Human Trafficking

Local group fights underground sex and labor trade

For Weekly SurgeMarch 3, 2011 

  • Here Women Talk is a Myrtle Beach-based Internet radio network with a global community of followers. It is geared toward women, but amid talk of music, movies and fashion, answers are found to some hard hitting issues. Here Women Talk hosts "Trafficked" a weekly radio show out of Texas that focuses on human trafficking. The show's creator and host, Dottie Laster, is an original member of the U.S. Attorney General's Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance, a Texas task force of local, state and federal law enforcement. Laster was responsible for training more than 5.000 officers on issues related to human trafficking.

    In September 2010, during a live broadcast of "Trafficked," a listener called in from California saying she was a trafficking victim. The teenage girl, referred to as "Lisbeth," told Laster she was prostituted, forced to make porn films and made to dance in strip clubs. Kay Van Hoesen, the local woman who founded "Here Women Talk" in June 2010, verified details of the girl's story. A network of women from three other states put together their resources to get the victim help. "Lisbeth" was rescued within 24 hours. "Here Women Talk was founded to affect the lives of women everywhere," Van Hoesen, is quoted on the group's Web site, www.herewomentalksocial.com. "We had no idea how much we could accomplish in such a short time."

On the other side of the world, in a rundown hotel in downtown Thailand, a 14-year-old girl is held captive. Unbathed, bruised and broken, the girl stares vacantly from two blackened eyes. She is chained to a filthy mattress in a darkened back room. The chains are overkill - she's too weak and sick to escape. She is more than halfway starved from the meager rations her captors give her. She is their chattel, personal property of which they intend to make a profit, and they do. As many as 30 men a day will wait in line to pay the American equivalent of $10 dollars to go in and take their turn with her. She's one of the lucky ones - she was rescued.

Her story is now part of a public service campaign in Thailand to put an end to what a century ago was called slavery.

Today, it's called human trafficking.

Human trafficking refers to forced sexual exploitation as well as forced labor. It is a lucrative trade the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated at netting more than $31 billion in 2010 alone. It's modern day slavery, and the FBI reports the wholesale buying and selling of people is now the fastest growing crime in the world. Far from being something that only happens overseas, the underground world of sex and labor trafficking has taken hold in resort areas throughout the United States, and the Grand Strand isn't immune. The demands of filling low paying jobs in the hospitality and service industry combined with the money to be made in satisfying the varied deviant whims of anonymous tourists make our area an attractive spot for traffickers to set up business. Easy access to interstates, such as I-95, mean traffickers can bring their victims in, pimp them out, and make a hasty exit, their pockets full of tourism dollars.

Human traffickers expect to come to the beaches and boulevards of the Grand Strand and find anonymity in the transient lifestyle of a tourist town. What they don't suspect is that the Grand Strand is the home of a vast network spanning six counties with a sole purpose of rescuing victims of human trafficking and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Headquartered in Myrtle Beach, the Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking (ECCAHT) is a network of activists united in one purpose - to put an end to a burgeoning market in which the commodity is people and the profits are huge.

In our own sandbox?

It's the first Monday of 2011, and inside a conference room at Socastee Library, a meeting of the ECCAHT comes to order. Leading the meeting is Kelly O'Neil-Bagwell, a Myrtle Beach-based interior designer whose easy manner and sparkling blue eyes belie the fact she is a woman on a mission. As president and co-founder of ECCAHT, she is a tireless crusader on behalf of the victims of human trafficking. "I got interested in the issue of human trafficking back in 2007. The more I looked into it, the more I was sure it had to be going on in this area," says Bagwell. She and a friend, Barbara Cirrincione, co-founded ECCAHT in 2008 with three goals: to raise public awareness of human trafficking, to provide services to victims, and to advocate for stronger legislation. "Since then, we've been working with the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI, law enforcement, and others to combat trafficking in our area."

Bagwell cites a number of factors that lure human traffickers - who in turn lure victims - to the Grand Strand. "Being close to major corridors like I-95 make it very easy for traffickers to transport victims from state to state. With organized traffickers, that is a very effective way to keep the crime under the radar," says Bagwell. "Being in a resort area, the population is so transient and can fluctuate as much as 500,000 on a busy holiday. Traffickers find it simple to come and go at will, and they have a built-in clientele in an area that caters heavily to tourists." In the everyday drama of living in a tourist town, the crime of human trafficking goes on behind the scenes, where it can go almost unnoticed.

