Sunday, November 12, 2006

Human Trafficking Cases Increase in El Paso by Louie Gilot

Human trafficking cases increase in El Paso Photographs of men, women and children filled the screen. But they didn't tell the whole story. A shy Chinese boy is pictured. He was forced to work in restaurants in El Paso and North Carolina. A young woman poses on a stationary bike. She was lured into the sex trade from her native Uzbekistan. Two middle-aged couples smile at the camera. The pair on the left were deaf and mute victims of human traffickers. On the right were the traffickers. "You have to look beneath the surface. You'll not know it when you see it," Brandy Gardes, an assistant U.S. attorney in El Paso, told hundreds of law enforcement officers and social workers at a conference last month in El Paso. Officials have called human trafficking one of the toughest crimes to tackle. It is hard to identify and hard to prove. Victims are often too scared to speak out. And the public and juries have a hard time believing slavery still goes on in the United States. The U.S. Department of State estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year and held by force or coercion for sexual slavery and forced labor. Between 2001 and 2005, the Justice Department prosecuted fewer than 150 alleged traffickers. There are no figures for El Paso, but it was chosen by the Justice Department as the site of one of 18 new human-trafficking task forces in the nation as part of a far-reaching effort to bring the problem out of the shadows. A community's response-- Task-force coordinator Paul Piñon is training police officers to recognize the signs. He said El Pasoans can also play a crucial role in spotting traffickers' safe houses and trafficking victims. "We feel that the majority of situations will come to light through the involvement of the community." Neighbors may notice that a large number of people live in a house but never congregate outside except to be picked up for work. Often, El Paso is a pit stop for traffickers on their way to California and elsewhere. But some cases with elements of human trafficking began here. Gardes prosecuted two such cases -- the 1998 exploitation of Mexican deaf and mute men and women by two El Paso sisters, and the 2001 sexual exploitation of women from Uzbekistan by a UTEP research assistant. The culprits were convicted, but not for human smuggling, and were sentenced to prison time. Trafficking victims are not necessarily foreigners, but the great majority are. One case going to trial Monday can also be classified as human trafficking, Gardes said. It is the prosecution of the owners of a far East El Paso quarry, where Mexican undocumented immigrants worked and lived in substandard conditions. The owners were charged with harboring undocumented immigrants. Gardes said prosecutors usually apply human-trafficking charges in cases where the use of force can be proved because those cases are stronger in court. However, most human traffickers use coercion or fraud to keep their victims enslaved. Not 'vanilla smuggling' Often, what starts as "plain old, vanilla human smuggling," as Gardes put it, turns into trafficking when the migrant can't pay. Gardes showed the photograph of a field worker standing on top of a large farm truck -- a scene common across the Southwest. His name is Ricardo, she said. He was smuggled across the border in Arizona and abandoned in the desert for eight days with only three days' worth of food and water. He was found by another smuggler who offered to guide him, for a fee. When Ricardo couldn't pay, the smuggler sold him to a Florida labor contractor for $1,100. This became Ricardo's debt. He worked in a field for $80 a week to repay it. At the same time, his trafficker overcharged him for rent and other necessities. Gardes said he was never meant to be able to repay the debt. One day, another trafficking victim escaped, was recaptured and was beaten in front of Ricardo and the others. "At this point, Ricardo realized this was really slavery," Gardes said. Ricardo eventually escaped and testified against his traffickers. He still receives death threats. In a recent case in El Paso, police rescued a 15-year-old Salvadoran girl at the Downtown Greyhound bus station after her smuggler asked her family in California for ransom. In Juárez, officials at Casa del Migrante shelter, which helps migrants after they have been deported back to Mexico or after they fail to cross, said they have housed a few women who said their smugglers tried to sell them. Brainwashed Collaboration between police and private aid organizations is crucial to tackle human trafficking, officials said. A new El Paso case in which a 14-year-old Guatemalan boy allegedly held in Fabens was presented as a model of cooperation to the White House's faith-based initiative task force, social workers involved said. The boy allegedly worked at a Fabens store, slept in a camper shell in a backyard and washed his clothes with a garden hose. Law enforcement officials would not say more because the investigation continues. When the boy was placed in custody at the migrant children detention center in Canutillo, he was suicidal and refused to speak to FBI agents for two days. Elvia Garcia, a supervisor at the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, was called to help. After several hours of small talk, the boy finally opened up. "It takes a whole community to take care of a victim of trafficking," Garcia said. Many victims come from Third World countries where police corruption is rampant, and they learn not to trust law enforcement officers. They are also brainwashed by traffickers who tell them the police would not believe their outcry and would put them in jail or deport them. In reality, victims of trafficking have legal recourse. In 2000, the Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which broadened the federal status and gave victims the T Visa to allow a three-year stay in the United States. During that time, victims can apply for a green card. Charles Song, the director of legal services for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking in Los Angeles, said that less than 1 percent of trafficking victims he has helped chose to go back to their countries. That's because traffickers often have associates abroad who threaten the victims and their families. Florencia Molina, 34, of Mexico, was a trafficking victim in Los Angeles in 2002, sewing dresses for 17 hours a day, every day for months. At night, she was locked inside the clandestine workshop. Her trafficker held her papers, and Molina did not speak English. She summoned the courage to flee and ended up testifying for the FBI. Molina spoke at the El Paso conference. She said that her trafficker, an important woman in her native Mexican village, was sentenced to six months of house arrest. Then she went to Mexico, looking for Molina. Molina obtained a T Visa and is living in hiding in the Los Angeles area. She now works as a security guard and dreams of becoming a sheriff's deputy, she said. "I feel protected in the United States," she said. Traffickers use various techniques to keep victims enslaved. Some traffickers keep their victims under lock and key. But most use less obvious techniques, including: -Indebting victims. -Limiting victims' contact with outsiders and making sure that any contact is monitored or superficial. -Isolating victims from family members and members of their ethnic and religious community. -Confiscating passports, visas and other identification documents. -Threatening violence toward victims or the families of victims. -Threatening to shame victims by exposing circumstances to family. -Telling victims they will be imprisoned or deported for immigration violations if they contact authorities. -Holding victims' money for "safekeeping. Source: Department of Health and Human Services. Signs that human trafficking is going on may include: -Not enough people going in and out of a home. -Or, too many people going in at strange times. -Only male guests going to a party could be a sign that the place is a brothel. -Children hanging out at the house, instead of going to school. -Periodic rotation of people living in the house. -Residents who leave the house only to go to work (usually driven there by the traffickers) and back and don't congregate outside or interact with neighbors. -For health providers: Be suspicious when a patient is never left alone with the staff and has someone else who speaks for him/her at all times. -For bank tellers: Take note when one person is cashing checks from several persons who have signed them over. Source: Human Trafficking Task Force.

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