Trafficking in Hope
Fast, I got to find out the secrets of controlling women. I really want to control the whole (woman). I want to be the boss of her life, even her thoughts. I got to con them that Lincoln never freed the slaves. –Iceberg Slim, 1952
Iceberg Slim (real name Robert Beck) was a real-life “hustler” in the 1940’s and 50’s. His career ended with a mere 10 months in prison, after which he became a writer at age 42 – after two decades of exploiting women in the sex trade. Let’s call a spade a spade. What we used to call a “pimp”, that’s a trafficker. And ironically, what we now call a “trafficker”, we used to call a slave owner. Has there ever been a more hated historical archetype than the Old South Slave Driver? Despite the outcomes of the Civil War and the many victories over oppression that appear throughout history, there are more slaves in our world today than at any other point in time, but in order for us to care – or take any action – we have to believe this fact. And to do so, we need to change our definition of slavery. I sat down with Alex Olivares, Catholic Charities’ Director for the Human Trafficking program and asked him a series of uncomfortable questions. His program is the “Catholic” response to the second biggest black market on our planet. It’s a market that degrades people in the worst ways, ruins lives, and yet, has a demand which seems to only grow over time. As much as I love small talk, this is not that. This information could help save someone from a fate that… I don’t know, because I can’t possibly imagine such a fate.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
Damian Hanley: So how does someone diagnose a victim of trafficking? Most are afraid to come forward, right?
Alex Olivares: Yes, it’s sort of a broad answer, but generally they’re girls that are still of school age. You look for certain neck tattoos or “branding” as they call it – money symbols, “daddy” or another guy’s name on their back. Then if they’re talking about age-inappropriate sex talk. Like if they’re speaking about sex in a way that’s not typical of someone their age, or they talk about an “older boyfriend”. Then of course there are signs of domestic violence, signs of abuse, fear and control.
DH: How might you tell someone’s being controlled? That seems like a vague concept.
AO: It is, but we had a girl come into our Bonita office and apply for food stamps. She kept mentioning the word ‘forced’ and she didn’t have a cell phone. These days, everyone has a cell phone, so that’s a red flag. If they come in and someone else is speaking for them, another big flag. We have to delicately get information out of them and piece together a lot of little red flags to determine if trafficking is taking place. Then they call us.
DH: Okay, so once you have a case, you start kicking in doors? How do you address the victim?
AO: Haha! That’s what the cops do, our job is a little different. We immediately get them out of the situation they’re in. We get them screened for illnesses or STDs or any other problem they might have. We get them emergency housing immediately, whether it’s in a shelter or a hotel, or some kind of transitional housing. Then once they’re “certified” as a victim of human trafficking, the government provides money so we can take care of their needs.
DH: I imagine they’re pretty messed up, mentally and emotionally, once they get to you.
AO: Yes. We get them mental health counseling. We get them job training. If they’re foreign national, and they agree to help with law enforcement, they can apply for a temporary visa, which may allow them to bring family members over… and we do ALL of that stuff. Sometimes we partner with other agencies, but end-to-end, we take care of all of their needs.
DH: So are you dealing with mostly women? Or do you see men in sex trafficking too?
AO: Actually, in labor trafficking, it’s mostly men, but we do see them in sex slavery as well.
DH: And what is the difference between slavery and trafficking?
AO: They used to differentiate based on the movement of the victims, but those definitions have fallen by the wayside. These days human trafficking is slavery.
DH: So tell me what some of these girls are going through when you find them.
AO: Picture this: When someone is a victim of sexual assault or rape, it is psychologically traumatic for them. Typically there are symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression… Now try to imagine someone who’s been raped 40 times per day, for six months straight. The effect can be pretty severe. In some cases you have disassociation. I’m not talking about total schizophrenia, but loss of memory, fugue states, a lot of depression, and a lot of anxiety. Some have pretty severe PTSD symptoms, but it’s generally a lot of depression and anxiety.
DH: Do they ever fully recover?
AO: A lot of our clients do really well, but out of the 74 victims I’ve worked with over the past few years, I’ve had only one instance of Stockholm Syndrome (feelings of trust or affection felt in certain cases of kidnapping, or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor), and that is increasingly being reported from other agencies around the state.
DH: Dare I ask, where does Florida rank among the states for trafficking?
AO: We’re not #1, but we’re either #2 or #3 depending on which reporting statistics you use.
DH: How would law enforcement describe the scope of the problem, statistically?
AO: Believe it or not, there have been no state prosecutions for human trafficking in Florida, although there have been several at the federal level. It’s an extremely hard crime to prosecute because often the victims aren’t good witnesses. They’ve been kept in train cars, or closets, or locked in basements, and so they don’t see much of their surroundings. But often they’ll be charged with prostitution, transportation with intent to prostitution, child pornography…
DH: And so the girls have charges to deal with too?
AO: NO! The authorities have done away with the whole “teen prostitute” concept. They are all victims, not criminals.
DH: In all cases? I mean, volitionally, a 16-year old girl does have the choice to prostitute herself, right?
AO (getting uncomfortable): I mean, anyone under the age of 18 does not have the choice to consent to public sex. And even if they say there’s no one forcing them – there’s no pimp, or “boyfriend” – very, very, very rarely is there not someone else behind it. They’re never out there on their own volition.
DH: I’m used to asking inappropriate questions, so I apologize.
AO: Ask anything you want.
DH: So is anything being done on a national level to curb this?
AO: It’s almost impossible because of the demand. People have been soliciting sex for thousands of years. The best way to prevent this is just to educate young people on how to avoid potentially dangerous situations like that. Do you remember that movie Taken? There are scenarios like that. They’re rare, but that kind of stuff is happening.
DH: The crux is, however, that this could potentially happen to anyone, right?
AO: My youngest client was 9. My oldest was 67. We’ve had clients from Russia, Slovakia, the DR, Nicaragua and of course, here in the US.
DH: And why does South Florida see a higher volume of these types of crimes?
AO: A few reasons. One, there are a lot of rural areas, which are good to hide people you don’t want being found. Two, there are a lot of runaways because of the weather. I mean, there are runaways in Massachusetts too, but here, they can do it all year round. We have a lot of tourism too, which makes it ideal for certain types of labor trafficking.
DH: As far as being a Catholic organization, is there any spiritual component to your process?
AO: We always recommend that type of thing, but we don’t make it a requirement. We’ll transport them to services and ensure, as part of their ‘community reintegration’ practice, that they can become a part of their congregation. In a lot of cases, it is the most important part of their support system.
DH: We’ll that’s about all I can handle of this topic (laughter), so in closing, what can someone do if they suspect trafficking is taking place?
AO: Two things. If you have an imminent suspicion of trafficking, always call 911 and tell the person you have suspicion someone is being trafficked for reasons A, B or C, and they’ll send someone immediately. If you have some idea, and are unsure, you can call Catholic Charities hotline at 239-738-8722, and we can come out and verify, get in touch with law enforcement, and we take it from there.