THE BLOG

Bringing Human Trafficking to Justice: The Civil Rights Division's Pursuit of Freedom, Rights, and Dignity For Victims of Human Trafficking

02/01/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

Lucia--not her real name--grew up in a clay home with no electricity, speaking only the indigenous language of her remote rural village in Mexico. Starting at age 12, she lived on her own and worked to help support her impoverished family. She never imagined she would fall prey to brutal human traffickers who lure young women with false promises. But, that's exactly what happened. When Lucia was 23, while working at a tortilla stand, a young man promised her marriage, a good job and a better future. Drawing her in with a series of deceptions, he smuggled her into the United States, isolating her from everyone and everything she knew. He preyed on this isolation, and her fear of being undocumented and alone to control her and take away her freedom. Then, he and his associates used beatings, threats and rape to compel her and other young women to have sex with up to 20 men a day - for the defendants' profit. Lucia endured this nightmare right here in the United States before courageously making her escape.

Human traffickers target vulnerable members of our society, cruelly exploiting them for forced labor or commercial sex, depriving them of their rights and dignity, and using intimidation and fear to hold them in servitude right here in the land of the free. In our nation founded on individual rights and freedoms, these deprivations are a profound affront to our most deeply held values. Human traffickers hide their victims in the shadows, making it difficult to estimate how many victims move among us. Yet, we know that we continue to encounter victims throughout the United States, whether they were smuggled across our borders like Lucia, admitted on temporary visas or targeted domestically, on the streets of their own communities.

As we recognize National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we have occasion to reflect on the lives of survivors like Lucia. They strengthen our resolve to relentlessly seek justice on their behalf, and they inspire us with their courage and resilience. They are the reason the Justice Department as a whole is so deeply committed to combating human trafficking, and the Civil Rights Division in particular is steadfast in its determination to deliver on the promise of freedom from involuntary servitude enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment and codified in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Brave survivors like Lucia motivated us to create the specialized Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU) in 2007 within the Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section. The HTPU is dedicated to partnering with United States Attorneys nationwide to prosecute deprivations of federally protected rights involving police brutality, hate crimes, and human trafficking--violations often perpetrated against marginalized and disempowered members of our society who might otherwise endure these deprivations without redress. The creation of the HTPU consolidated the expertise of some of the nation's top human trafficking prosecutors, enabling them to further develop high-impact, novel, complex, multi-jurisdictional and international human trafficking cases and lead groundbreaking interagency and interdisciplinary anti-trafficking initiatives with the goal of bringing the full weight of the Justice Department to bear in the fight against human trafficking.

Since its inception, the HTPU, has in partnership with the U.S. Attorney's Offices, produced record prosecution results - increasing prosecutions of forced labor, international sex trafficking and adult sex trafficking cases by 56 percent over the past five years, and by 139 percent over the seven years since the HTPU's formation, compared to the previous five- and seven-year periods, respectively. These advances are in addition to the great success of the Criminal Division and U.S. Attorneys' Offices in prosecuting child sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation cases.

Under the HTPU's leadership, we have continued to introduce groundbreaking strategies to take our anti-trafficking efforts to the next level, using the most effective weapon in our anti-trafficking arsenal: partnerships. In 2011, the Justice Department, led by HTPU and the Executive Office of United States Attorneys, collaborated with interagency federal law enforcement partners from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor, to launch the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (ACTeam) Initiative, aimed at streamlining coordination among federal agents and prosecutors to help develop significant human trafficking investigations and prosecutions involving forced labor, international sex trafficking, and sex trafficking of adults.

In Phase I of the ACTeam Initiative, DOJ, FBI, DHS and DOL partners convened six Pilot ACTeams in diverse locations, selected through a competitive, interagency, nationwide selection process, then supported them by collaboratively developing and delivering an intensive Advanced Human Trafficking Training Program and by ongoing exchanges of expertise between the national human trafficking subject matter experts of each ACTeam partner agency and the Phase I ACTeams on the front lines in Atlanta, El Paso, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis and Miami.

The results of these efforts have been outstanding. In the six Phase I ACTeam Districts, human trafficking prosecutions rose by 119 percent, compared to a 35 percent increase nationwide during the same two year period. U.S. Attorneys' Offices and HTPU led the way to unprecedented prosecution results across the United States during the Phase I period; yet, prosecutions rose even more markedly in ACTeam Districts. As a result of streamlined coordination and concerted enforcement strategies, the six ACTeam Districts produced 58 percent of the nationwide increase in labor trafficking, international sex trafficking, and adult sex trafficking cases during the Phase I years.

Based on the success of Phase I, the interagency ACTeam partners are preparing to launch Phase II, laying the groundwork to make our collective anti-trafficking efforts stronger than ever before, on behalf of victims too long denied a voice in the course of their own lives. While we have made great strides, we will not rest until we have eradicated the dehumanizing indignities that victims of modern-day slavery endure. We are continuing to break new ground, expanding innovative partnerships across international boundaries to dismantle and disable human trafficking networks, protect vulnerable victims and prosecute traffickers so they cannot strike again.

Last week, Lucia stood up in federal court, not too far from where her captors had forced her into prostitution. Through an interpreter, Lucia described how even after she escaped, she was too afraid to report her ordeal, then later found the courage to speak out for other women who, like her, had "left without thinking that anybody would listen," and "that they weren't worth anything." As Lucia explained, meeting federal agents who were willing to listen and believe her was a turning point. These agents--as it happened--were deeply dedicated members of the Atlanta ACTeam, committed to using victim-centered, trauma-informed approaches to empowering victims to reclaim their lives. The court also heard Lucia's voice, sentencing one of her captors to sixteen years and the other to over twenty-one years in federal prison, and ordering them to pay over $180,000 in restitution to their victims.

While we have made tremendous strides in seeking justice on behalf of human trafficking victims, Lucia's courage in coming forward to implore the court to "not let other women suffer" reminds us that we must do more. As Attorney General Eric Holder remarked this week in commemorating National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, "our commitment to this work has never been stronger, nor our strategy more effective."

As we prepare to embark on the second phase of the ACTeam Initiative, we are more grateful than ever for the strong partnerships that have taken our anti-trafficking efforts to new heights, and we are more committed than ever to building on these partnerships in pursuit of justice for victims of modern-day slavery.