Imagine you are a woman living in an impoverished village in Moldova or Bulgaria, and someone offers you a glittering life in the West. For thousands of women in post-communist Europe, it was an offer impossible to resist; but it led them into the violent, shadowy world of sex trafficking rings. Twenty-first century sex slavery, driven by corruption and shadowy criminal cartels, continues to defy global efforts to stop it.
Mimi Chakarova, a 34-year-old California journalist born in Bulgaria, spent eight years tracking the sex trade in an investigation that took her from the hard-scrabble villages of central Europe to Turkey and Dubai. In the course of her investigation, she posed as a prostitute in Istanbul’s red light district. Her 73-minute documentary, “The Price of Sex," had its world premiere in Sarasota April 17, and Chakarova herself is due to be awarded the 2011 Human Rights Watch Festival’s Nestor Almenderos Award for Courage in Filmmaking.
The film, produced in association with the Center for Investigative Reporting, will be screened at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York June 16-30. To see the trailer, Chakarova’s photographs, a map of trafficking hotspots, as well as links and resources and ways to get involved, visit: http://priceofsex.org
Chakarova, in response to e-mailed questions from The Crime Report editor in chief Stephen Handelman, discusses why she made the film, why police and other authorities close their eyes to what’s going on―and how the sex rings are shrewdly changing their methods through “happy trafficking.”
The Crime Report: This is an intensely personal account as well as a journalistic investigation. What motivated you to make this documentary?
Mimi Chakarova: What motivated me changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So, I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism.
Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. It was my obligation to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.
TCR: You introduce the film by quoting a Bulgarian proverb that you were entering the 'mouth of the wolf' What did you mean?
MC: What I meant was that digging around for answers in the underbelly of red light districts, mafia-infested areas and corrupt officials gets you killed in the Balkans and in other places where human life is treated as a commodity.
TCR: What drives women into the clutches of sex traffickers?
MC: Desperation. If your choice is either to starve by staying or to leave your village or town and seek work abroad, you would leave too. Traffickers prey on the most desperate and vulnerable, because no one would look for them once they're sold into prostitution. The system is ruthless, and what makes it even more disturbing is that the supply of women is abundant. There is no shortage of people seeking a better life and willing to take their chances.
TCR: At one point in the documentary, you say that for traffickers “one kilo of cocaine, one AK47 and one Moldovan girl are all the same.” What did you mean?
MC: This was originally a quote by a Croatian writer whom I met in Istanbul in 2009. He put it very simply: "Let’s not pretend we don’t know the system. In many countries, (there are) corrupt leaders of (the) army, police, ministers, influential people... For the major players in that pimp game, you’re nothing. You’re one kilo of cocaine, or one AK 47, or one Moldova girl, that’s all the same to them."
TCR: You suggestion corruption of local police and authorities is both a driver and enabler of the trafficking trade. But are large transnational criminal cartels playing a role?
MC: Of course, transnational criminal networks play a role. But they would have a much harder time conducting business if the police and authorities were not complacent and in some cases, fully involved. Another thing to keep in mind is that traffickers are constantly remolding and adapting their schemes.
Initially, in the 1990s, they used brutal force, gang rape, starvation, and torture to keep the women in check. In the past few years, they've come up with a new method called "happy trafficking." They use psychological threats to keep the women from running or pressing charges. They also know that the younger the girl, the more likely she can be brainwashed into believing that her main purpose in this life is to sell her body and to hand over every penny she makes off her flesh.
I had a young woman from Ukraine tell me that her pimp buys her cigarettes and that if I worked for him (I was doing undercover work at the time,) that's one of the perks I could look forward to.
TCR: In one stunning revelation in the film, the director of a nonprofit in Moldova charges that some international aid to help woman affected by the trade is diverted to corrupt officials. Have you been able to back that up? What are the implications?
MC: I have not had corrupt officials admit on camera that they're pocketing international aid. But as the attorney in Moldova stated, despite large amounts of funding to help combat human trafficking in Eastern Europe in the past ten years, trafficking continues to plague the region for two main reasons: poverty and corruption in the countries of origin; AND demand and corruption in the countries of destination.
The women who manage to survive and escape don't receive the appropriate rehabilitation, and that is the most dire implication. Those who need the most help are the ones who are most neglected. Add stigma to the equation and you can understand why women would rather keep quiet.
TCR: What can U.S. journalists do to follow up on these stories?
MC: First and foremost, don't only scratch the surface or sensationalize trafficking. Make sure you speak the language and you can communicate with the women directly. Make sure you've worked with people who've experienced trauma. And most importantly, understand that to get to the bottom of someone's trafficking experience often takes years.
TCR: It took some courage to enter this world. Were the risks and dangers more than you expected?
MC: I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn't have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can't show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it's "safe," you can't turn it off.
TCR: As far as you know, is the sex trafficking trade in Asia pretty much similar to what you've uncovered in Eastern Europe?
MC: I know that Asia is leading in numbers in both sex and labor trafficking. I saw a lot of Chinese women sold for sex in Dubai and they go for the cheapest price. They are also exploited in some of the worst ways. My primary focus in the film has been on Eastern Europe, the West and parts of the Middle East. I haven't investigated this issue in Asia.
Stephen Handelman is Editor-in-Chief of The Crime Report