Human and drug trafficking

Last week the US State Department released the most exhaustive report on human trafficking ever published. Representing a year of thorough research, The Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 – now in its eleventh year - analyzes the extent of human trafficking across the world, placing every country into one of three tiers according to their effectiveness in tackling the problem. Human trafficking is a lucrative hidden industry carrying an estimated annual revenue of $32 billion – more than Wall Street took in the last quarter.

According to the study, 800, 000 people are forcibly enslaved and transported across international borders every year. The TIP statistic is a starkly conservative one though, because the real number of people being trafficked is incredibly difficult to quantify in such an underground market. UNICEF argues that 1.2 million children alone are trafficked each year. Campaigners claim that it is the world’s fastest growing illegal trade.

The tragedy of the problem is impossible to comprehend by looking at figures, and the timidity of the statistical data somewhat downplays the complexity and scale of global human trafficking. There is, however, a pattern that emerges from the paper which is echoed in all kinds of research associated with this problem. Throughout the world, the TIP report asserts, it is women and young girls who are most susceptible to being trafficked as drugs mules, labourers and sex workers. Further, in its country-by-country assessment, the study consistently expresses that the trafficking of these women is deeply rooted in other types of organised crime.

The report steers clear of making generalised assertions about the character and foundations of trafficking, but anyone who takes the time to scroll through an arbitrarily-selected handful of its ‘country narratives’ will conclude that sex trafficking and drugs-related organised crime go hand-in-hand. 

If there is one norm in all of these countries’ trafficking profiles it is this: that the coercive enslavement of women is deeply bound up with other exploitative relationships that are concealed due to their illegality. It is clear that, nowadays, the bulk of prostitution rings are financed and managed by underground groups whose main source of revenue is drugs.

One can see how the drugs trade and the sex trade interweave in the example of The Los Zetas Cartel, the famed criminal organisation considered to be the most violent and ruthless paramilitary group in Mexico. The relationship between sex trafficking and the trade in illicit drugs in many parts of Mexico is a potent one that terrorises the poorer communities targeted by gangs and traffickers. The latest figure released by the Mexican government on the number of fatalities during its four and a half year military-led crackdown on drugs is 34, 000.

One man who didn’t want to be identified, and who has worked with many of the victims of the Los Zetas cartel says that human-trafficking (and therefore the forced prostitution of women) is flourishing in Mexican gangs right now. Michael Ware of CNN argues that the trafficking of humans for labour and sex has become increasingly attractive to Mexican drugs cartels who have had their trade in drugs attacked and restricted by the authorities. ‘The cartels are coming under so much pressure in terms of their drugs business that they’re branching out into other enterprises’.

Amanda Kloer of change.org explains why these criminal organisations have started to depend on sex trafficking to supplement their drugs trafficking business. ‘When a drug cartel traffics a pound of cocaine into the US’, she explains ‘they can sell it only once. When they traffic a young woman, they can sell her again and again’. Ralph Reyes, a Mexican and Central American Chief DEA, says that cartels like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Confederation are, by nature, fundamentally adaptable to the illegal market. ‘The Zetas are a prime example of an organisation that has, from a traditional perspective, looked into other areas of making money’. By extending their violent activities into human trafficking, criminal organisations like these are following what Ware describes as a ‘classic business model’ – identifying a new market and a new means of making money.

The sophistication and reach of gangs and drugs cartels has created considerable anxiety and political alarm in the US. Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is shocked by the growth he has seen in human trafficking in these groups. 'We’re not just bringing more cases’, he says ‘we’re bringing cases of unprecedented scope and impact’.

Many have argued that the scale of this crisis has not been met with much subtlety by the authorities. Ruth Dearnley of Stop the Traffik says that, although human trafficking is increasing, it is very rarely a top priority for most countries. 'Enforcement agencies have always focused on the drugs and arms trade but this is the fastest growing global crime'.

Certainly, the Mexican government’s attempts to destroy the Los Zetas cartel with a ‘mano dura’ (‘iron fist’), has thus far proven far from effective. President Felipe Calderon’s sustained attack on drugs cartels in his country leaves insufficient resources to combat human trafficking and also means that the problem of sex trafficking is excluded from the international discussion about the effects of organised crime.

In fact, instead of dispersing and weakening the cartel and the offshoot gangs associated with them, the policy has encouraged an even better-armed, more aggressive response from Los Zetas. Arguably, it has strengthened and diversified the cartel, forcing them to branch out into other forms of human crime to subsidize the losses they make because of Calderon’s ‘war on drugs’. This diversification of the organized crime field is particularly affecting women - the group most vulnerable group to this devastating trade.

