Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Re “Slavery and the Shrimp on Your Plate”

The State Department is to be congratulated for sending a strong message to the Thai government that it must end slavery in its seafood industry. Even allies must learn that turning a blind eye to human trafficking has costs and consequences.
But you are also right that this does not let the businesses that import this tainted seafood, or the consumers who buy it, off the hook. Good corporate intentions are worthless unless contracts are terminated when abuse is exposed. Concerned consumers must make clear that they won’t buy food caught by slaves and won’t spend money with stores that think they will.
These efforts must be coupled with support for those grass-roots organizations already working to free these modern slaves and help them recover from the abuses they have suffered. But this won’t work without concerted efforts to tackle the lack of opportunity that forced them into the hands of the trafficking gangs in the first place.
London, June 23, 2014
The writer is chief executive of the Freedom Fund,  a private donor fund dedicated to ending slavery.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

F.B.I. Cracks Down on Sex Trafficking

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The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, on Monday said that in the past week law enforcement authorities had arrested 281 pimps and recovered 168 child prostitutes in a nationwide sex trafficking sting. The arrests and recoveries were made in 106 cities, and roughly 10 percent of the prostitutes had been missing from child protective services, the authorities said. In Phoenix, 21 pimps were apprehended, and in Denver 18 prostitutes were recovered, the highest numbers in the operation. More than a dozen children were recovered in other cities, including Chicago and Cleveland.

Documentary film on sex trafficking in Mexico

I am excited to share with you a documentary recently finished by FusionTV (ABC & Univision joint-venture).  The documentary focuses on the Tenancingo sex trafficking trade, and features interviews with one of our seasoned HSI investigators, a U.S. Attorney, and the old brothel footage came from the Carreto case.
The production team traveled to Tenancingo, Mexico for the story, and it is very well done~

Slavery and the Shrimp on Your Plate

Shrimp and other seafood fishing is a big business in Thailand. The industry employs more than
650,000 people and annually produces more than $7 billion in exports that show up on dinner tables all over the world, including in the United States. It also has a horrific dark side. Its reliance on slave labor is so pervasive and ugly that the State Department now lists Thailand as one of the worst violators among 188 countries judged every year on how they deal with human trafficking.Continue reading the main storyShare This Page
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The ratings were begun 14 years ago, after the United States enacted an anti-trafficking law and the United Nations adopted the Palermo Protocol. Both call for countries to criminalize trafficking, punish offenders and provide shelter and support to victims. The State Department’s annual human trafficking report, released on Friday, is an important part of this effort, systematically chronicling abuses and government efforts to stop them.
Thailand has long been a magnet for migrants from neighboring countries. These migrants now number two to three million people. Tens of thousands of them are victims of trafficking — vulnerable men, women and children, some forced into the Thai sex trade, others pushed into garment manufacturing and domestic work. Now comes growing evidence that many are also being exploited in fishing and fishing-related industries.
According to the 432-page report, men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand are forced to work on Thai fishing boats that travel throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. Many pay brokers to help them find work in Thailand, and are then sold to shipowners. Under threat of jail or deportation and desperate for income, they are forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for very low wages, and are often threatened and beaten. The exact scope of this abuse is unknown but the report cited two surveys that suggested between 17 percent and 57 percent of the fishermen were treated this way.
The report builds on recent investigations by Reuters, theEnvironmental Justice Foundation and The Guardian newspaper, which found that slavery is central to the shrimp industry’s success. So is corruption. The State Department said Thai civilian and military officials and the police profited from smuggling members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are fleeing oppression in Myanmar and Bangladesh, into the country, holding them in detention centers and then selling them to brokers and boat owners.
Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States. For two years, the department placed Thailand on a watch list, signifying dissatisfaction with its inaction on human trafficking. Last week, it finally listed Thailand among the worst violators of the standards set in American law, in part because “the government demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.” Malaysia and Venezuela also made the worst list for the first time. There are 20 other countries in this bottom category, including North Korea, Iran and Russia. The United States and 30 other countries in the top category are considered compliant with the standards; the rest are somewhere in between.
The revelations about Thailand should persuade major global corporations, including Costco, Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco, that their business models have to change. They should refuse to import from fishermen or companies that have been reliably identified by watchdog groups as using slave labor. They also need to pressure the Thai government to ensure that abusers who hire trafficked employees are prosecuted and that the victims are protected and treated with respect.
Under American law, aid and other assistance can be withheld if countries do not crack down on trafficking; Washington should not hesitate to use this tool when it can be effective. Consumers have a role to play, too, by refusing to purchase products produced with slave labor.
The saddest part is that Thailand is only one slice of the problem. Slave labor has also been documented on ships flying the flags of Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, among others. It is estimated that there could be 29 million victims of all sorts of human trafficking around the globe, including thousands in the United States.
There has been progress over the past 14 years in raising awareness of the problem and in dealing with it, but as the State Department report all too painfully shows, there is still a long way to go.

