for the extraordinary wildlife that evolved in relative isolation some 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean from the mainland coast of Ecuador.

But the islands are not isolated enough to escape one of the most sinister criminal scourges of modern times–human trafficking. The exploding scope of the modern trade in human beings has begun to draw attention from governments, human rights organizations and legal groups like the ABA.

Human trafficking “is the fastest-growing and third-largest criminal industry in the world today after the arms and drugs trades, generating billions in profits each year,” states the ABA Center for Human Rights in the introduction to its resource manual on the issue published in October.

“Sex trafficking is the most lucrative of trafficking efforts and involves sexual exploitation in prostitution or pornography, bride trafficking or the commercial or sexual abuse of children. Millions of innocents are victimized each year in this contemporary form of slavery; thousands are trafficked within the U.S. alone.”

The U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” issued in June, estimates that some 12.3 million people are enslaved in forced labor, bonded labor, sexual servitude and involuntary servitude at any given time around the world. That includes the U.S., where the FBI estimates that human trafficking generates $9.5 billion annually.

Actually, human traffickers “could be making much more money” in the United States than suggested by government estimates, which are based only on information from traffickers who have been apprehended, says Andreea Vesa, a senior legal analyst working on human rights issues with the ABA’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative. The victims, she notes, “are people who are trafficked into the U.S– from Mexico to the southern United States and Asia to California, and by the Russian mafia into New York.”

The State Department report notes that the victims of human trafficking “are as diverse as the world’s cultures. Some leave developing countries seeking to improve their lives through low-skilled jobs in more prosperous countries. Others fall victim to forced or bonded labor in their own countries. Some families give children to related or unrelated adults who promise education and opportunity–but deliver the children into slavery for money.”

An Unseen Crime

But human trafficking goes largely unnoticed, says Jerome J. Shestack of Philadelphia, an ABA past president who co-chairs the Human Rights Center with Steven T. Walther of Reno, Nev. Part of the reason, says Shestack, is that victims often are reluctant to testify against their captors.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do is muster interest,” he says about the efforts of the Human Rights Center.

Other ABA entities also are involved in the growing international effort to fight human trafficking.

In 2004, the Latin America and Caribbean Law Initiative Council launched its Project to Combat Trafficking in Persons in Ecuador. The project is funded by the State Department’s Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons. The American Bar Foundation also supports the project.

The project was part of the response to Ecuadorian authorities’ 2003 arrest of a couple who ran a dance studio on the Galapagos Islands on charges that they exploited some 50 children for Internet pornography, says Salvador A. Cicero, director of the project. (While Ecuador maintains 90 percent of the Galapagos as a national park, the islands also are home to some 12,000 residents.)

“These people would feed them popcorn laced with cocaine and pizza laced with marijuana and other drugs,” Cicero says. “They would drug the children who went to their dance academy, and then they would rape them and make pornographic pictures. The guy would rape them and the woman would record them.”

But Ecuador did not have a law on human trafficking when the couple was arrested, Cicero says. Each was sentenced to a 25-year prison term for violating Ecuador’s drug laws (which carry a harsher sentence than child-abuse laws).

“This was the case that gave evidence that they really needed to do something about the problem,” Cicero says. “People were coming to Ecuador to buy this. That was the case that made the government pull the ABA in because it was so grotesque.”

The human-trafficking law adopted by the Ecuadorian Congress in June was drafted largely by lawyers from the United States and Ecuador working with the trafficking project of the Latin America law initiative. Lawyers from the project are now assisting in efforts to help Ecuadorian law enforcement agencies develop enforcement mechanisms. When the Ecuadorian supreme court asked the ABA for help in drafting anti-trafficking legislation in 2004, Ecuador was in danger of sanctions from the U.S. government under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that could have affected its military funding, says Cicero.

The act established a three-tier system for rating the efforts of countries to address human trafficking, and Ecuador had dropped down to the lowest rating for its lack of enforcement efforts before adopting its new law.

“We have had the cooperation of the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, and we are very satisfied” with the final version of the law, says Armando E. LaCasa of Miami, who chairs the Latin America and Caribbean Law Initiative Council.

“I hope this will serve as the basis to go into other countries,” LaCasa says. “There are several countries in Latin America where there is a need.”

Issues in Ecuador

While the Galapagos case involved child pornography, human trafficking also takes other forms in Ecuador, says Luis Velez, an Ecuadorian attorney based in Miami who serves on the advisory committee for the trafficking project.

First, he says, there is the problem of Colombian girls forced into prostitution in Ecuador, where they command a high price because they are considered exotic. The other concern, Velez says, is Ecuadorians lured overseas with the promise of a good job who end up in prostitution.

“Because it’s a very poor country, the poor people try to go out of Ecuador, especially to Europe and the United States,” Velez says. “The girls or the girls’ parents think they are going to find a job. But it is really not a job. They are kept like slaves. They go to Europe and think they are going to work as top models. But as a matter of fact, this is not true. They have to work as a prostitute in order to pay for their airline ticket and expenses.” But human trafficking patterns work in both directions, according to project director Cicero.

“In Colombia, Ecuadorian kids are trafficked there for begging,” he says. “There are kids begging in the streets. They follow you. They are persistent to the point of being annoying. Apparently some of them walk back to Ecuador with drugs. Sometimes they are kidnapped. Sometimes their parents are talked into it. Trafficking is usually done by people you know.”

Campaign in Africa

While the Latin America Law Initiative continues its work, another ABA entity–ABA-Africa–is fighting against human trafficking on another continent.

In 2004, ABA-Africa started a two-year campaign against human trafficking that focuses on East Africa, particularly Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The project concentrates on educating judges, lawyers and human rights advocates in the region about the trafficking problem, highlighting the issue in the news media, and helping provide legal aid to victims. The project also convened the first-ever conference in East Africa on the human-trafficking problem.

The project is exploring possible legislative initiatives as well, says Vernice I. Guthrie-Sullivan, the staff director for ABA-Africa.

“There is no overarching trafficking law in any of the East African countries,” says Guthrie-Sullivan. “A law has been introduced in Kenya, and we are working to support a law in Uganda and eventually in Tanzania.”

Beyond its tragic toll on individuals, one of the greatest dangers of human trafficking is its insidious nature. Human trafficking, experts say, is not a stand-alone crime. Often it is intertwined with money laundering, drug trafficking, document forgery and human smuggling.

Traffickers “are people who are also part of organized crime groups and could be doing other unauthorized activity,” says Vesa of CEELI. “We’re not able to list how many traffickers are out there. There are those who peddle their own kids. India is a big place where that happens, as are Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.”

Traffickers tend to target an area repeatedly once they succeed in obtaining their first victim there.

“The profits from trafficking allow the practice to take root in a particular community, which is then repeatedly exploited as a ready source of victims,” notes the State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report.”

At the same time, many countries, including Ecuador, lack the necessary social services infrastructure to help human-trafficking victims rejoin society, say Cicero and other experts.

“Ecuador is not set up to accommodate these people,” Cicero says. “There are no shelters, no programs to help them reinsert themselves into society. These people are vulnerable,” which only makes it possible for traffickers to victimize them again. Traffickers search for victims “the way lions look at a herd,” he says. “They look for the easy target.”

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