Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
In the past few months, there’s been a surge of support in the anti-trafficking field for demand reduction targeting johns and a push for company supply chain transparency. Along with prevention and outreach efforts for at-risk individuals, these initiatives address important populations. However, there’s little activity with regards to trafficker prevention, which begs the following questions: Why do people end up trafficking others, and what is being done to stop people from being traffickers?
Political, social and environmental factors directly feed into the human trafficking cycle, and the economic benefits gained from this criminal activity continues to attract or create middlemen, brokers and recruiters. The CNN Freedom Project’s investigation in Tenancingo, Mexico illustrates the appeal and maintenance of this lucrative industry. According to J/TIP Office Ambassador-at-Large Susan Coppedge, one defendant from this town argued, “My dad was a pimp. My grandad was a pimp. At 13, I was told that I was going to be a pimp. So, that is what the town does.” Cited as a major sex trafficking pipeline, Tenancingo boasts crime families and associates who have gotten rich by prostituting people in Mexico and abroad.
Gustavo, a former trafficker now serving a 10-year prison sentence, described his entry into the industry. As an eight-year-old growing up in Mexico, he lived in abject poverty and hung out with pimps. Though Gustavo’s parents worked hard to put him through school and helped him open a small clothes factory, Gustavo’s ambitions and the influence of pimps in the town led him to traffick women and girls instead.
He reflects, “I would hang out with them…I would play soccer with them. I would see their late model cars, houses, money. [Referring to the trafficked women and girls] They mean income. They mean merchandise. I was blind by my ambition. I wanted to have power.”
Ultimately, Gustavo made the choice to be a trafficker, and conditions in Tenancingo make it extremely dangerous and highly improbable for prevention programs to succeed. However, not all areas are impervious. And efforts to curb the flow of people from becoming traffickers could prove transformative for the anti-trafficking field. Very few in number, here are some examples of organizations with outreach programs for the trafficker population (excluding state and business actors).
In Svay Pak, Cambodia, Agape International Missions operates the Lord’s Gym. Here, pedophiles, pimps and traffickers are able to come in to work out for free. The staff, then, develops relationships with whoever comes in and talks to them about the effects of the trafficking industry and discusses steps by which they can leave it behind. Oftentimes, staff members help traffickers find legitimate jobs.
After Hours Ministry in Los Angeles, California takes a similar approach.
“We would just approach the men (usually all the pimps hung out at this one location on the track) and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? We don’t want to make you nervous, we see you out here all the time.' So, they often wouldn’t listen to what our team had to say until they knew that we cared about them. The key was to listen and to care.”
Like most outreach programs, staff and volunteers at After Hours Ministry typically encounter the same people week after week. Instead of calling the police to have these individuals arrested for pimping, they build trust and cultivate relationships that eventually lead to conversations about what led people to become pimps or traffickers and options for a way out.
After Hours Ministry posits, “Many have a vision to see pimps and johns (customers) prosecuted, but we know that this rarely has a long-term impact; pimps continue to manage their stable of girls from in jail, are soon bailed out and grow increasingly bitter towards the criminal justice system.”
Therefore, their ministry work focuses on establishing rapport and eventually moving pimps and traffickers to access resources such as accountability, addiction, employment and counseling services that would help them leave the trafficking business. Giving traffickers an alternative is also evident in initiatives to stop child labor.
In Nepal, kamlari – which is similar to the restavek system in Haiti – is a practice where parents sell their daughters into domestic servitude. Kamlari is a means by which families send the children they cannot afford to raise to another family or as a way to pay off debt.
The Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF) Indentured Daughters Program fought this system in a way that respected Nepalese culture and preserved the family unit. NYF gave a piglet or a goat to families to cover the monetary amount that they would have received for their children and worked with parents to start sending their daughters to school. The organization maintained contact with these families and created sustainable opportunities where families could participate in income generation projects, learn about the harms of the kamlari system and continue sending their children to school instead of selling them to be domestic servants. The successful Indentured Daughters Program freed over 12,000 girls; effectively challenged a centuries-old practice; helped families come to the conclusion that trafficking their own children was harmful; and gave these families an alternative.
In Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and The Gambia, Tostan’s model also addresses family and children’s rights. This organization’s Community Empowerment Program on child protection and Community Management Committees address social norms related to forced/early marriage by working with families and creating sustainable solutions to address this issue. Tostan’s holistic approach considers the root causes – lack of access to proper nutrition, education and other opportunities – and fosters community partnerships that lead families to realize the harms of child marriage and to abandon this practice.
Human trafficking is not a black and white issue whereby perpetrators are evildoers that just need to be prosecuted and locked away in prison. As anti-trafficking practitioners and activists explore solutions to this problem, it is essential that they not only pursue programs that recover trafficked people and punish knowing compliers. They must also consider opportunities to understand and direct prevention efforts toward one of the biggest sources of trafficking: the traffickers themselves.
Be an alert traveler and look out for signs of trafficking
There is a lot of misinformation about how traffickers operate.