Justice News

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Women Mayors Meeting
Orlando, FL
United States
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Good morning. I’d like to thank Mayor Moseley for that kind introduction, and would also like to thank all of you not only for the opportunity to address you today on the subject of human trafficking, but more importantly, for the leadership role you have taken in fighting this scourge.

Before I discuss what we in the Department of Justice are doing to combat human trafficking, and how critical it is that all of us who are committed to ending trafficking work together to maximize our efforts, let me briefly and bluntly describe what human trafficking is.

Human trafficking, simply put, is modern-day slavery. And it can take many forms. It’s the young woman who comes to the United States for the promise of a new life but instead finds herself enslaved and sold for sex. Or the child who grew up here, ran away from home and finds herself in the same situation because in desperate need she accepted help from the wrong person. Or the migrant worker who is deprived of identification, transportation, and access to money in order to ensure his or her total dependence on his employer.

Although human trafficking may take many forms, it often has one thing in common – it is hidden in plain sight. A law enforcement officer may initially see a prostitution offense, a domestic abuse incident, a physical or sexual assault, a labor dispute, or an immigration crime. But if they dig deeper they might realize that instead of the offense they saw on the surface, they are actually confronting a human trafficking crime.

But let's be realistic, recognizing this may not be easy. Victims are often traumatized and may be reluctant to cooperate with authorities. While at first blush it may seem illogical that trafficking victims may hesitate to work with people who are trying to help them, this hesitation is understandable. Trafficking victims have a healthy fear of their captors, who may have made quite clear the consequences of disobeying them. And, the victims may not initially trust law enforcement either. If you’re being forced to participate in criminal activity, you might not trust a cop. Moreover, some trafficking victims may have come from parts of the world where it is natural to be wary of the police.

Because of this, what we have learned over time is that increasing awareness by first responders of factors that may indicate a potential human trafficking offense, is critical to increasing our ability to identify and help human trafficking victims.

One of the greatest horrors of this crime is that traffickers view their victims as nothing more than a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, or simply taken. The treatment traffickers mete out to their victims is fully consistent with that – they are treated as things, not people.

But what makes human trafficking even worse, is the difference between a thing, such as an illegal drug, and a person being treated as a thing. As Attorney General Holder recently said, quoting a journalist covering human trafficking, “You can only sell a drug once, but you can sell a human being over, and over, and over” leaving the victims in a perpetual life of bondage.

Because the victims are mostly poor, uneducated, and without resources, and often have no local language skills, many of the perpetrators think engaging in sex trafficking is a relatively low risk crime that promises a steady stream of ill-gotten cash. We must work together to prove them wrong by demonstrating that those who engage in human trafficking will be caught, and will receive a severity of punishment that is commensurate with the severity of their crimes.

At the Department of Justice, we are fully engaged in combating human trafficking, with many components deeply involved in this fight. This includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Attorneys’ Offices, the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, the Office of Justice Programs, which funds task forces around the country, and our Community Oriented Policing Services Office, which has resources to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement in addressing human trafficking.

The Attorney General and I, and indeed all of us at the Department of Justice, are fully committed to preventing and fighting human trafficking in all its detestable forms. And our efforts in this area continue to increase. For example, last year the Department set a new record in the number of defendants charged in human trafficking cases, and over the last three years, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of forced labor and human trafficking cases charged.

But we know that the Department of Justice hasn’t done this alone. Law enforcement agencies in all sectors of government – local, state, and our federal partners – as well as our colleagues in governmental and non-governmental organizations that are focused on helping human trafficking victims recover from the devastating harms they have suffered play an equally important role.

Indeed, an absolutely essential element in bringing successful human trafficking prosecutions has been this broad array of partnerships. These partnerships increase the effectiveness of our joint efforts, and yield concrete results. Let me give you some examples of these cases that were prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

There is the appalling case out of Virginia where a 24-year-old MS-13 gang member forced a 12-year-old girl to engage in prostitution. She was a runaway, who the trafficker he met at a Halloween party in 2009. She asked for his help in finding a place to stay. Instead of helping her, the very next day he began forcing her to provide sex for money. He used alcohol and marijuana to keep her compliant. This case was investigated by our federal partners in the Department of Homeland Security, with assistance from the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking task force, a collaboration of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies – along with non-governmental organizations. Thanks to their teamwork, last October this trafficker was sentenced to life in prison.