This vulnerability comes about because, worldwide, it is girls and women who bear the greatest brunt of economic hardship and infrastructural inequalities. Girls from poor communities are often pressured to provide for their families and are more likely than their male peers to become victims of abuse - this renders them deeply exploitable.

‘A typical example of a drug mule’ says Olga Heaven, Director and Founder of the UK based charity FPWP Hibiscus, ‘is a single woman with two children and a mother to take care of. Something may have happened within the family, or the woman may owe money or fall behind with the rent or the school fees’.

Heaven goes on to explain how such an individual is targeted by drugs traffickers or slave-masters, who are accomplished in selecting the most vulnerable  Initially appearing as an ally, a trafficker offers to lend the struggling woman money, knowing that she will find it difficult to return her debt. When the woman admits that she is unable to pay back the loan, the trafficker will demand other illegal services for her as alternative ‘repayment’. ‘It’s a type of coercion’ says Heaven ‘but the woman does not see it this way because she owes them the money and feels obliged to pay it back’.

The woman, whose weaker financial and social position rendered her a prime trafficking target, finds herself transporting illicit drugs or becomes a sex worker to fulfil a contract whose outcome always secretly entailed her increasing subjugation. ‘In many cases’, Heaven says, ‘women are sent with the drugs and when they arrive in the UK and deliver them, the drug traffickers who sent them will put them to work as a prostitute, drugs supplier or as a maid’.

Alienated, bewildered and ashamed, once a girl or woman has been manipulated or forced into criminality, she is highly likely to be taken advantage of again. As Heaven argues, the business of human trafficking creates in enslaved individual a certain dependency on the industry. Many women who have been trafficked as sex workers or drugs mules often become traffickers themselves, moving from coerced victim into coercive aggressor.

It is a sad fact that, in many countries the typical response towards trafficked women has often tended towards an attitude of unwavering punishment. However, argues Heaven, an individual transporting illicit drugs usually does not do so without having been abused or manipulated into the role. ‘When we meet a typical woman who is in her mid to late 50s with grandchildren who is the sole provider for them and who decides to carry drugs because it’s the only way she is going to survive, you have to have sympathy for her.’

Frequently, says Crystal Amiss of London Black Women’s Rape Action Project, women's accounts of being trafficked are doubted, attacked and ignored when they escape their bondage to seek asylum. Treated as illegal migrants rather than as victims, they once again subjected to punishment, imprisonment and vilification.

In April this year, the Home Office decided to forcibly deport a 24 year old Ghanaian Felicia Adjei, who was trafficked into Britain eight years ago. Hours before her flight, the European Commission of Human Rights halted the deportation after a public outcry. Adjei contracted HIV and became pregnant when she was forced to work as a prostitute after her abusive father sent her to England to earn money for her family. Jerry Oppenheim of the UK Border Agency explains why the decision to deport Ms. Adjei was taken, ‘When (we) find someone is not in need of our protection, we expect the person to leave voluntarily. If they fail to do so, we will seek to enforce their removal’.

However, the Poppy project, which gives support and shelter to women who have been forced into domestic slavery or prostitution, says that if Adjei was made to return to Ghana, she would face the wrath and condemnation of the community there. Pregnancy outside of marriage is a major social taboo in Ghana and prostitution is considered deeply immoral. ‘Not only are the relevant services not in place’, explained the Poppy Project, ‘but the social stigma and pressures she (Adjei) will experience will prevent her from recovering and may endanger her life’.

This punishment of the victims of trafficking who have often been abused, coerced, raped and consistently deceived by organized criminal gangs cannot be separated from the enduring stigmatization and dehumanization of sex workers.

In many societies, women who have been trafficked as sex workers and who return to their community are ostracized and cast out. They acquire the permanent identity of prostitute – immoral, unclean and ‘other’. The social rejection often attached to sex work is both a cause and result of the fact that women’s appalling experience as trafficked sexual commodities is barely discussed in a local or a governmental sense.

In large parts of the world (particularly Asia, where sex trafficking is also rife) prostitution is widely considered a sin from which there can be no absolution. In ‘Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia’, Louise Brown describes how prostitutes from Goalunda brothel in Bangladesh are not permitted to wear shoes in public. Instead of having a respectable burial or cremation once they are dead, their bodies must be thrown into the river. In a recent UNAIDS conference, the Holy See rejected prostitution and once again refused to engage with it because it was ‘not a valid form of work’.

The social stigmatization of sex workers globally makes it more likely that women sold and transported for sex – individuals often excluded and condemned by society - will be continue targeted by traffickers. By denying this group a visibility and voice, we consume and perpetuate a very narrow idea of the true impact of drugs trafficking and underground organised crime.