Massachusetts and Rhode Island are two of several states that have established task forces to confront what has become the fastest growing criminal industry in the world — human trafficking.
The smuggling of human beings for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation outranks drug smuggling, and is tied with illegal arms sales, according to a United Nations study.
Task forces consisting of federal immigration officials, prosecutors, local police, the FBI and non-governmental organizations are pooling resources, knowledge and experience to deal with trafficking in southern New England. They are looking both worldwide and close to home for lessons that might help in better understanding the dimensions of the problem.
Dutch Police and agents of Interpol have determined that thousands of women and teenage girls have been brought to this city against their wills to serve as prostitutes.
One study‚ conducted by a former sex-worker turned Amsterdam city council member‚ found that three quarters of the city’s 8,000 to 11,000 prostitutes were likely victims of criminal gangs. Norma Ramos of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women is not surprised by this particular statistic.
She says, “When you have countries like the Netherlands that have legalized prostitution, what you have done is given the traffickers a great gift. What you have in those countries is a core center of legalized prostitution and then an enormous ring of illegal prostitution and trafficking that takes place both inside the legal trafficking and outside of it.”
Ramos cited the example of Amsterdam when her organization joined with other human trafficking advocates last year in a campaign to end prostitution in Rhode Island.
She says, “With The Coalition, along with Equality Now, we wrote letters to the legislature in Rhode Island to close what essentially amounted to a thirty year loophole in their state laws that allowed indoor prostitution.”
This change has had a major impact says Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty, “Since the bill has passed statewide, The state police, along with Providence police, Pawtucket police and I believe Warwick police have arrested probably six or eight johns. There have been seven or eight arrests as result of infiltrating massage parlors and nail salons.”
Despite this success, not everyone agreed that ending indoor prostitution would stop the practice of forcing or coercing women to prostitute against their wills.
Some sex workers, bloggers and self-professed libertarians argued at state hearings last year that criminalizing the practice would only drive traffickers further underground. Police do not deny that this may have happened.
One detective concedes that trying to spot possible human trafficking venues now might not be as easy as it was in the past, even with a trained eye.
Lt. Mike Correia, who heads up narcotics and organized crime investigations for the Providence Police, describes the difficulties in finding these venues, “This building right here. You can see that it’s sandwiched between a new hair salon, some thriving businesses, a restaurant, actually some residential up above. No signage to lead you to believe that it was a spa.”
Lt. Correia says that as a result of this shift, the police have come to rely more and more on the community for tips.
About one such location, Correia says, “It was on the first floor, it’s vacant now. Nothing overt to lead you to believe it was a massage parlor but there were neighborhood complaints. I have to admit the first time I did a little surveillance myself I’m like, ’I don’t think they’ve got this right.’ But we dug a little deeper, with a little more persistence, and sure enough, they were running a spa in the place.”
Correia says since end of the indoor prostitution loophole, Rhode Island police have also developed better working relationships with local advocacy groups that work with prostituted women and children. Correia says the collaboration has changed his perspective.
“Quite frankly, I think sometimes the police- you know our strength isn’t always with the victim, emphasizing with the victim” says Correia, “So it is a good collaboration. So recognizing that if we go in and arrest a girl who is potentially a victim, but yet breaking the law, if we put her in handcuffs, what’s the odds of her believing that we’re really trying to help her?”
So how does the collaboration work in practice? Correia explains, “We’ll send an undercover [officer] into a massage parlor, he’ll get solicited, back out, and he’ll leave. We’ll put that fact pattern together and get a search warrant, and we’re looking for documents, bank accounts, checking accounts, phone bills, who’s paying the rent, who’s paying the advertising bills. It’s a puzzle.
“But what we will do when we bring those document warrants, is we’ll bring advocates with us. It’s a non-enforcement type of setting. No one’s in handcuffs. We’re trying to build a relationship with the victim to see if one will help us put the whole puzzle together.”
Similar outreach efforts are taking place on the federal level. But it is not easy, according to Assistant US Attorney Ted Merritt, “Certainly one of the biggest hurdles in doing a human trafficking prosecution that focuses on sexual exploitation is finding the victims who are willing to testify and be part of the process that is going to eventually and hopefully lead to the prosecution of the people that are exploiting them.”
On every level, distrust of law enforcement runs deep through minority and immigrant communities, especially among people from countries where police are often the perpetrators of some of the worst offenses.
Victims, who often are undocumented, also fear that coming forward will result in automatic deportation. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agent for the Northeast, Bruce Folcart, says his agency is trying to change that perception.
He says, “We will work with them through other NGOs to make sure they are rescued, that they have the proper roofs over their heads and food. If we’re going to a prosecuting investigation, we work with them as well to ensure that we have the information at hand if we need them to testify.”
Immigration lawyers also suggest that victims of labor and sex trafficking apply for what is known as a “T visa” or trafficking visa, which would allow them to stay in the country at least temporarily. In a further effort to win the trust of victims, the federal government has set up a national hotline that is run independent of law enforcement by the DC based Polaris Project, a major anti-trafficking organization.
Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, says “Only a fraction of the more than 1000 reported calls from victims to this hotline come from Massachusetts.”
But each year, on average, there are more than thirty documented cases of human trafficking in the state, according to a compilation of sources.
They range from reports of undocumented immigrants who are used as indentured servants in wealthy suburbs around Boston; mail order brides from Eastern Europe, Vietnam, China and the Philippines, who are often sexually abused; and day laborers from South and Central America whose passports have been confiscated.
In Rhode Island, victims of human traffickers have the option of turning to state government for legal redress, but in Massachusetts, there is a major problem.
According to Bradley Myles, “Massachusetts is one of the few states in the country that still don’t have a comprehensive human trafficking law. I think once that law passes it’ll be a big boost to the Massachusetts task force because then they won’t only be using federal crimes to prosecute and take traffickers to federal court, but they’ll also have a whole apparatus of state courts to use both for human trafficking charges or for other charges like pimping or pandering, sexual abuse of children, whatever else you want to use.”
Senator Mark Montigny of Plymouth is the chief sponsor of the proposed anti-trafficking law, which would provide training to law enforcement officers, shelters and other resources for victims. It also provides assistance to trafficked youth.
Montigny says, “The bill is supporting the victim. It is basically saying you will never be treated as a criminal runaway if you’re underage and someone is paying for sex with you. It is rape, it is a crime, and we will treat it that way.
“We will find the person who trafficked you, not just get the person who paid for sex. Whether it is the nail salon or the prostitute on the corner, you first have to investigate it on the local level and that’s where there are no resources.”
So why hasn’t the Massachusetts House and Senate passed what would seem like a critical piece of legislation that was first introduced in 2007?
Montigny says, “It has been tremendously disappointing for me. We’re dealing with legislation like casinos that I feel are far less significant and important than this stuff, and I’m not pleased at all, at all. It should have become law. I don’t have a better answer.”