Friday, June 20, 2014

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HONG KONG — The State Department released a report Friday that ranked Thailand and Malaysia among the two dozen countries doing the least to fight human trafficking, an embarrassment for the two Southeast Asian nations and a finding that could lead to economic and diplomatic penalties.
The downgrade to so-called Tier 3 status places the countries alongside North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe in the eyes of the State Department, which publishes an annual reportassessing efforts by the world’s governments to combat human trafficking. Thailand now ranks below its neighbor Myanmar, a former Tier 3 country whose State Department rating has improved since it began moving toward democracy in recent years.
“Overall anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts remained insufficient compared with the size of the problem in Thailand, and corruption at all levels hampered the success of these efforts,” the report released on Friday said. “Despite frequent media and NGO reports documenting instances of forced labor and debt bondage among foreign migrants in Thailand’s commercial sectors — including the fishing industry — the government demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.”
Recent reports by The Guardian and others have described the use of forced labor in Thailand’s seafood industry, often involving complicity on the part of Thai officials. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articleslast year, Reuters reported that Thai officials had been involved in selling Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar to human-trafficking rings, which sometimes sold them into servitude on fishing boats. The Thai Navy, some of whose personnel were implicated, has filed a lawsuit accusing two journalists of criminal defamation for printing an excerpt from one of the Reuters articles.
This week, a British researcher, Andy Hall, was detained by a Thai court and had his passport confiscated in connection with criminal defamation charges brought by a Thai food company. Mr. Hall, who was freed on bail, had spoken to Al Jazeera about abusive treatment of migrant workers by the company, Natural Fruit, which Mr. Hall had documented for a Finnish nongovernmental organization. The State Department report calls for such prosecutions of journalists and researchers to cease.
In Malaysia, the report said, many migrant workers are “exploited and subjected to practices indicative of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, deceit and fraud in wages, passport confiscation, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers.” Many foreign women recruited for ostensibly legal work in Malaysia are subsequently coerced into prostitution, the report said.
Because both Thailand and Malaysia had been in a “watch list” category for four consecutive years, both were due for automatic downgrades to Tier 3 this year unless the State Department judged that they had made significant strides in addressing their trafficking problems.
China, which was downgraded to Tier 3 status a year ago, was moved back up a level, to the watch list, in the new report.
Recently, Thailand has argued that its efforts have improved enough for it to avoid a downgrade. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a news release this week that it had substantially more trafficking-related investigations, prosecutions and convictions last year than in 2012. Vijavat Isarabhakdi, the Thai ambassador to the United States, said in the release that Thailand was “committed to eliminating this inhumane exploitation.”
Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador at large at the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that Thailand had indeed shown some improvement, mainly in sex-trafficking cases. But very little progress has been made in prosecuting the widely documented abuses of migrant workers and official complicity in them, he said.
“There’s a reason why so many folks are looking at the abuses in the migrant population there over the last years,” Mr. CdeBaca said. “That’s an area that needs more policing, more enforcement.”
Mr. CdeBaca said it was too early to judge what Thailand’s military coup last month would mean for the country’s human-trafficking problem. The junta has said that it will address the issue of undocumented workers in Thailand, including forced labor, but it has denied engaging in a violent crackdown on illegal migrants, fears of which have apparently prompted hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers to leave the country since last week.
A Tier 3 designation by the State Department does not automatically result in penalties, but it can lead to the United States withholding some forms of aid and cultural exchange, or opposing some kinds of assistance from international bodies like the International Monetary Fund.
Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the annual report was a motivating factor for governments in the region less because of the potential for sanctions than because of the embarrassment of “being grouped into the worst of the worst.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thank you, Tallahassee

Gov. Scott Signs Legislation to Increase Prosecution of Human Trafficking Criminals and Provide Better Services to Survivors

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Today, Governor Rick Scott was joined by Attorney General Pam Bondi, members of Florida Legislature, as well as law enforcement officials, stakeholders, advocates and victims to sign House Bills 989 and 7141 to increase prosecution of human trafficking criminals and provide better services to survivors.

Governor Scott said, “I am so proud to sign these two important bills today that increase protections to victims of human trafficking and increase criminal penalties related to human trafficking. As a father and grandfather, I understand the importance of protecting our children and those who are vulnerable. We must do our part to help restore the sense of security for those who have been victims of human trafficking so they can heal.”

