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Experts Say Human Trafficking A Major Problem In U.S.

Three suspected Uzbek sex workers (file photo)
WASHINGTON -- Every year, the U.S. State Department issues a report on the status of human trafficking around the world. These documents focus only on the practice and impact of modern slavery in foreign lands. But two experts told a Washington conference on human trafficking on July 10 that the problem is especially problematic in the United States itself.

Laura Lederer, a leading State Department official on human trafficking, opened the conference with a sobering statistic.

"Human trafficking is the third-largest global criminal enterprise, exceeded only by drug and arms trafficking, as many of you have heard over and over again," she said. "We have some very basic statistics on human trafficking. We've looked at this mainly as a law enforcement issue and as a human rights issue. But it is also an industry. By some estimates, the industry is growing, and the [worldwide] illegitimate gain from the industry is as high as $32 billion per year."

But while so much attention has been put on the problem of human trafficking in other countries, Lederer and two others put the focus at the Washington conference on how big the problem is in the United States.

Bradley Myles, who specializes in fighting human trafficking, focused his presentation on how trafficking works. Louise Shelley, the founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center in Washington, spoke of how the traffickers make their money.

Sex-Trafficking Hotline

Understand these two aspects of human trafficking, Lederer said, can help Americans do a better job of fighting the practice.

Myles said it's always difficult to determine just how a criminal enterprise works. Each organization is unique, he said, and none is eager to publicize its secrets.

But Myles said his organization, the Polaris Project, has ways to observe how sex-trafficking rings work. For example, he said, a sex-trafficking hotline run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a federal cabinet agency, has been a great help in rescuing victims of the domestic network and bringing its organizers to justice.

Myles said information from the hotline also gives researchers like him a broad overview that's confirmed by more direct observation in selected U.S. cities.

"So what we've been able to see from the work on the national hotline is sort of a 'bird's-eye view' of different trends that are emerging and different types of sex trafficking that are emerging around the country," he said. "And then we're also doing some local work on the ground here in Washington, D.C., and in some of our other offices around the country. And what we're able to see with some of our local work on the ground is we're able to confirm what we're hearing on the national hotline."

There are several kinds of sex trafficking networks in the United States. One is typified by Asian immigrants, and it often breaks down into three kinds of services -- the massage parlor, the brothel hidden in a legitimate business, and the so-called "hostess clubs" or "room salons," which are modeled after men's clubs.

According to Myles, all sell sex, all are linked to organized crime, and all cater almost exclusively to Asian men. And they keep their activities safe by keeping their clientele small.

Sharing Workers

What's more, Myles said, all three kinds of sex operations share workers.

"The women from these networks all interlink and all interchange," he said. "So one of the women in the massage parlors may have just been in one of the residential brothels, and then previously -- before that -- has just been in one of the 'room salons.' Or vice versa: One of the women in the room salons has just moved on to one of the massage parlors. So if you're talking to a group of women [in the sex trade], you'll realize that this network -- this triangulation of these three [business] models -- are all feeding from the same source of women who are being victimized."

As for making money, Shelley told the conference that there's no shortage of men in the United States who create a demand for sexual services, and there's no shortage of sex workers, either.

Shelley said the vast majority of sex-trafficking victims in the United States are Americans, and predominantly young Americans. She estimated their number as ranging from 100,000 to 300,000, compared with imported sex workers numbering between 14,500 and 17,500 from Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet-bloc countries.

Most of these young sex workers, Shelley said, are teenage runaways.

"This is important because we are the only advanced democracy in the world that has the preponderance of its victims be its own citizens and have it be youth," Shelley said. "And this is something that we're not paying enough attention to. We have an enormous problem of victimization in our country, and a vulnerability, and we're not talking enough about it, and we're not doing enough about it."

Who are the traffickers? Shelley said there are many kinds, according the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, the nationwide law enforcement agency. They range from organized crime syndicates, smaller family operations, common pimps, and motorcycle gangs.

Handsome Profits

Among these traffickers, Shelley said, are diplomats and foreign business executives. She said they're often involved in what she called "domestic servitude," but occasionally they actually sell these servants into the sex trade.

The foreign nationals involved in human trafficking don't always operate on a large scale, Shelley says, but that doesn't mean they don't occasionally turn handsome profits. She pointed to two university professors from Uzbekistan living in Texas who victimized two young Uzbek girls and managed to make $400,000 in 18 months.

While Shelley believes American society is doing too little to address the problem of human sex trafficking in the United States, that doesn't mean law enforcement agencies aren't trying hard enough.

During a question-and-answer session after their presentation, one questioner asked whether police forces, who receive valuable information from Myles' operation, respond by cracking down on sex trafficking in their jurisdictions.

Myles replied that several factors affect the police response.

"In terms of the law enforcement response, I'd say it varies based on the capacity of law enforcement. It varies based on the level of training and sensitivity of the local law enforcement department that's been trained on the issue. It also varies based on what are some of the other competing crime priorities that department is dealing with," Myles said. "So if there's been a spike in murders or a spike in robberies in a given area, that's going to affect their ability to focus on trafficking. But what we've seen is -- I think it's been a largely positive response."

Myles said police usually are glad to receive tips from citizens about human trafficking in their areas, and they often respond quickly to the tips. In many cases, he said, information from a single citizen has been instrumental in leading police to bring down large prostitution rings.