Ga. officers addressing growing human trafficking problem
Atlanta one of 14 cities with highest number of child prostitutes in U.S.
By Rhonda Cook
ATLANTA — The market for enslaved workers and prostitutes has prospered in the shadows of Atlanta and other major cities, but local, state and federal authorities have begun to aggressively hunt and prosecute those who trade in human beings.
Human trafficking catches many in its web — from children and adults forced into the sex trade, to people who come to the United States for jobs as nannies or restaurant workers but find themselves trapped. They can be people smuggled from other countries as well as disenfranchised young U.S. citizens.
The FBI named Atlanta one of the 14 cities with the highest number of child prostitutes — a shameful statistic that intensified attention on the human trafficking problem overall. Atlanta is a prime spot for trafficking; travel is easy and the area's diversity allows human trafficking victims to disappear.
"It's always been here, but it's a lightly reported crime," said Brian Lamkin, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Atlanta office.
Statistics on the crime have been piecemeal, but that could soon be over. A 2011 state law gave the GBI more power to pursue human traffickers, and 300 to 400 local law enforcement officers are being trained this month to identify human trafficking victims.
Too often, local police treat the "girls as willing prostitutes instead of victims" when they unknowingly come across human sex trafficking, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said.
Next year, the FBI will begin collecting human trafficking statistics from local law enforcement in hopes of shedding light on a criminal operation that counts on the victims' fear, shame and desperation to keep the enterprises hidden.
"I couldn't escape," said Keisha Head, who was forced into the prostitution by now-convicted pimp "Sir" Charles Pipkins. "I didn't know how to get out. ... I always did what it took not to get beaten."
Head, using her experiences after she found herself with no home at age 12, is talking to victims who come to the advocacy group A Future. Not a Past. And she was recently at the state Capitol, advocating for a pending resolution (House Resolution 1151) to study human trafficking and its victims. It passed the House but needs Senate approval.
It's a crime that people don't expect to see in Georgia, said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.
People would say they saw the sex slave industry on "ministry trips to Haiti and to Thailand," Unterman said, "and I would say, 'Go with me to a bus station in downtown Atlanta.' ... We have studies that show the demand is in the suburbs where you have disposable incomes and access to the Internet and you can order up the 15-year-old blond-haired girl."
Authorities are trying to change that. A 2011 Georgia law lays out significant prison time for those convicted of human trafficking. A GBI unit devoted to human trafficking has opened 125 cases since the law took effect July 1; the GBI has made 16 arrests, but none of those cases has gone to trial yet.
A trap is set
Traffickers use a variety of ruses to entrap their victims — from promises of marriage, to good-paying jobs. But once caught, the people held in servitude for sex or labor have little control over their lives.
To describe the problem as "modern-day slavery is an understatement," Lamkin said.
They are berated or beaten if they complain or don't do enough even after having multiple sex partners in one night or working 20-hour days with little time to sleep.
Many don't speak English. Their captors have threatened them or their families. They are ashamed.
Or they fear law enforcement because they are here illegally.
So they don't — or feel they can't — leave.
"The traffickers prey on vulnerable victims and exploit them in unimaginable ways," said Yates, the U.S. attorney. "They target children, runaways and those who are undocumented. We are committed to using every tool in our arsenal to hold them accountable for their horrific crimes."
KV was 16 when she was smuggled into the United States by a man who promised to find her a job so she could support her family in Mexico. But beginning a day after she got to Gwinnett County, KV was forced to have sex with several men a night. The $15 she collected from each session was turned over to her handler, leaving her nothing to send to Mexico.
"I'd cry every night. My mother didn't know I was in the U.S.," KV said.
KV finally escaped after she was beaten for not earning enough money.
Some of the men who held her have been convicted and are in prison, but one is still at large.
KV, now 22, agreed to an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution only if she would be identified only by the initials used for her in the trial of Francisco Cortes-Meza, who was convicted.
She remains in the United States with a "T visa," which gives trafficking victims four years to secure permanent residency. She tends bar to support herself and her 2-year-old daughter here and to send money to Mexico for her mother, grandmother, sisters and her now-5-year-old daughter.
Crime takes forms
"Human trafficking goes beyond [the sex trade]," Lamkin said. "It's [also] people brought here under the auspices of working in a hotel or being an au pair. Then the tables are turned on them."
RM came to Woodstock from India to be a nanny. At first, the woman who recruited her paid her $300 a month and allowed her days off. Two weeks before RM's tourist visa was to expire, she was moved to the unheated basement to sleep on the floor, her employer stopped paying and she was no longer allowed any time off from caring for two children, cleaning the house and cooking.
"You realize you're a prisoner," RM said in an interview with the AJC.
She spoke on the condition that she be identified only by the initials used in federal court because she fears retribution from the couple who once held her captive. The now-free couple served some prison time in RM's case.
A neighbor helped RM escape.
"I don't know if I would have lasted any longer," said RM, 42 and now married. "I would have killed myself. I didn't see any hope."
Stepping up the fight
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened 651 human trafficking investigations in 2010, a 15 percent increase over the previous year. ICE agents arrested 300 people, resulting in 144 convictions of federal crimes though not all of them were for the specific crime of human trafficking.
Last year in Atlanta, federal prosecutors using the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 secured guilty pleas, convictions or prison sentences for eight human traffickers. Three of those people were sent to prison for enslaving women from other countries to watch their children or to clean their houses. There is no parole in the federal system.
Besides authorities' efforts, secular and religious groups formed a coalition to lobby politicians on the issue — a factor in the passage of last year's state law — and put up money to help victims restart their lives with counseling and other programs.
Unterman, the state senator, said the task in Georgia is to educate local law enforcement and the public that human trafficking isn't simply a matter of a teenager choosing a life of prostitution.
"We are still trying to educate social workers, prosecutors, judges," she said. "There's still plenty of work to do."
Staff writer Christopher Quinn contributed to this article.
Copyright 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution