“It’s not that we’re so dumb; it’s just that what we know ain’t so.”
— Will Rogers
As Americans, there are certain things we know to be true: We know that only the South kept slaves, while the North fought a righteous war of liberation. We know the slave trade was legal until the Civil War. We know the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These things we know—and none of it is true.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In October 2014, this story received from the International Regional Magazine Association an award of merit in the public issues category.
On May 25, 2012, Kerry B. Harvey, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, announced a unique conviction. A 38-year-old defendant named Marco Antonio Flores-Benitez had earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first person in the state to be federally convicted of human trafficking. Flores-Benitez was the head of a ring that operated a “prostitution delivery service” between Lexington and Louisville as well as a brothel on Cross Keys Drive in Lexington. According to the indictment, among other charges, he and his gang had enslaved several Spanish-speaking women through “force, fraud and coercion” from states as far afield as Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee, and delivered them to “clients” in Fayette, Woodford, Oldham and Jefferson counties.
The ring, which was busted by the joint efforts of the FBI and local police, had boldly advertised its services in the state’s Spanish-language publications. Flores-Benitez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking—coercing women into sexual bondage—while other members of his gang pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Flores-Benitez was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. The ice had been broken.
Legislating Against the Slave Trade
In the spring of this year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a momentous piece of legislation. Officially known as the Human Trafficking Victims Rights Act, the new law addresses the shocking subject of modern-day slavery in the state and provides for extensive care for survivors. “This is the critical piece of legislation needed to send a message to those who would enter our borders to engage in this heinous crime,” says state Rep. Sannie Overly (D-Paris), the bill’s sponsor. “We won’t tolerate it.”
Human trafficking and its direct offshoot, contemporary slavery, are a massive global problem. And yet, for an offense that state Rep. Johnny Bell (D-Glasgow) has labeled “the most immoral and criminal act” in Kentucky, it is the crime with which most Kentuckians—and, in fact, most Americans—are least familiar. “People hear the term ‘human trafficking,’ and they think it happens someplace else … that it happens in other countries,” says Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad. “Meanwhile, we have people [in Kentucky] forced into situations they can’t get out of.” This comes as no surprise to state Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson), who has long been a proponent of a strong anti-trafficking law: “Ten years ago, when we started talking about human trafficking in Kentucky, people would say, ‘That doesn’t happen here.’ Well, it does happen here.”
A Blight on the Nation
Slavery not only exists throughout the world today; it flourishes. Slavery is legal nowhere in the world, and yet it is practiced everywhere. It is estimated that approximately 27 million people are in bondage worldwide. That’s more than twice as many as were taken in chains during the entire 350 years of the African slave trade. Trafficking in humans is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises of our time, along with drugs and guns, and is responsible for tens of billions of dollars annually in criminal revenues worldwide. Our first impulse is to blame “backward” Third World countries—those “emerging nations”—and we would be partly right. But it’s also prevalent in such “civilized” countries as England, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Scotland, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, China … and the United States. Most Americans do not know slavery is alive and more than well right here, thriving in the dark, and practiced in many forms and in places we would least expect.
Historically, we Americans see ourselves as the world’s foremost messengers and practitioners of personal freedom. We are, after all, the “Land of the Free.” We believe ours is a nation where, for the first time in man’s history, slavery no longer has a place. And yet, there has never been a single day without slavery on this continent, from its European discovery right up to the present moment. But where pre-Civil War slavery was legal, and a sign of wealth and status, today’s forms of bondage are hidden, insidious and often nearly impossible to detect. And while a slave in the 1850s South was expensive, costing upwards of $1,200—around $50,000 in today’s dollars—a modern-day slave can be purchased for as little as $100.
According to a U.S. State Department study, nearly 18,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. from at least 35 countries and enslaved here each year. Some victims are smuggled across the Mexican and Canadian borders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying real or forged papers. Victims come here from Africa, Asia, India, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. To afford the journey, they fork over their life savings and unwittingly go into debt to people who make them promises they have no intention of keeping. Instead of opportunity, when they arrive here, they find bondage. These victims of today’s slavery can be found—or more accurately, not found—in all 50 states, working under coercion as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers, sex slaves and prostitutes. They do not represent a class of poorly paid employees toiling at jobs they might not like. They were bought and sold specifically to work, they are unable to leave, and they are forced to live under the constant threat and reality of violence. By both historical tradition and legal definition, they are slaves.
Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers. Some sources, including the federal government, estimate in the hundreds of thousands the number of U.S. citizens, primarily children and adolescents, at risk of being stolen or enticed from the streets of their own cities and towns annually. Today, we call it human trafficking, but it is nothing less than a modern-day slave trade.
Trafficking and Slavery in Kentucky
Kentucky is no stranger to the world of contemporary slavery. In 2001, the Louisville-based Yum! Brands became the target of a boycott initiated by the South Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW’s efforts were aimed at the Yum!-owned chain Taco Bell in an attempt to ensure the fast-food operation no longer would buy produce picked by enslaved or abused workers. The main objectives were to get Taco Bell to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on slavery; pay a penny more per pound directly to the workers; and draft an “enforceable code of conduct” drawn up in large part by the workers themselves.
