It’s been over 140 years since the United States abolished slavery. Prior to that, human beings were captured, often from foreign countries, and forcibly brought to the Sates where they would be used as a cheap source of labor. Often the slaves were abused – both physically, sexually, and emotionally. As civilization matured, the people began to recognize the atrocity of the practice and slowly, over time, slavery was deemed illegal in country after country. Modern readers recognize enslaving someone against their will as shocking, appalling, and nearly beyond belief. What many fail to recognize however, is that the practice of slavery never truly ended.
“Mary” was a newly married woman with a handsome husband and beautiful baby boy. Shortly after their marriage, her entire family was “captured” and forced into slave labor. Husband was separated from the wife and forced to pull plows in the field. He was fed so little that he eventually died of malnutrition. Mary worked hard in the fields too – so hard that she could not produce milk for her baby son. He died of starvation in her arms.
“Mary” is currently alive and well and working diligently to help stop “human trafficking” – a widespread problem that still takes place in countries around the world – including the United States. 140 years after the U.S. abolished slavery, an estimated 1 to 4 million persons are routinely bought and sold each year in countries around the world – most of these victims are women and children.
Human trafficking in the United States
Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying “”Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery” in Washington’s fifth annual “Trafficking in Persons” report. This shocking report revealed that fully half of the millions of victims are children and 80 percent are female. Victims’ countries of origin are typically economically disadvantaged countries – countries where both victims and perpetrators may deem any life better than status quo. Countries of destination typically include economically powerful countries such as Australia, Western Europe, and yes, the United States. The CIA recently estimated that 50,000 women and children are trafficked to the United States each year. They reported cases of Latvian women trafficked to Chicago, Mexican women and children trafficked to Florida, Ukrainian women and children trafficked to Los Angeles, and Japanese women trafficked to Hawaii. In almost all cases, these victims are forced into prostitution where a single child can earn a trafficker upwards of $30,000 or more per year while requiring very little “overhear” to sustain “the product”.
The supply of victims is replenished in several different ways. In some cases, the victims are deceived into believing that there exist many opportunities in the country of their destination. Once they arrive at the destination they soon discover that they are beaten if they complain or earn little or no money for their services.
In other cases, “debt bondage” is used to secure victims. The practice is notoriously popular in Cambodia whereby family members or even friends will sell a child or woman for employment. In 2007, the price for a women or young girl was $500 – $700. Little inquiry is made as to what type of employment is involved and the unwilling victim is left to “repay” the debt by whatever means and rate their owner prescribes. The victims will typically be charged outlandish “rent” rates for the right to live in deplorable living conditions. The rates charged will exceed the slaves meager “income” making it impossible for the victim to ever dig their way out of the hell they are placed in. Birth documents and other forms of identification are stripped from the victim so they in effect, become nameless.
And yes, a popular form of recruitment, especially for acquisition of small children, is kidnapping the victim straight off the street.
Human trafficking occurs in the United States too. 15-year-old Melissa, was a straight A student in Phoenix, Arizona. One night her friend Joanne, asked her to spend the night. Melissa agreed and wearing Sponge Box pajamas, she waited for Joanne at the curb. Joanne arrived in a Cadillac driven by two young men. Joanne stepped out of the car and they began to talk. As she leaned forward toward the open car door, Joanne pushed Melissa into the back seat of the vehicle.
One of the men immediately told Melissa that they would shoot Joanne if she did not comply. Joanne then taped Melissa’s wrist behind her back and put tape over her eyes. They drove around for a few hours and eventually stopped at an apartment 25 miles away. One of the men put a gun to her head and asked how she would like to die – shot in the head, the chest, or the stomach. He then pulled the trigger. Melissa heard an empty “click” and the man began laughing.
At the apartment, Melissa was then gang raped by the two young men. She heard a middle aged man in the other room call out, “bring her here and let me see what I’m working with.” He then raped her. Four more men entered the room and also raped her. Then they began to break her down.
They would ask Melissa if she was hungry and if she said “yes”, the would give her a dog biscuit to eat. She was forced to sleep in a crate so small that when she awoke, her legs and arms would be numb. During this time, men were brought to the apartment and allowed to have sex with her. She soon discovered that they were paying for the sex and she realized she was being used as a prostitute. She estimates 50 men slept with her during her stay at the apartment.
Her captors methodically threatened to kill her family, describing in detail what they would do to them if she tried to escape. They described how they would kill her small sister with battery acid and what they would do to her mother before they killed her. Melissa later told police later that she cooperated and did her best to please her captors for fear of the safety of her family.
After 40 days of captivity, police received a tip that a young girl was being held captive in the apartment. They obtained a warrant and searched the home but found no trace of the little girl. Not giving up, they returned a week later and conducted another search of the premises. This time they shocked to find why they had not discovered her the first time. Melissa had been stuffed into a small drawer and tucked under the bed. Melissa explained that she had heard them searching the apartment but was too scared to say anything.
