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Luis CdeBaca: The TT Interview

The U.S. ambassador-at-large on why he thinks people are uneasy about admitting that human trafficking is a problem, what Texas has done to help address the problem, and how the government can team up with the private and nonprofit sectors to draw attention to the crime.

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It’s time to redefine what human trafficking really is: slavery. So says U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

After speaking at Rice University earlier this week, the ambassador will attend the annual Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking conference in Austin on Wednesday. He spoke with The Texas Tribune about why he thinks people are uneasy about admitting human trafficking is a problem, how involved Mexican cartels are in the crime, what Texas has done to help address the problem, and how the government can team up with the private and nonprofit sectors to draw attention to the crime.

TT: There is still some misunderstanding about the distinction between what human smuggling is and what human trafficking is. Can you define the difference between those two terms?

CdeBaca: The United States government considers human trafficking to be all the activities involved in reducing someone to or holding them in a condition or servitude. And so it’s very much about forced labor and forced prostitution, rather than being about moving people. The person could have moved halfway around the world or they could not have moved at all —  they could be in their hometown. If there is some type of coercion, some kind of work or prostitution, then they are considered a trafficking victim.

TT: And smuggling is knowingly paying someone — what we call coyotes on the border —  to aid them in getting across an international or state line?

CdeBaca: Smuggling is basically a transaction between someone who wants to get somewhere and someone who is going to help them get there. The reality, of course, is that oftentimes someone thinks that they are transacting an alien smuggling situation and instead it turns out that the person they fell in with has other plans. I think that the reason that immigration is so closely linked with trafficking is because illegal immigrants are vulnerable to human traffickers. The human traffickers will threaten to turn over their immigration victims to immigration officials, and the victims don’t know that the immigration service will actually let them stay in the country, and they don’t know that the immigration service has victim coordinators that will help them. They think, “My boss says he’ll turn me over to the INS, and I better do what he says.”

TT: How much of this industry is directly tied to cheap labor markets in the U.S., not sex crimes or mules for narcotics smuggling?

CdeBaca: We certainly see those cases around the United States, whether it is in agriculture or [something else]. We see some agriculture cases in the U.S. We’ve seen cases with one-victim domestic servants. At their worst we’ve seen people who have been in servitude 16 or 18 years. We know the forced labor is out there; we keep catching these cases. But at the same time, it’s hard to figure out what the prevalence of it is because it’s a hidden crime. Is some ways it’s more hidden than the sex industry because in the sex industry, they need to have ways to ways for the women to be out there for their clients to find. If you’ve got guys working on a farm or a factory, they are not going to have direct contact with the clients. The clients stop by to pick up the clothes you’ve sewn for them, and they have no idea there are people back in that sweatshop.

So this is one of those things that we’ve been working on, is that companies start asking those questions about their supply chain: “Where is this being sourced from? What are those conditions? What do I know about the farm or the factory where this stuff is being made? We have to get it to where people take responsibility for their own contributions. The [website] the Slavery Footprint allows people to take a little test and say, “Based on what I buy, what I eat, what I wear, I am contributing to this problem as well?”

TT: Is the website a government project, or is this a private organization?

CdeBaca: We provided a little bit of seed money to this group, Made in the Free World, and they took it and ran with it. They have funding from a number of sources, including the Google Foundation, and we think they’ve done a really good job of it. It has succeeded beyond anybody’s dreams. At the same time, it’s not just getting people to take the test — it’s about getting people to go out and do something about it. I think if that’s the reason, community activism, that we have a Central Texas coalition; that’s why we have the law that was signed in Texas to update the statutes. It’s because the community is starting to engage, starting to care.

TT: How prevalent is human trafficking among the various cartels that are operating in Mexico and the U.S.?

CdeBaca: We tend to see more of a link between human trafficking and gangs than we have human trafficking with the cartels. The drugs are so profitable, and if you have sourcing for cocaine, marijuana and heroin, etc., dependable and reliable sourcing, why would you need to be in the business of managing a bunch of enslaved people who might run away and talk? What we’ve seen more is with street gangs, like the MS-13 and others. But part of that is because they want to control prostitution in the cities as well as drug distribution. Either that or they are enslaving women for use by the gangs themselves. We’ve seen prosecutions with gangs in the D.C. area, the L.A. area. But in the case of cartels, I think that they realize they are making so much money on narcotics that this would pose a much higher risk to them than if they are sticking with drugs.

TT: Why is this issue under the radar so much? Talk shows and news shows will talk for days about one missing person, and it’s not to say they shouldn’t. It’s a good thing. But we’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of people held against their will. So why isn’t there as much attention being paid to the entire industry and the problem? There have been improvements, but it seems to be something that people don’t talk about a lot.

CdeBaca: There are a couple of reasons. First of all, this is such a touchy issue, not only for the U.S. but countries around the world. It’s kind of like domestic violence was in the U.S. 25 years ago. It was considered in bad taste to talk about it, because people didn’t want to admit it was happening in their communities. That’s one of the things that we have to work on: to get to the point where people don’t measure their community by “Does this happen or not?” but instead measure their community by “What are we doing to stop it?” It is seen as an accusation when people say, “There is still slavery in Texas.” But instead [people] should see it as, “There is still slavery in Texas, and here is what we are doing in Texas to stop it.” People will twist themselves into a pretzel to avoid using the word “slavery.” Back in the old says, they’d call people servants, or they’d call slavery a “particular institution.” They’d always come up with euphemisms, and it’s the same thing now. We have euphemisms for human trafficking as a way to avoid the much more emotional term of “slavery.” But as President Obama said, this is modern-day slavery, and we have to go out and fight it. That’s what we do as a country.

TT: Is there more that state governments can do? There was a lot of movement in Texas on this issue, (specifically because of the I-10 corridor).

CdeBaca: That’s what we’ve seen with the leadership of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, or state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and some other folks. Now it really comes down the people in the executive branches.

And at the end of the day, the way you fight a new crime problem is the police chiefs and the sheriffs have to tell their guys that they expect them to be out there making their cases. What we saw in Austin was very timely and very needed, but at the same time now, it’s time for the law enforcement community and first responders to roll up their sleeves and go find some victims and help them.

TT: If you had an opportunity to make to the public about this problem or spotting it and reporting it, what would it be?

CdeBaca: Anybody can be a modern-day abolitionist. If you’re a doctor, you can volunteer your services to a trafficking shelter. If you’re an accountant, you can help people learn how to do financial literacy. If you’re a carpenter, you can help repair the roof on the shelter. If you’re a lawyer, you can do pro bono work. There are so many things survivors need as they walk in their journey toward life and rehabilitation, and those girls and boys, they are our children. They all need our help, and all of us can help. 

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