Taco Bell refused. The boycott lasted four years and included marches, hunger strikes, media events, a campout on the corporate headquarters lawn, and a “Ban the Bell” campaign on a number of the nation’s college campuses that resulted in several Taco Bell restaurants closing or suffering a serious loss of business. Finally, the fast-food company sat down with representatives of the CIW and signed on the dotted line. In 2007, Yum! Brands included its other companies—KFC, Long John Silver’s, Pizza Hut and A&W—in the agreement. McDonald’s, Burger King and several other fast-food chains soon followed suit.
That same year, Kentucky passed its first human trafficking law, which made it a felony to coerce anyone into any form of forced labor. The most recent state legislation, which had 87 co-sponsors, takes the fight against trafficking and slavery considerably further down the road. Having passed with the unanimous approval of both the state House and Senate, it creates stiffer penalties for traffickers and establishes a victims’ fund to be financed by both fines and the forfeiture of convicted traffickers’ assets. It allows victims to sue their traffickers for damages and unpaid wages. It also seeks to aid underage victims of sex trafficking, offering them rehabilitation and support services, protective custody, and freedom from prosecution on prostitution charges. Instead of a jail cell, minors rescued from forced prostitution are now eligible for services through the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services along with other abuse and neglect victims. The new law becomes the 12th in the nation to adopt such “safe harbor” protections. “In co-authoring the bill, I asked myself, ‘How do we go from a state that potentially criminalizes the child victim to one that is safe harbor-based?’ ” says Overly.
The new law puts Kentucky on a higher anti-trafficking tier—literally. Polaris Project, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization devoted to combating trafficking and slavery, annually evaluates every state in the nation on its performance in the anti-trafficking arena. It uses a four-tier system, with tier one being the most favorable and tier four reflecting minimal to no effort on the part of a given state. In 2012, Polaris assigned Kentucky a tier two rating, indicating that, while the state had taken some steps to fight modern-day slavery, much remained to be done. The report pointed to “categories still needed” such as asset forfeiture, training for law enforcement, a human trafficking task force, and safe harbor for minors. However, James Dold, policy director at Polaris, says, “The state’s new law has the potential of becoming one of the nation’s best safe harbor laws, and it covers most of those issues. I’m pleased to say it has elevated Kentucky to the tier one category.”
There are 57 judicial districts in Kentucky, each with its own Commonwealth’s attorney. Thomas Wine was recently elected to the post for Jefferson County, the state’s largest judicial district. One of his first acts was to publicly declare war on human trafficking. “I’d been reading about the problem elsewhere for years,” he says, “but after attending an American Bar Association seminar in Chicago, I realized that it’s everywhere—and we’re just down the pipeline. And because it exists under the radar, it spreads like a cancer. Human trafficking is a crime that requires minimal investment on the part of the traffickers and yields maximum usage. Most commodities you use once and discard; people can be used over and over again.”
Wine points out, “We’re located at the crossroads of three major interstates, with many truck stops, making it easy to traffic women and young girls.” He has reason to be concerned. Polaris sponsors and operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Anyone who is in trouble or who has witnessed a possible trafficking situation is encouraged to phone it in. In 2012, 202 calls were made to the hotline from Kentucky; of these, 51—more than 25 percent—came from Louisville. Most other cities and towns in the state reflected only a few calls, if that.
Prosecuting the Bad Guys
According to Marissa Castellanos of the Kentucky Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Coalition, since 2008, there have been 16 state and two federal indictments in Kentucky for human trafficking, resulting thus far in only three convictions—one state, two federal. Several other cases are ongoing. The small number of trafficking cases currently in the courts is misleading. In situations where a charge of trafficking based on fraud or coercion would be difficult to prove, cases have been brought on other related charges: assault, kidnapping, rape, endangering the welfare of a minor. As MaryLee Underwood, former staff attorney at the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, points out, “Human trafficking takes place in all sorts of places, like truck stops … and on horse farms and in other industries where workers are forced into slavery under threats of deportation and harm to loved ones.” The Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition’s statistics indicate that, at this writing, more than 100 victims of human trafficking have been identified in Kentucky since 2008—nearly half of them children. Overly is convinced many more victims have gone unidentified. “Because of the lack of sufficient police training, I don’t think these crimes are being identified for what they are,” she says.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kristi Gray points to another hurdle. “One reason more cases are not reported, at least here in Jefferson County, is socioeconomic. There is a huge ethnic mixture in the county: Somali, Sudanese, Bosnian, Serbian, Hispanic, Haitian, Thai, Korean, Cambodian. It’s largely a poverty-driven problem, and we simply don’t hear about it.” Many victims, she says, “won’t pursue law enforcement because immigration issues are at play, and they are reluctant to talk to strangers.” Adds Underwood: “There is a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in certain circles.”
The Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office is prosecuting Justin Ritter, 22, and his 36-year-old cousin, Rebecca Goodwin, who were arrested for facilitation of human trafficking and unlawful transaction with a minor. The two forced a 17-year-old girl into prostitution and shopped her out to various “clients” for $75 a session, which included “the full package.” The Louisville Metro Police Department set up a sting in the parking lot of the Deja Vu strip club and busted the two mid-proposition.