House Bill 989 increases protections to victims of human trafficking.  The bill prohibits minors from working in adult theaters, removes time limitations to allow a prosecution for certain human trafficking offenses to be commenced at any time, creates and increases criminal penalties relating to human trafficking. 

House Bill 7141 provides definitions and makes changes to rules and guidelines to the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and community based care lead agencies in administering safe houses and safe foster homes for children who have been sexually exploited.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “I thank Governor Scott for his support of Florida’s anti-human trafficking efforts. The Statewide Council of Human Trafficking will coordinate and enhance efforts to fight sex trafficking and support victims.”

Niki Cross, survivor and founder of S.T.A.A.R. Ministry, said, “Survivors that have found healing, have a responsibility to mentor and guide others that may not be so fortunate. It doesn't happen overnight and it is a slow process. That is why it is so crucial to have as many resources available as possible. I cannot change my past, but I WILL be a part of changing the future. I was once a victim, now victorious. It will take all of us to make a difference in this fight, but we can do it. As I have often shared so many times before, there is no limit in what good a man can do, as long as he doesn't care who gets the credit.”

Deborah Polston, Florida's Human Trafficking Advocate, said, “Governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi are working hard to eliminate human trafficking in Florida and making the public aware of this heinous criminal activity and the gross injustice to our most vulnerable. Florida is taking an aggressive stance in this human trafficking battle by putting laws into place which protect and defend victims, and prosecute traffickers to the fullest extent of the law. These new laws will allow us to better care for the minor victims of trafficking, protect their rights and privacy, and continue our work at the State level through a more concentrated effort.”

Dotti Groover-Skipper, Chair, FREE Collaborative of the Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking-West Florida said, “As these important human trafficking bills are signed into law, Governor Scott is sending the message that Florida is a ‘no tolerance’ state for the insidious crime of modern day slavery. We must continue to work together, as one powerful voice, to end demand, eradicate this horror, and restore value, dignity, and worth to the precious lives who have been impacted.”

Wansley Walters, Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said, “I am proud of Florida and Governor Scott for taking the steps to further protect the innocent victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. By signing this legislation into law, Florida’s children exposed to the horrific crime of sexual exploitation will now receive the critical services needed to address their unique needs and the trauma they have experienced at the hands of predators.”

Mike Carroll, Interim Secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said, “We are pleased the Governor and Legislature have provided additional resources to serve children and young adults in our communities who are being sexually exploited. It’s crucial for state agencies, law enforcement and community partners to continue to work together and collaborate on our approach to protecting and rehabilitating these young victims.”

Senate President Don Gaetz said, “One thing is sure:  the scourge of human trafficking has come to Florida towns and cities and among its victims are Florida children. This legislation helps fulfill the Joint Work Plan commitment Speaker Weatherford and I made to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Florida will now have stronger laws to go after human traffickers and more resources to comfort and care for those who have been emotionally damaged and physically abused.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford said, “Victims of human trafficking should know they are safe when receiving care from safe houses.  I'm proud of our efforts this year to further crack down on human trafficking in Florida.”

Senator Oscar Braynon said, “Today marks a great change in Florida with the signing of legislation by Governor Scott that ushers in stronger penalties for those who engage in human trafficking.  I took great pride in sponsoring the Senate bill and know it will make a difference in the lives of people who are negatively impacted by human trafficking.”

Senator Joe Negron said, “Governor Scott and the Florida Legislature are taking action to address the terrible issue of human trafficking and providing the Department of Children and Families resources to assess and screen children in their care.”

Senator Tom Lee said, “It is necessary for us to protect the vulnerable in our state and I commend Governor Scott for continuing to put Florida’s families first with this measure.”

Senator Anitere Flores said, “Human trafficking is a terrible crime and I am proud to live in a state that staunchly supports victims and severely penalizes perpetrators.  Governor Scott and the members of the Florida Legislature should be lauded for their support of these two bills.”

Senator Greg Evers said, “Governor Scott’s public signing of HB 989 and HB 7141 will help to raise awareness about human trafficking and will shore up efforts to stop it in Florida.”

Representative Gayle Harrell said, “I am honored to be here with Governor Scott as he signs this significant legislation dealing with Human Trafficking.  I am pleased to have sponsored HB 7141 which will provide certified safe foster homes and safe houses for victims of Human Trafficking.  With this legislation Florida has become a leader in treating children who have been exploited and are victims of what is truly modern day slavery.”

Representative Carlos Trujillo said, “I am proud to have sponsored these legislative changes to allow prosecution for a violation of a human trafficking offense to be commenced at any time and that create more criminal penalties for those involved with human trafficking.  I appreciate Governor Scott extending his support these changes that will allow Florida to prosecute criminals involved in this terrible activity.”