Last month in Fort Lauderdale, a man who caused children to engage in prostitution at his residence, which he advertised as the “Boom Boom Room” through the use of mass text messages to his contacts, also received a life sentence. At trial, seven of his victims testified that they provided their correct ages to this defendant, who told them not to state their true age to persons paying to have sex with them. This case was investigated by the FBI and the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office Minor Vice Task Force.

Another example is a case last year out of Washington state, where a Micronesian couple living in Longview, Washington, pled guilty to compelling the labor of an 18-year-old woman, also from Micronesia, to work as a domestic servant. Not only were they forcing her to provide full-time child care, cooking, and cleaning for free, but for five months they forced her to work full-time at a local chicken processing plant and give them her pay. One defendant was sentenced to 40 months, the other to 20 months. The Longview and Seattle Police Departments worked with the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the case.

Those are just three examples that demonstrate the value of partnerships to combat human trafficking and there are many more. But while the fact that we have an increasing number of cases where we have worked together and successfully held traffickers accountable and rescued their victims shows that our joint efforts to combat human trafficking crimes are ever more effective, the sad truth is that these crimes continue to exist and the victims continue to need our protection.

One way we are stepping up our efforts to combat trafficking is through the Human Trafficking Enhanced Enforcement Initiative. As part of this effort, Attorney General Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, announced the “Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team – or “ACTeam” – Initiative. This initiative is an interagency collaboration among our three agencies aimed at streamlining federal investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking offenses. There are now six pilot ACTeams around the country – in Atlanta, El Paso, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Miami.

We have also expanded our Project Safe Childhood program which was launched in 2006, but only to combat the proliferation of technology-facilitated crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children. Now Project Safe Childhood will encompass all federal crimes involving the sexual exploitation of a minor, including domestic minor sex trafficking.

Project Safe Childhood’s expansion builds on the long-standing Innocence Lost Initiative, which was launched in 2003 by the FBI in conjunction with the Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). In the nine years since its inception, the initiative has resulted in the development of 47 dedicated task forces and working groups throughout the U.S. involving federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies working in tandem with United States Attorney’s Offices. The Innocence Lost Initiative includes a week-long training program, Protecting Child Victims of Prostitution, which brings together the relevant stakeholders from given jurisdictions for intensive instruction on the investigation of these crimes and methods of identifying and caring for the victims. According to the FBI, as of May 2012 these groups have worked successfully to recover more than 2,100 children, and investigations have successfully led to the conviction of over 1,000 pimps, madams, and their associates who exploit children through prostitution.

The efforts of the Department and its many partners to combat human trafficking send an important message – that we will catch those who trade in the misery of other human beings, and we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

But catching human traffickers and making sure they get what they deserve is not enough. We must do everything we can to focus on prevention. Criminal enforcement plays a key role, because catching a trafficker prevents him from ensnaring yet more victims, and appropriate punishment of traffickers can deter others from committing these crimes. But we must also focus on prevention through public awareness, and prevention through educating potential victims who may unwittingly place their lives in the hands of human traffickers.

It truly is hard to believe that 150 years ago President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet in communities around the United States and around the world, human trafficking still exists. But even as we acknowledge this depressing fact, we should also take heart that awareness of human trafficking is greatly increasing and that our efforts and partnerships across all sectors of government – local, state, tribal, federal, and international – to fight this crime are becoming ever more effective. The victims of this violent and abusive crime are frequently the most vulnerable among us. We may pass them in the street or our police officers may encounter them during routine stops. And yet, we may not be aware of their plight. The crimes against them are not a single episode, but a repeated violation of their rights and their dignity. While we have made great strides in attacking problem, there is still so much yet to be done. These victims depend on us for their rescue. It is incumbent on us not to let them down.

Updated September 17, 2014