For the Myrtle Beach Police Department, part of dealing effectively with human traffickers is knowing who the victims are. Human trafficking is intrinsically tied to other forms of crime, such as drug dealing, gang activity and of course, prostitution. It's important for law enforcement to be able to make the distinction between people who willfully commit criminal acts, and those that have been coerced into it.

Sgt. Selena Mann has been a Training Sergeant with the Conway Police Department for three-and-a-half years. Prior to working for the Conway force, Mann spent the first 10 years of her law enforcement career with the Myrtle Beach Police Dept. In 2006, prompted by Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall, Mann wrote the first "Administrative Regulations and Operating Procedures" for police to follow when dealing with victims and perpetrators of human trafficking. At that time, there were no formal policies in place to guide law enforcement officers through the hidden, murky waters of the forced sex and labor market.

After completing extensive research and training, Mann developed a list of characteristics to identify victims and bring offenders to justice. Adopted by the Myrtle Beach and Conway Police departments, Mann's suggestions serve as a general guideline for law officers. "Our biggest hurdle is often that the trafficking victim is kept so isolated," says Mann. "There may or may not be a language barrier. Depending on where they are from, they may have a distrust of law enforcement. The trafficker often convinces them we will punish and not help them."

Officers are trained to look beneath the surface and be aware of clues that human trafficking is taking place. Heavy surveillance and security around a property, a number of women and girls who live there but only leave when escorted, and heavy foot traffic of men coming and going can all be indicators of sex trafficking. Workers who live on-site or are driven to and from work by someone acting as a guardian, who have no personal identifying documents, no money and defer to someone else when questioned should raise suspicions of forced labor trafficking. "We implemented this into annual In-Service Training for officers so they would know what to look for and how to 'dig a little deeper' on certain calls," says Mann. "I also met with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and FBI agents to make sure we knew what they needed to start their investigation."

The same warning signs that tip off law enforcement to a victim of trafficking can tip off concerned residents. "We in law enforcement rely heavily on the community to give us tips on possible human trafficking," says Mann. "It is so important for people within the community to know about the signs of human trafficking and the resources available so they can help these victims when they come into contact with them."

Trafficking victims are often too ashamed and demoralized to come forward. You have to look for them. Resort areas, such as the Grand Strand, need to look below the surface of things to the backbone of the tourism trade - the hospitality and service industry. Housekeepers, maintenance workers, landscapers, food service workers - all these jobs and more are lucrative ways for traffickers to make money off the misery of others, through modern day slavery.

Forced labor thriving

The savage, graphic nature of sexual exploitation captures our attention. In terms of understanding human trafficking, forced labor is the other side of the coin. While modern day slavery doesn't get much attention, it permeates our daily lives. Electronics, clothing and cosmetics - all are industries that have been linked to forced labor. Coffee, sugar, rice, chocolate, and vanilla - all have connections to countries that rely on forced labor for harvesting, according to experts.

The demand for cheap goods and services has fueled traffickers domestically, as well as abroad. Business for labor traffickers has been busier than ever, and these criminals have increasingly found the frantic pace of resort towns a perfect place to blend in.

The recent spotlight has been on immigration, with an angry public outraged over illegal immigrants who come here to "take our jobs" as the rallying cry goes. What the public doesn't realize is that some of them aren't here by choice. Victims of labor trafficking are lied to and coerced into accepting jobs for which they will never get paid and there is no escape, short of death. "This is not about illegals paying to be smuggled into this country. This is about people being bought and sold for cheap labor, and the driving force is money," says Betty Houbion, Vice President of ECCAHT. In the U.S., trafficking was once seen mainly on farmlands and rural settings, but the recent economic recession and a depressed job market have enabled labor trafficking to flourish, and traffickers have made huge profits by contracting labor to the service and hospitality industry.

Debt bondage, like other forms of trafficking, preys on vulnerable, desperate people not thinking clearly. Victims will be promised jobs in exchange for a fee, according to trafficking experts. They're hustled directly into labor camps, where they are stripped of personal I.D. as well as travel documents, such as student visas or immigration papers. Pressured to sign a contract they often don't understand - if they did they wouldn't sign it - they basically sign their individual rights away and agree to be an indentured servant of the trafficker until the debt is repaid.

Unfortunately, the debt is never repaid, because no matter how many hours the victim works, the debt just keeps piling up. Aside from being charged exorbitant fees for basic living expenses such as food and shelter, traffickers pad their victims' tab with charges for using restrooms or showers, and for incidentals such as soap and toilet paper. Victims may be charged for so called "infractions"- not producing enough or not working enough hours, or for making contact with someone outside of the ring. Victims are often kept in squalid conditions, undernourished, and are physically and psychologically abused.