Goodwin’s case was adjudicated in 2012 and ended with her guilty plea and sentencing. It marked the county’s first human trafficking conviction. Ritter’s trial is scheduled for Sept. 23 in Division 8 of Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Another human trafficking arrest was made—also in Jefferson County—in early May. John and Rebecca Hull, owners of Louisville-based Cheetahs Escorts Agency, were arrested and charged with coercing a woman into prostitution. They allegedly told her that if she refused to act as they directed, they would ensure that she lost custody of her child.
A Focal Imbalance
Nearly all Kentucky’s cases to date, including the three that have resulted in convictions, relate to sex trafficking, as opposed to other forms of forced labor. This is largely a result of training, or lack thereof, on the part of the individual police departments. “Our officers are not as familiar with labor trafficking cases as sex cases,” says Gray. “If they were to come across a labor case, it wouldn’t be as obvious to them. It requires a much more detailed investigation, and it’s generally assumed that labor cases go to the feds. Besides, there is much more funding available for sexual coercion cases than labor violations.”
On a more visceral level, sex trafficking is the type of crime that commands the most public attention, and it is not hard to figure out why. “Sex trafficking is, for want of a better word, more ‘sexy,’ ” Wine says. “And besides, everybody has a soft spot for children.” In short, these are more likely to gain sympathy from the public and lawmakers, than, say, the case of a Guatemalan field worker laboring under coercion, or of a middle-aged Taiwanese nanny, beaten and forced to work for no pay, sleep on the floor and eat table scraps. However, no one form of slavery is more egregious than another, and whether the victim is digging a foundation, operating a sewing machine in a sweatshop, harvesting crops or selling herself for sex, the results are the same: a denial of personal freedom, a loss of dignity and a descent into despair. Every victim of this heinous crime of modern-day slavery, regardless of age, gender or circumstance, deserves to be treated with equal concern and compassion, and his or her trafficker with equal force of law.
There is federal legislation in place—the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000. Every few years, it undergoes a congressional reauthorization, most recently in March of this year. In addition, every state has passed its own version of a human trafficking law. The last holdout was Wyoming, which passed its anti-trafficking statute in February. Most state trafficking laws are slanted partially or wholly in the direction of sex trafficking and prostitution, and pay little or no attention to the plight of forced-labor victims. Also, most laws tend to fixate on penalties for the bad guys and ignore the needs of survivors. With its extensive provisions for victim aid and protection, Kentucky’s new law is an exception, and, according to Polaris’ Dold, “indicates a bigger commitment on the part of the state’s law enforcement and politicians to take the law seriously.” What is now needed is comprehensive training for police on both the state and local levels to teach them to recognize the entire spectrum of trafficking cases and approach them with skill and sensitivity.
The new law is just one cog in a large and complex wheel. Not surprisingly, money is another. There are six multi-agency, anti-trafficking task forces throughout Kentucky; the one in Bardstown is the only one that is funded. Funding to organizations for victim services is another vital and, at this juncture, sadly lacking component. “The situation in regard to funding for victims’ services in Kentucky is dire,” says Rescue and Restore’s Castellanos. “We are often overlooked for federal human trafficking program funding, and currently there is very little money for victim services in the Commonwealth. We are forced to rely heavily on private foundations and donations, which are simply not enough.” Adds MaryLee Underwood, “There are several anti-trafficking groups in the Commonwealth, religious and otherwise, involved in fundraising, but they tend to send the money to international projects because they simply don’t recognize the scope of the problem right here at home.”
The greatest impediment to a successful campaign against human trafficking and contemporary slavery is the lack of awareness among the general public. Without it, no real progress can be made. “Kentucky lacks a viable public awareness campaign to make its people cognizant of this problem,” says Gray. “There is a huge population at risk, but the average person remains unaware.” The first and most vital step is to recognize and acknowledge the problem exists, and that it exists in rural areas as well as cities and towns, in private homes and in businesses and brothels. Kentucky is not immune to this blight simply because we think it “can’t happen here.” It can. It does.
End the Affliction
Ultimately, it is up to us as citizens of the “Land of the Free” to educate ourselves about the human trafficking problem. To start, visit polarisproject.org and freetheslaves.net, to become more involved in slavery’s eradication. This involvement can take the form of an online donation to a victim services organization (you can go to rescueandrestoreky.org and click on the “donate” tab), the formation of anti-trafficking advocacy groups and neighborhood watch programs, and the dissemination of information to key locations within the community, such as hospitals, schools, libraries, bus and truck stops, and places of worship. On the most basic level, if you suspect you have seen a person in a coercive situation, be it in a restaurant, at a construction site, or on a street corner, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. It operates 24/7, and you can do so anonymously. To borrow a line from the Department of Homeland Security, “If you see something, say something!” This is not a problem covered with the dust of the past; it is clearly within our power to address and resolve. We can be the generation to finally end this nationwide affliction.
Ron Soodalter is co-author of the book The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today and is a regular Kentucky Monthly contributor.