Monday, August 15, 2011

Human trafficking summit explores darker side

Human trafficking summit explores darker side

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The state's most powerful law enforcement officials held a summit on Monday seeking new solutions to combat the age-old problem of human trafficking. The stories they heard were as disturbing as they were unfortunately familiar.

The summit at Georgia State University drew more than 400 attendees with speakers including Gov. Nathan Deal, GBI Director Vernon Keenan, state Attorney General Sam Olens and U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates, along with representatives from several nonprofit organizations.

They heard from a panel of victims like "Sara" and "Kristina," who used pseudonyms to protect their identities.

They were victims of a band of five men who brought young women into the United States with promises to marry and find good jobs. But once the victims crossed the border illegally into Arizona, the suspects obtained fake ID's for the women, flew them to Atlanta and forced them into prostitution.

The ringleader, Amador Cortes-Meza, 36, was sentenced in federal court earlier this year to 40 years in prison.

Sara said she was still in high school in Mexico when the ringleader's cousin wooed her. He asked her mother for permission to take her to a carnaval celebration in his hometown. But he refused to bring her home afterward. She said, "By now, I was his woman."

He told her they were going to the U.S. to work, save money and get married.

Kristina said Cortes-Meza told her the same lies. Like Sara, she was forced into prostitution and wound up being compelled to have sex with as many as 30 men per night for money that their pimps pocketed. Taxi drivers took the women to customers' houses. Anyone who balked was beaten or threatened.

"I told him I didn't want to go," said Kristina. "I told him I come from a humble home. I never wanted to do this."

The FBI recently recognized Atlanta as one of 14 cities in the nation with the highest incidences of children used in prostitution. And the Georgia Care Connection, a program of the Governor's Office for Children and Families that cares for victims of child sex trafficking, has handled 255 victim referrals since the program began in June 2009.

But human trafficking is not limited to sexual slavery nor to children, although those cases can be the most disturbing, Yates said. It also takes the form of forced labor for the agriculture and restaurant industries and domestic servitude.

There is hope, because heightened attention to the problem has spurred government action.

The U.S. departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Labor announced last week that Atlanta had been selected as a site for one of six anti-trafficking coordination teams. The others sites are El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Memphis; and Miami.

The GBI also formed a human trafficking unit with four investigators on July 1, according to GBI Director Vernon Keenan.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard urged police and prosecutors to designate a person in their office to handle human trafficking cases, so they can be trained to recognize human trafficking. Howard said he will prosecute his 47th pimp case next week.

Few haunt him like Charles Floyd Pipkins, aka "Sir Charles," and Andrew Moore, aka "Batman," who were convicted in 2002 of federal charges related to coercion of young girls into prostitution. In the trunk of a car seized in connection with their case, authorities found photographs of the girls that had been forced into the sex trade.

"One of them was holding a teddy bear and wearing a negligee," Howard said. "She was only about 5 years old."

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