Justice News

Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates Speaks at the World Summit on Ending Sexual Exploitation
Atlanta, GA
United States
Monday, May 11, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Senator Isakson, for that kind introduction.  As a proud Georgian, let me say how lucky we are to have you as our senior senator.  You’ve been an eloquent advocate not only on the important issue of human trafficking, but on all issues that affect our great state.  More importantly, I’m lucky to count you as a friend, ally and source of constant wisdom. 

Also with us today is Senator Bob Corker, a dedicated public servant who brings such thoughtfulness to every subject he touches.  We couldn’t have a stronger advocate on human trafficking issues as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  And, of course, let me recognize my dear friend Sam Olens, the Attorney General of Georgia, with whom I developed such a terrific working relationship during our time together in this state.  All of these men have contributed so much in the effort to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation, and I’m glad we get to hear from each of them today.

I also want to acknowledge the Carter Center for hosting this world summit.  From my years in Georgia, I’ve seen the tremendous impact that the Carter Center has had on our city, our country and the global community.  President Carter and his wife Rosalynn have done extraordinary work to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering.  It’s a privilege to stand here—where so many great leaders have stood before—in service of the Carters’ ideals. 

Finally, I need to recognize my friend Dave McCleary, who has galvanized this city in the fight against human trafficking.  Having spent most all of my career as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta, I’ve seen the toll that human trafficking has taken on Atlanta and surrounding communities.  I’m incredibly grateful for his commitment and dedication to this issue. 

We’ve always been able to count on Rotarians like Dave.  A few years ago, I remember speaking to downtown rotary about some of the challenges we faced as prosecutors in Atlanta, including the growing problem of human trafficking.  I told them that in Atlanta, as with many places in the country, we lacked sufficient facilities to house and support trafficking victims and that without such services, juvenile victims often ran away, only to be abused again.  Some people might have heard this story, nodded sympathetically and then moved on with their lives.  But not them.  After that meeting, the organization raised over $5 million to expand a local facility for homeless juveniles and they built a 60,000 square foot facility that houses 100 kids, including victims of trafficking, where they are receiving the critical services and counseling they need.  So thank you for your generosity—then, now and in the future.

As Senator Isakson mentioned, I left Atlanta for Washington about four months ago.  I will always consider Georgia my true home, but I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity.  As the Acting Deputy Attorney General, I am honored to serve as the second-in-command and chief operating officer for the Department of Justice.  It’s quite a privilege for someone who started her career more than 25 years ago as a line prosecutor in Atlanta and has been with the department ever since. 

Part of what makes my new job so fascinating and rewarding is the scope of the Department of Justice’s work.  The department does plenty of high-profile cases, from white collar crime to environmental protection to national security.  But sometimes people forget that we’re an agency with more than 110,000 employees, including everyone at the FBI, DEA, ATF, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.  We help enforce our nation’s laws not simply by investigating and prosecuting cases, but also by providing grant funding every year to those that support the department’s mission—including non-profit organizations and hundreds of state, local and tribal agencies.    

The breadth of the department’s efforts is particularly important when we’re talking about the fight against human trafficking.  As everyone in this room knows, there’s no single policy or idea that will end these vicious crimes.  The problem requires a comprehensive solution—one that calls upon the talents and ingenuity of many different people in many different professions.  With my friend Loretta Lynch, our new Attorney General, we can and will leverage the many resources of the department to help you in this global effort.       

As I see it, the fight against human trafficking requires a three-pronged approach:  prosecute, protect and prevent.  The Department of Justice is committed to all three.  We recognize that aggressive enforcement of our criminal laws is impossible unless we create an environment where victims are willing to speak without fear of reprisal, stigma or punishment.  And we can’t do that unless we educate the community about the problem and support the organizations and people trying to make a difference.

Of course, some of the department’s highest-profile efforts in this area involve criminal prosecutions.  We’re making great progress in this area.  In recent years, the Department of Justice has collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor to create what we call anti-trafficking coordination teams, or acteams [“act-teams”].  These acteams have been established in select cities around the United States, including Atlanta, and they ensure that multiple government agencies are working together to tackle this problem.  In the cities where we’ve deployed acteams, we’ve seen a huge rise in the number and quality of human trafficking investigations and prosecutions.  Even in the relatively small number of cities where they operate, the acteams have accounted for more than half of the national growth in these type of cases filed by the Department of Justice.

The prosecutions focus not simply on the sexual exploitation of children but on human trafficking in all its forms, from our agricultural fields to our service industries.  That’s important because the same trends that bring women to brothels in suburban Georgia also bring slave laborers to rural farms and domestic servants to private homes.  As we’ve seen time and again, human traffickers prey on any vulnerability they can find.  All too often this includes not only migrants from distant lands, but vulnerable individuals from the streets of our own communities. 

We’re able to bring so many cases because we rely on the combined efforts of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners.  The FBI oversees dozens of task forces and working groups across the country relating to child exploitation and human trafficking.  Over the past decade, our Bureau of Justice assistance has funded nearly three dozen law enforcement task forces involving state and local agencies and collectively, they’ve made hundreds of arrests and rescued thousands of trafficking survivors.