FBI bust for human trafficking customers
The case started in 2012, when agents were alerted to an advertisement from Malaysia on the now-defunct bondage website collarme.com, purporting to sell kidnapped Asian women “who are naturally very obedient.” The online solicitation turned out to be a money-making scam but the response from potential customers in the U.S.—nearly 200 inquiries during a two-month period—was “alarming.” After the fraudulent advertisement was removed from the website and the FBI referred the matter to Malaysian authorities, Blay and his team devised an undercover operation targeting the same clientele.
“The idea was to be proactive, to identify these individuals and stop them before they could actually victimize anyone.”
The FBI created an undercover platform advertising kidnapped women for sale as sexual and domestic slaves.
“Almost immediately there were responses. We weren’t interested in individuals who were just pursuing some sort of fantasy. The only people we wanted were those who were serious about buying kidnapped women.”
The undercover operative posing as the seller actually tried to talk people out of it. He stressed that these women would be taken against their will and the transaction would be illegal in every possible way.
More than 100 people responded, and most dropped out quickly. But four individuals were anxious to proceed—and willing to pay thousands of dollars for a sex slave.
“All of them said this was something they had wanted to do for a long time.”
The undercover operative told the four buyers he was connected to a human trafficking group that would identify foreign females in the U.S. on temporary visas, kidnap them, and sell them into a life of slavery. The operative also said his organization held a biannual auction, where the women would be sold to the highest bidders.
The four individuals—two from Arizona, one from Montana, and one from California—were in their 50s and 60s. One was an engineer with a Top Secret government clearance. Another was a financial analyst. The Montana man was going to pay $10,000 for two women. When he flew to Phoenix in May 2014 to make the purchase, he was carrying u-bolts to bind the women’s wrists and gags to keep them quiet. He planned to transport them back to Montana in a recreational vehicle. The man told the undercover operative he had a fully functional dungeon in the basement of his home.
“When we eventually conducted searches, all the subjects had basically manufactured rooms in their homes to be prison cells. There were bars on windows, obscured glass, and insulation so no one could see or hear the women from the outside. One guy bolted chains in the floorboards of a room.”
The four men were indicted on human trafficking charges between December 2013 and May 2014. They all pled guilty, and in September 2015, an Arizona federal judge sentenced them to prison terms ranging from seven to nine years.
The Snakehead Queen
She was once one of the most powerful underworld figures in New York. To her associates and followers, she was “the Mother of all Snakeheads” (criminal slang for human smugglers). In Chinatown, she was affectionately called “Sister Ping.” Now, following Thursday’s sentencing in a U.S. District Court, Cheng Chui Ping faces 35 years in jail. Her crimes? Extensive…and lucrative. For more than a decade, Cheng smuggled as many as 3,000 illegal immigrants from her native China into the U.S.—collecting more than $40 million from immigrants by charging upwards of $40,000.
Her methods? Brutal. Cheng allowed some customers to pay part of their fee, but once in the U.S. they were held or threatened with violence until the balance was paid. Cheng often employed the notoriously violent Fuk Chin Gang for muscle.
Conditions aboard the smuggling vessels were often inhumane. In June 1993, a rickety cargo ship named the Golden Venture carrying some 300 illegal immigrants ran aground off the coast of Queens, New York, after a miserable three-month voyage. Ten immigrants, including one of Sister Ping’s customers, drowned while trying to swim to safety.
Cheng—once an illegal immigrant herself—started her smuggling service shortly after she entered the U.S. in 1981. Her business flourished and she joined with other snakeheads to buy ships that could carry more desperate immigrants at a time. During the early 1990s, she ruled her enterprise from a variety store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Using her illegal proceeds, she also ran a legitimate travel agency and real estate company. Many customers were illegal aliens she’d smuggled into the country. At the height of her operations, she owned restaurants, a clothing store, and real estate in Chinatown, as well as apartments in Hong Kong and a farm in South Africa.
After her indictment, Cheng fled to China, where she continued to run a smuggling operation. In April 2000, Hong Kong police on the lookout for the FBI arrested her at the airport. Cheng fought extradition to this country, but was eventually delivered to the U.S. in July 2003.
How to spot a human trafficking victim
Victims of human trafficking are unusually difficult to spot, particularly since they are often kept out of site or in the case of prostitution, are usually only seen in the seediest parts of town. Some things to look for include:
1. People who lack basic English skills and/or seem afraid to communicate.
2. People whose freedom of movement seems curtailed.
3. A child who is in a living situation that seems strange, one who does housework at odd hours, who does not play with other children or go to school.
4. Properties that seem designed to keep people in rather than intruders out or properties with an unusual degree of protection (e.g. razor wire).
5. People who seem physically and psychologically abused
6. Brothels or massage parlors that pop up in residential areas with mostly foreign women or girls.
7. A factory that seems to employ persons who fit the above descriptions.