Editorial by Edward L. Stanton III on December 2, 2011
The Commerial Appeal
Human trafficking is simply another name for modern-day slavery. Unfortunately, it is not a distant crime. While attention often focuses on human trafficking in the developing world, in recent months law enforcement officers right here in Memphis have rescued young girls and women from the bleak despair of sexual slavery.
The latest cases have been part of an ongoing and coordinated effort between the U.S. Attorney's Office and federal and local law enforcement agencies. This effort has led to the rescue of numerous victims and the prosecution of their traffickers under the federal anti-trafficking laws.
These victims have little in common. Some are Hispanic, some are African-American, some are white. They range in age from midteens to mid-30s. Some come from backgrounds of extreme poverty, some from relatively affluent suburban families. Some come from other countries, some from other states, some from Memphis and its suburbs. But their traffickers saw them all as identical: commodities to be sold over and over again for profit.
It does not matter who the victims are or what their backgrounds may be. Everyone deserves to be protected from illegal sexual exploitation, and we do not discriminate when prosecuting these cases. I am a firm believer that while no criminal is above the law, no victim should ever be below the law.
Human trafficking prosecutions in Memphis started five years ago, when the federal government teamed with the Memphis Police Department to investigate allegations of sex trafficking in local Hispanic brothels. That investigation uncovered a ring of traffickers led by Juan Mendez, a Mexican national who settled in Smyrna, Tenn. Mendez recruited girls as young as 13 from impoverished rural Mexico with the promise of the American dream. When he brought them to Tennessee, Mendez dropped the pretense and ordered them to prostitute for him. When the girls refused, Mendez beat and raped them, then threatened to kill their families in Mexico.
From 2004 through 2006, Mendez forced two victims to engage in sometimes hundreds of acts of prostitution a week in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, and into Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi. He kept all the profits, hundreds of thousands of dollars, for himself. Mendez ultimately pleaded guilty to sex trafficking in December 2007 and received a sentence of 50 years -- and that's 50 years of federal time, meaning no possibility of parole.
While Mendez smuggled his victims across the border, the majority of the cases we see in the Western District of Tennessee involve domestic sex trafficking. For example, my office recently secured a guilty plea from Kala Bray, an 18-year-old Memphian. In court, Bray admitted to her role in a sex trafficking conspiracy that targeted two local teenagers. Bray lured her victims in with promises of a fun road trip to a Texas water park, and drugged them with Xanax and Oxycontin until they were barely aware of what was going on around them. Bray then solicited clients for her victims via online advertisements and kept the proceeds for herself.
Mendez, Bray and other traffickers figured out that while drugs can be sold only once, a human being can be sold over and over again. And it is much harder for prosecutors to make a case against someone who is caught in a car with another person than against someone caught with a kilogram of cocaine.
Traffickers subject their victims to intense physical and sexual abuse and subtle psychological manipulation. As a result, trafficking victims are often reluctant to reach out for help or cooperate with law enforcement. Putting together one of these cases takes a lot more time and effort than some other crimes require. In addition, the sex traffickers we see in Memphis often move their victims around from city to city, never staying in one place for very long. Such interstate crimes require the jurisdictional scope of the federal government.
But the federal trafficking cases are always made in partnership with local law enforcement. My office is committed to strengthening and expanding that partnership to rescue more trafficking victims. To that end, last week we sponsored a course to train law enforcement officers from West Tennessee on how to identify potential human trafficking cases. The response was overwhelming: Nearly 200 law enforcement officers participated.
By developing the capabilities of local law enforcement officers to combat human trafficking, we hope to put Western Tennessee in the strongest possible position to end the scourge of modern-day slavery. Working together, we can rescue trafficking victims and ensure that those who exploited them face the law's full measure of justice.
Edward L. Stanton III is United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.