These are extraordinary efforts.  But as I said before, convictions alone won’t end this crisis.  That’s where some of the Department of Justice’s other functions come in.  One of our major goals has been to ensure that everyone understands the unique challenges that human trafficking cases present – at all levels of government and throughout the criminal justice system.  We’ve created or supported a variety of trainings and e-guides for those on the front lines of this crisis, such as local police officers and family court judges, so they can identify the warning signs and respond appropriately.  We also fund a range of surveys and empirical studies, which help us identify new trends and ensure that any policies we undertake to fight human trafficking are based on the latest evidence and most effective best practices.  

Wherever possible, we take a victim-centered approach.  We must never forget sight of toll these crimes take on the survivors, and it is our obligation to do whatever necessary to return normalcy to their lives.  Across the country, the Department of Justice provides funding for more than 25 non-profits that provide critical services to trafficking survivors.  We are better positioned than ever to help, given that in fiscal year 2015, congress tripled the Department of Justice’s funding to support services for trafficking victims and human trafficking task forces.  We supplement those efforts with additional money, through our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, to state and local agencies that support victims.  

We have engaged in similar efforts abroad, with the FBI training State Department employees abroad in how to develop strong working relationships with the international NGOs that serve trafficking victims.  And more than ever before, we have expanded our collaboration with Mexico, partnering with law enforcement and victim service organizations to restore the lives of traumatized victims. 

In my opinion, what the department does particularly well is that it weaves together these many threads.  I’m reminded of a case we prosecuted while I was U.S. Attorney here in Atlanta.  It’s just one of the hundreds that our department does nationwide every year, but it demonstrates the way vigorous prosecution dovetails with our work outside the courtroom.  

The lead defendant was a man named Amador Cortes-Meza.  He lured young women one at a time from rural Mexico, promising them love and a new life.  Some women were in their mid-20s, others as young as 14.  When they got here, he locked them away in the suburbs of Atlanta.  The women were beaten, then sold for sex.  The going rate was $25 to $35 for 15 minutes, with sometimes as many as 30 customers a night.  A portion of the money went to the drivers who delivered the women to unknown johns; the rest went to Cortes-Meza and his crew.

Cortes-Meza was convicted after trial, and he’s now serving a 40-year prison sentence.  By the time the case went to the jury, we had identified more than 10 victims.  But the case began with a single victim, who was rescued from a brothel by special agents of the Department of Homeland Security.  The agents quickly identified her as a victim of human trafficking and delivered her to a local non-profit called Tapestri—which happens to be one of the organizations that receives the Department of Justice grant funding to support victim services.  With Tapestri’s help, the agents helped the woman get medical services and housing and over time she stabilized.  As she grew to trust them, the victim told the agents what she knew about the trafficking network she escaped.  The investigation led to another victim, then another.  Eventually the agents built a case against Cortes-Meza and his associates and they identified the homes where the suspects likely hid their women.  The day that the agents made the arrests, staff members from Tapestri were standing by ready to help as additional survivors were discovered.

In the weeks and months that followed, prosecutors, agents and the victim-witness specialists at the U.S. Attorney’s Office worked with Tapestri staff to repair these women’s lives.  Three of the four minor victims were placed with foster families in the United States and eventually graduated from high school.  When it came time for trial, the women gathered the courage to testify.  Our victim-witness specialist arranged child care, while representatives from Tapestri sat in the courtroom to provide a familiar and comforting presence.  For many of these women, it was a painful experience, but a necessary one. 

As you know, these aren’t easy cases to bring.  The very traits that make victims vulnerable to individuals like Cortes-Meza – their youth, their fear, their limited education and their immigration status – are also what make these women so reluctant to come forward.  And let’s be honest:  it can be difficult to discuss human trafficking, not just for the survivors, but for the community as a whole.  It’s hard to acknowledge that such evil exists in this world, especially when it’s in our backyard.  But silence only allows this problem to fester.  

Shortly after the arrests in the Cortes-Meza case, for example, a neighbor told an Atlanta newspaper that she thought it was odd that young women, dressed in short skirts and halter tops, kept going in and out of the same suburban house, always climbing in and out of different cars.  There’s no indication the neighbor ever reported it.  Maybe it’s because sometimes you don’t suspect the unimaginable—or you don’t want to.  But we can’t expect survivors to have the courage to speak up unless we all have the courage to speak out about these terrible crimes. That’s why events such as these are so important.  This world summit brings together some of the most creative minds and passionate advocates to have hard discussions about these important issues.  That’s the only way we’ll make real progress.  The survivors of these horrible crimes deserve nothing less. 

We have a lot of work to do, but I’m confident about what we can do together.  By engaging the tough issues, we’ll be able to identify lasting solutions.  I’m excited to see the ideas that develop over the next two days and the accomplishments that emerge in the months and years ahead.  Thank you all for your leadership, your partnership and dedication to this cause.  Enjoy your time at the conference, and I look forward to working with all of you in the future.

Thank you.

Human Trafficking
Updated December 15, 2015