In the spotlighted Missouri case (at the top of this column), traffickers owned three companies, Giant Labor Solutions, 5 Star Cleaning and Crystal Management, that contracted victims out to 14 states, including South Carolina. "I think what happens on the Grand Strand sometimes is that a contractor or subcontractor will come, the paperwork seems together and the employer thinks everything is alright," says Houbion. "They imbed trafficked victims in with legitimate workers, no one ever knows and it can be very hard to uncover." ECCAHT has worked with local hotels and restaurants to warn employers what to be on the alert for. Temporary agencies can imbed trafficked workers in back-of-the-house type jobs, such as dishwashers and housekeepers, that don't have much contact with the general public. The warning signs can be subtle. "The victim will be looking over their shoulder, there'll be no laughing or camaraderie," says Houbion. "In a business like this, there'll be tension."

Houbion encourages people to be aware of what they see, and of what might be going on behind the scenes. She also encourages people to call the Human Trafficking National Hotline (1-888-373-7888). The hotline is operated by the Polaris Project (polarisproject.org), the leading non-profit organization in the U.S. dealing with the complex issues surrounding human trafficking. Named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, the Polaris Project combats human trafficking through education and advocacy. Says Houbion, "Give them the location, what you observed, what makes you think it might be trafficking, and it will get to the right authorities."

Of course, common sense says that if you come in contact with someone who seems in immediate danger or is hurt -call 911.

Getting the word out

Victims often feel a strange bond with their captors, and are dependent on them emotionally, physically and financially for survival, experts say. "Psychological coercion is one of the most effective tools the traffickers use to control their victims," says Bagwell, president and co-founder of ECCAHT. "Often, victims of human trafficking have already been betrayed by someone they trusted. If not just by the traffickers themselves, then maybe someone responsible for connecting them to the traffickers."

Bagwell will be a speaker March 23 at a one-day seminar in Myrtle Beach providing training to law enforcement, healthcare, social service groups and the general public on how to recognize, and potentially rescue, human trafficking victims. The one-day training seminar will be held at the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors office at 951 Shine Ave., near The Market Common on former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. Continuing education (CE) credits will be given to participants in the criminal justice, healthcare and social service fields.

Cheryl Neuner is a Nursing Education Coordinator for the Pee Dee Area Health Education Center. According to Neuner, it's important to get the word out to medical professionals as healthcare settings are among the few places victims get a chance to interact with the general public, if only for brief periods. "Victims can be taken to the hospital or clinical setting (such as a doctor's office) to receive treatment for injuries, sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy," says Neuner. "Without adequate education, the nurse may not recognize certain behaviors from the victim or those who accompany them." These behaviors can range from averting eye contact or allowing someone else to make their decisions, to physical symptoms such as malnutrition, bruises from restraints and vaginal tears. It's like the symptoms of a disease, and the disease is human trafficking. "With better education," says Neuner, "providers can more easily identify and assist victims."

In addition to providing education, ECCAHT members serve as advocates for legislation that would impose stiffer penalties on human traffickers. South Carolina is one the first states in the country to pass a law increasing the classification of human trafficking to a Class A felony - punishable by up to 35 years in prison. While traffickers make a nice profit preying on the vulnerabilities of their victims, a new asset forfeiture bill in the South Carolina House of Representatives will take money out of trafficker's pockets and put it toward paying for their crimes. "With asset forfeiture, a couple of million dollars can go back to helping victims," says Houbion of the ECCAHT. "Service providers can be paid and trained, some of law enforcement's costs for training and investigations could be covered. Trafficking is such a high money-maker, it's taking the money out of the trafficking system. No money, no crime, no victims."

Locally, ECCAHT co-founder Bagwell urges people to come to a group meeting. "There are many ways the public can get involved," says Bagwell. "We have had groups put together victim kits, basic necessities for those who are found. Fundraising is also a crucial element of our work, as grants are difficult to come by." Bagwell says the group is looking for people to help compile a list of resources for victims, such as housing, legal assistance, interpreters and medical facilities. One of the most important things people can do is acknowledge it's a problem. Not only is human trafficking - modern day slavery -happening, but it's happening right here and it's on the rise. "Anyone with the ability to help get the word out," says Bagwell. "There is plenty of work to go around."

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