Representative Dana Young said, “The goal is to eliminate the evils of human trafficking and these bills help demonstrate it’s not tolerated in Florida. I am proud to have helped pass these changes to our laws and appreciate Governor Scott signing them.”

Representative Richard Corcoran said, “I am pleased to support this important legislation that says Florida is a zero tolerance state for those who sexually exploit our children.  I’m thankful Governor Scott is publicly signing this critical bill and bringing attention to this very serious issue.”

Representative Matt Hudson said, “I am appreciative of Governor Scott’s support for this legislative change that will benefit Florida families. Among the effects of this legislation, this bill authorizes DCF to certify safe houses and safe foster homes that will provide safe haven for victims of trafficking.”

Representative Erik Fresen said, “It was my privilege to co-sponsor legislation to increase protections for the victims of human trafficking and I thank Governor Scott for signing it in such a public forum.”

Representative Dennis Baxley said, “Human trafficking is the modern form of slavery and a heartbreaking reality of our time. Gov. Scott and the legislature are making clear we will not sit by and allow this abuse of our most vulnerable. We thank Gov. Scott for leading to make Florida a safe place to live and work and a place where every person is valued.”

Representative Matt Gaetz said, “This legislation will help strengthen the punishment for those who engage in this terrible trade. I am proud Florida has a leader in Governor Scott who supports these necessary changes for the protection of young people.”

Representative Ross Spano said, “Victims of human trafficking will get more protections and rights because of this bill; thank you to Governor Scott and the legislative leadership for supporting it.”

Representative Larry Metz said, “Human trafficking is an evil and insidious crime that victimizes the young and vulnerable.  To eliminate it will require strong leadership and an unwavering commitment over time.  Governor Scott continues to lead the way and by signing this important legislation once again demonstrates his commitment to protecting the most vulnerable among us. Thank you Governor for your leadership and for signing these bills today!”

Representative Charles McBurney said, “Today is a very important day in the lives of those who are impacted by human trafficking and I appreciate Governor Scott standing in support of victims’ rights and protections.”

Representative Dwight Dudley said, “I appreciate the leadership of the Florida Legislature for enacting meaningful change for those adversely impacted by human trafficking and I appreciate Governor Scott for signing both bills.”

Representative Irv Slosberg said, “As a Legislature we have made a commitment to crack down on human trafficking and begin a “fresh start” in the state of Florida. It was an honor to be a part of this team of co-sponsors and I thank Governor Scott for signing these bills today.”

Representative Daphne Campbell said, “Human Trafficking is a very serious issue and one that hold with great importance. I am honored that I was able to be co- sponsor to both HB 989 and HB 7141.  I know that the lives of many will be greatly improved with the increased penalties that these bills provide. I would like to extend a sincere thank you to Governor Scott for extending his support for increasing these penalties.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Life Sentences for 2 Sex Traffickers Who Preyed on Mexican Immigrants

