Ambassador Luis CdeBaca has a demanding portfolio: He runs the State Department office devoted to fighting human trafficking and slavery around the world.
So why was he at the University of New Hampshire School of Law last week on a trip that included meeting with local cops, activists, and policy makers? The answer: Human trafficking — slavery, to put it bluntly — is not something that only occurs elsewhere. It happens under our noses too, and he wants to make Americans more aware of it.
“People think that this doesn’t happen in New England, that this isn’t Houston or Miami,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “But it does happen here.’’
He’s right, of course. Pimps have been known to target under-age girls in Boston MBTA stations. Community groups like Roxbury Youthworks have worked to stem the flow of young girls entering a world of crime and dependence that can be almost impossible to break out of.
New England states are moving toward tougher laws to fight trafficking.
Just a couple of weeks ago, prosecutors in Rhode Island won the first prosecution under that state’s new human trafficking law. Two pimps from Yonkers, N.Y., were convicted of luring young women into prostitution and holding them hostage. The men got lengthy jail terms.
Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states that don’t have a human trafficking statute — though that may soon change. State Representative Cory Atkins of Concord and Attorney General Martha Coakley have joined forces on a bill that would boost penalties for exploitation and forced labor.
CdeBaca has worked in the field of trafficking for years. He cut his teeth on the issue in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — then led by Deval Patrick — and has been involved in prosecuting exploitation cases across the country.
He has come to believe that those who traffic in human beings share certain traits. “One of the things I found — whether they were Americans, Koreans, or Mexicans — was that they were tremendously self-confident, tremendously manipulative, and had an utter disregard for the humanity of other people,’’ CdeBaca said. “It is those people who figure out how to make money out of cruelty.’’
The Rhode Island case was an example of such cruelty. The victims in the case had known defendant Andrew Fakhoury since childhood. He lured the women to Rhode Island with talk of waitressing jobs. When they got to Providence, they found themselves forced into prostitution and unable to break away. At the sentencing earlier this month, the women wept through their victim impact statements. The pimps betrayed no emotion.
CdeBaca said his mission is to help police officers and others become more aware of the signs of trafficking. On last week’s visit, he spoke to them about asking the right questions of women picked up for prostitution, and being aware they often need help in getting away from their captors. And he wanted victim witness advocates and others to know that they also have a role to play.
CdeBaca said federal officials are keeping a close eye on the Massachusetts legislation. “Massachusetts has always been a leader in areas such as this, and now they’re playing catch-up,’’ he noted. “They can be a leader in this area too.’Strictly speaking, domestic human trafficking doesn’t seem to have much to do with State Department foreign policy. But it is an issue that spans domestic and foreign concerns — especially because many of those enslaved are recently arrived immigrants. This is a problem with a distinctly international flavor.
And the ambassador suggests that how we respond to it matters to the world.
“We want to make human rights norms a reality,’’ he said. “It’s not enough to say we believe in freedom and have children and women enslaved in brothels.’’
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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