Human trafficking: a misunderstood global scourge
Sex trafficking has become an American cause célèbre. But does it divert attention from the broader human trafficking issue of modern-day slavery?
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"Pimps are professional exploiters," says Ms. Powell of FAIR Girls. "They know how to find their product, i.e., a young girl, and they know how to sell [her]. And girls are very easily lured if they are at risk. They're looking for love and attention and pimps know that."Skip to next paragraph
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Once girls have started working with a pimp, advocates say, they often feel trapped. They can be beaten, raped, or threatened with violence if they try to leave; they can simply feel they have nowhere else to go. But never, advocates say, are they wanting to be sold for sex to dozens of clients a night.
"A lot of people are calling sex trafficking 'modern-day slavery,' " says Megan Fowler, director of communications for the Polaris Project, a US anti-trafficking organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hot line. "But it's not that physical chained-in-the-basement coercion. It's psychological coercion."
A case in point is the federal prosecution of Jose Ciro Juarez-Santamaria, a Salvadoran MS-13 gang leader in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., who became the pimp of a 12-year-old runaway. She had sought him out at a Halloween party for help.
He told her to see him the next day, and he began taking her to "customers." For the next three months, federal prosecutors say, Mr. Juarez-Santamaria plied the girl with alcohol and marijuana, sold her for sex multiple times a day, and offered her to other gang members for sex, free of charge. He also had sex with her himself.
During his trial in July 2011, Juarez-Santamaria offered the defense that the girl knew what she was doing – that she wanted to work as a prostitute for the money. Indeed, when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers entered the Oxon Hill, Md., apartment where the girl was staying with Juarez-Santamaria, she denied she'd been prostituted; and when agents took her to a shelter, she quickly ran away and back to Juarez-Santamaria.
But, of course, "as a legal matter, the law does not recognize the defense that [an underage girl] did this willingly," says Neil MacBride, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia whose office prosecuted Juarez-Santamaria and has brought 16 human-trafficking cases over the past year or so. "And when you look at the facts of these cases, no reasonable juror would conclude that these girls were doing it willingly and voluntarily. They were lured in with promises."
The jury agreed and convicted Juarez-Santamaria of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a child, transportation of a minor to engage in prostitution, and sex trafficking of a child.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
A former prostitute's perspective
But here is where the concept of sex trafficking gets more controversial: If psychological coercion is at the root of the "slavery" aspect of sex trafficking, then it is only logical, many advocates say, to apply the "trafficking" label to adult prostitution, as well.