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It was a sprawling family business, employing drivers, dispatchers and doormen. There were “steerers” who passed out “chica” cards on the street to solicit customers. There was even a mechanic who swept vehicles for tracking devices that might have been surreptitiously placed by federal agents, prosecutors said.
And, of course, there were the women — smuggled into the United States from Mexico and forced to work in a network of brothels in and around New York City, or shuttled to farms in New Jersey, where they had sex with up to 25 migrant workers a day in sheds in the fields, with men paying about $30 for 15 minutes of sex, the government said.
The ringleaders, Isaias Flores-Mendez, who is about 42, and his brother, Bonifacio, 35, both natives of Mexico, are among 16 people who have now pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the sex-trafficking ring, which was broken up in April 2013.
Most of the defendants will serve prison sentences of five years or less. But in separate hearings last month, a federal judge in Manhattan, Katherine B. Forrest, sentenced each brother to life in prison.
Prosecutors said women at the Elm Street apartment each saw eight to 10 customers a day.CreditUnited States attorney's office for the Southern District of New York
Life sentences are not unprecedented in federal sex-trafficking cases; there have been at least 11 imposed nationally in cases since 2009, according to research by Alexandra F. Levy, a lawyer with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, a group that arranges free legal help for victims.
James T. Hayes Jr., the special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in New York, said the life terms imposed in the state and elsewhere were “a sign of how seriously” judges were taking such cases.
The New York case also highlights how structured such an operation can be; Judge Forrest, of Federal District Court, called it a “vertically integrated enterprise,” as she sentenced the younger brother on May 30.
“Your criminal enterprise,” the judge said, “was, for these women, not a chosen way of life but living in a daily hell.”
A prosecutor, Rebecca Mermelstein, told the judge that the “entire enterprise is only workable because it is staffed, so to speak, by women who do so under duress, because the conditions are so horrific that it’s not the kind of thing that anyone could really choose.”
The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, has said in court papers that the Flores-Mendez ring was part of a larger network of sex traffickers operating between Tenancingo, Mexico, New York and elsewhere. Women were typically lured through the promise of romantic relationships and a better life, and were forced into prostitution after they arrived, the office said. The judge noted that women who refused to submit were beaten, isolated and starved.
“Because money drives these crimes — as it does so many others — we have pursued forfeiture of the traffickers’ illegal profits and restitution, seeking some recovery for the victims,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement. He added that the victims, mostly poor, without legal status and traumatized and terrorized by the traffickers, were “some of the most vulnerable and powerless in our society.”
Government filings show that brothels were operated at 350 First Street in Newburgh, N.Y.; in a second-floor apartment at 613 Seneca Avenue in Queens; on the second floor of a two-story yellow house at 20 Rose Street in Poughkeepsie; and in an apartment at 121 Elm Street in Yonkers — the busiest of the brothels, with two women working weeklong shifts and each seeing about eight to 10 customers a day.
Prosecutors have estimated that more than 400 women were victims of the trafficking conspiracy, including some who were minors. On one intercepted phone call, a defendant was heard discussing a “new girl who is only 17,” prosecutors said.
The government said it had been unable to locate or identify the vast majority of the victims, and that of the few who were interviewed by the authorities, most would not cooperate largely out of fear of retaliation. One woman who did cooperate, cited in court records as Victim 1, entered the United States at age 17 with her baby, after the brothers arranged to have her smuggled across the border, prosecutors said.
She was flown from California to New York in September 2006, where the younger Flores-Mendez brother took her to a house on 112th Street in Queens; there she was forced to sleep with her baby under a kitchen table and charged $200 in monthly rent and $50 weekly for food, prosecutors said.
Over much of the next year, the government said, the woman was forced to have sex against her will. In statements she submitted at the brothers’ sentencings, she said she had been forced to have sex with 15 to 35 men a day, in brothels and through delivery to “sex buyers.”
“I was forced to prostitute myself in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Philadelphia and the Bronx,” she wrote.
Isaias Flores-Mendez’s “dehumanization of Victim 1 in the interest of profit was without bounds,” prosecutors wrote. He forced her to take birth control pills, and when he mistakenly believed that she was pregnant, “he grabbed me by the neck, slammed me against the wall, beat me repeatedly, and forced me to swallow more pills so that I would have an abortion,” the woman wrote.
She finally escaped, but was almost killed when the brothers saw her crossing the street one day in Queens and accelerated their car toward her, forcing her to jump out of the way, she added.
Such callousness toward the women seemed to be typical of the operation, court records suggest. Another defendant, Alejandro Degante-Galeno, who worked as a driver, was overheard on a court-ordered wiretap telling his son, Sergio, who was also charged in the case, that one woman “should be punished for wanting to rest and for not wanting to sexually service more customers.”
When the older brother, Isaias Flores-Mendez, was sentenced on May 14, Judge Forrest said he had run “a depraved and deplorable sex mill.” The judge noted that he had apologized briefly to his family in court. “But he owes an apology to so many more people,” she said. “He is, in my view, remorseless.”
When, two weeks later, the younger brother, Bonifacio, was sentenced, he apologized profusely to the victims, saying through an interpreter that he had acted out of greed, for money, and asked for their forgiveness. “I’ve realized that what I’ve done was the worst thing that you can do to a woman,” he said. “I feel like the worst man on earth.”
Judge Forrest showed no leniency. “We know there were mornings when you woke up in your bed surrounded by your family, and a woman who had been trafficked woke up in a locked, windowless room in a basement, unable to go out unless she was let out,” the judge said.
The brothers were each ordered to forfeit about $1.7 million and pay $84,000 in restitution to Victim 1.
Lori L. Cohen, a lawyer with Sanctuary for Families, an agency that worked with Victim 1 and several other trafficking victims in the case, said the woman was “extremely grateful” for the life sentences but she remained fearful that her family in Mexico “could be at risk” because she had reported the abuse.
At each sentencing, one of the prosecutors, Amanda Kramer and Ms. Mermelstein, read aloud a translation of Victim 1’s statement, in which the woman had explained why she was not appearing in person.
“I am scared for me, my family, and for my family in Mexico,” the woman wrote. “I want to forget all of this and just have peace in my life.”