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Catching and Convicting Human Traffickers Still a Tough Job
June 9, 2010


Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

09 June 2010

Law enforcement skills need further improvement, U.S. official says

By Jane Morse
Staff Writer

Washington — More than 12 million people worldwide are trafficked for labor and sex each year, according to estimates by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Yet in 2008, fewer than 3,000 convictions of traffickers were reported.

If most of the world condemns human trafficking as modern-day slavery, why are so few of the “bad guys” facing justice?

According to Luis CdeBaca, the reason lies in the nature of the crime itself and the need for law enforcement to develop better skills.

CdeBaca, as ambassador-at-large for the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, coordinates U.S. government activities in the global fight against contemporary forms of slavery. He is the first former prosecutor to hold that position, having previously served at the U.S. Justice Department, where he was one of the country’s most-decorated federal prosecutors.


Human trafficking — unlike a crime such as bank robbery — is a hidden crime, CdeBaca told America.gov in a recent interview. “The perpetrator, if they’re successful, has basically kept somebody behind closed doors — kept them working, kept them in prostitution,” he explained. “So if the trafficker does their job right, nobody finds out about the trafficking situation.”

The profits generated by human trafficking are huge: Some $31 billion a year according to ILO estimates. These ill-gotten profits are enjoyed by organized criminal groups as well as individuals, according to CdeBaca.

“One of the things that make it hard to have a one-size-fits-all response to human trafficking is that it manifests itself in so many different ways,” CdeBaca said. “If you’re only thinking of it as a transnational organized crime problem, you start looking for ‘Mr. Big.’ That doesn’t find those two victims being held in a barn somewhere by a farmer, or the one victim being held behind closed doors as a domestic servant.”

Enslaving another person, CdeBaca said, is an easy enough crime to carry out. In the United States, he said, “we’ve had everybody from organized crime figures to suburban, two-doctor couples be convicted of this crime. … It’s not simply criminals who do it; it’s people who normally would not be engaging in criminal activity.”

Many trafficking victims enter a country legally under guest-worker programs and end up being held by an abusive employer. The difference between an ill-treated worker and a trafficking victim, CdeBaca explained, is that trafficking victims have no reasonable alternative but to continue to perform their service lest they suffer serious harm.


Although about half the governments worldwide have adopted laws prohibiting human trafficking, many are quite recent.

“I think one of the reasons why there’s not as many prosecutions as we’d like to see is that these laws are so new, and that the skill set in being able to find the victims and help them … is just being developed,” CdeBaca said.

“I think the street police are important, but at the end of the day, this is a complex crime that has to be dealt with by the detectives,” he said. “You have to have the most sophisticated policing put on this crime; otherwise you’re never going to put an end to it.”

But simply putting criminals in jail isn’t going to solve the problem for the victim, CdeBaca said: Victim counseling is critical.

In the United States, law enforcement officials are coming to realize that victim rights and the needs of the prosecution are actually the same thing, CdeBaca said.

“If your victim is scared, if your victim is still suffering trauma, if they haven’t had psychological counseling, if they don’t trust you, then you are not going to have a good witness, and you’re probably not going to put the trafficker in jail,” CdeBaca said.

In many parts of the world, law enforcement is not trusted because the police are also committing human rights abuses, he acknowledged. Nonetheless, the overall situation is improving.

“The biggest thing that I’ve seen is a move away from having an announced but not enforced human rights standard over to a situation where we expect, even demand, that law enforcement and governments not just prosecute people, but protect the victims,” CdeBaca said. “That’s the big cultural shift that I’ve seen in the last 15 years, and it’s happening in some very surprising places.”

The State Department issues an annual report on human trafficking. The report seeks to increase global awareness of human trafficking, to highlight national and international efforts to combat it and to encourage foreign governments to take action against all forms of modern-day slavery. The Trafficking in Persons Report for 2010 is scheduled to be released June 14.