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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

"Heroes" in the Fight Against Trafficking

FPC Briefing
Ambassador Luis CdeBaca
Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Marilana Morales of Costa Rica and Vera Lesko of Albania
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
June 16, 2009

Date: 06/16/2009 Location: Washington DC Description: Amb. Luis CdeBaca, Director of the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, briefed at the Washington Foreign Press Center upon the release of the 2009 Report.  He was accompanied by two 'heroes' in the fight against trafficking Marilana Morales from Costa Rica (left) and Vera Lesko from Albania (immediate right), with their respective interpreters. June 16, 2009 © State Dept Image


2:00 p.m. EDT

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Sorry for the delay. Today we have with us Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Director for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Ambassador CdeBaca.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Thank you, and thank you to the Press Center for having us today. As many of you know, the Secretary of State this morning unveiled the United States Annual Anti-Trafficking Report, in which the United States presents its assessment of the world situation of modern day slavery. This report, which for the first time is, we would say, a comprehensive look at the situation around the world by virtue of ranking and discussing 175 countries. The United States is also included in the report, along with the notions of the analytical structure, which is through what we call the three Ps: prevention, protection, and prosecution.

However, the United States is not simply represented in that report, but is also represented in a report that was released yesterday afternoon to Congress and is now public, and that is the Attorney General’s Report on U.S. Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons Within the United States and Abroad. This full and frank assessment of our own successes, and more importantly challenges, is something that we feel places the global report that the State Department does in greater context. And as our calls for other countries to engage on this issue and to assess themselves, we feel that it is only fair and just for the United States to point out exactly what it is not only that we are doing, but also what we feel that we need to do to improve in the coming year. And there are a number of recommendations that are set forth in that, and I think that that’s something that we can hopefully talk about today.

The theme of the report this year is coercion in a time of crisis, and that is what we find worldwide as we deal with the economic crisis and the fallout there from. One of the problems that we’ve seen – this is something that the Secretary talked about this morning – is the notion of the vulnerability of victims, the vulnerability of populations who are at risk to begin with, whether it’s because of poverty, because of being a racial or ethnic minority or members of an excluded caste or excluded social group. Those vulnerabilities to the predation of the traffickers to be held in modern day slavery are greater now that so many people are under such economic stress.

We also see that there is a vulnerability on the part of governments. As governments and nongovernmental organizations alike face the economic strain, they are perhaps less likely to provide the services, to provide the restorative care, and even the victim identification that’s so necessary in combating this crime.

We see that even here in the United States, for instance. A nongovernmental organization that does stellar work with child victims of trafficking and immigrant victims of – in trafficking in the Midwest reported to us that their endowment, their donors who normally are able to fund many of their programs have had a one-two punch with both the stock market crash and things like the Bernie Madoff scandal, in which many philanthropists here in the United States actually lost their money to his crimes. And so we see that notion of civil society who is so often turned to by governments to help out, is the – are themselves less able to help out.

At the end of the day, according to the report and according to Secretary Clinton this morning, it is the responsibility of the governments, though – not civil society, not international organizations – but each government to protect the people within its borders and to try to protect its citizens. The solution to this crisis that affects so many countries, including the United States, is necessarily constant progress.

We talk about the three Ps – protection, prevention, and prosecution. But this morning, Secretary of State Clinton articulated a fourth P that will guide us in our efforts – partnerships. The Obama Administration stands ready to partner with other countries, not only to deal with the trafficking problem in those countries, but also the trafficking problem that affects their citizens here in the United States. We can learn from each other and we can share best practices, but when necessary, we should not be afraid to talk to each other about areas of improvement. One of the main areas of improvement that we see that is reflected in the report that is necessary around the world is the need to address the discrepancy between labor trafficking and sex trafficking in prosecutions of this crime.

First of all, prosecutions. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, prosecutions in – of human trafficking offenses continue to lag. Two out of every five countries in the world have not prosecuted any human traffickers per the UN’s figures. Even those countries that are prosecuting traffickers, and there are about 3,000 trafficking cases that we report on in the report this year – even those countries that are prosecuting traffickers all too often focus only on sex trafficking. Only about 104 of those 3,000 cases that were reported to us were for labor trafficking.

A quick definitional comment, though. When we talk about trafficking in persons, both the United States definition and the United Nations definition are focused not upon the movement of people, but are focused upon the exploitation of the persons, the forced labor, the slavery that they suffer at the hands of the unscrupulous employer, whether it is in valid forms of labor such as factories or fields, or whether it is in the sex sector – forced prostitution. So when we’re looking at this – that bifurcation between sex trafficking and labor trafficking is not nearly as starkly drawn as perhaps these data reflect. And so we call upon the nations of the world to join us in addressing modern slavery in the labor sector.

One of the things that we’ve seen over and over – you will hear people talk about sex slavery – one of the things that we’ve seen in the cases that I prosecuted when I was with the Civil Rights Division here in the United States and that my counterparts in other countries have noticed, is that the number-one predictor of whether there will be long-term, ongoing sexual abuse, sexual slavery of a woman is not whether she is being used in forced prostitution or in the sex sector, but it is, rather, if she is a woman.

The knock on the door at night from the diplomat, from the rich person, from the person who has a servant that results in sexual abuse, the knock on the door at night from the crew leader on the agricultural camps, the factory managers who feel it is their right to bring women off the floor of the factory and promote them into the front office so that they can ensure themselves a girlfriend or a concubine. This too is sexual slavery, and those are cases that we think need to be addressed just as much as those which involve formal or more traditional forms of prostitution.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that the report discusses the vulnerabilities that arise from certain recruiting practices that are all too common around the world. Those recruiting practices often use labor brokers. Those recruiting practices often require a large upfront payment from the worker to obtain the job in the first place. Those recruiting practices cause this problem not just abroad, but also here in the United States. Guest worker programs that are fed by these unscrupulous labor brokers are filled with people who are themselves vulnerable to begin with because they travel to their destination already encumbered by a debt that the bosses or the factory owners or even the labor brokers can use to maintain them in service through fear of bankruptcy or through fear of retribution by loan sharks or others.

The United States has taken action in the last few months, passing a new law about unscrupulous labor practices so that we can actually uncover those who would use fraud and deceit in order to put people into that situation. We call on other nations to do the same. But at the same time, as the Attorney General’s report reflects in his recommendation section, we will continue to look at our guest worker programs here in the United States to make sure that they are not tainted by that type of unfair recruitment and unfair labor practices.

At the end of the day, what we are asking the rest of the world and what we are asking of ourselves is that we come together as partners to address modern slavery, that we come together not only to identify cases, but to protect the people involved, to restore and rehabilitate the victims, and to punish those who would enslave someone in this modern day.

Working with civil society, working with nongovernmental organizations is critical to this task. Government cannot do it by themselves, in no small part because government is not always where the victims are. The zones of impunity in which traffickers prey upon these people are zones in which, necessarily, governments are not going. Nongovernmental organizations sometimes founded by survivors of this crime themselves; other times, working hand in glove with international organizations are critical partners in this fight.

Today, the trafficking report names nine people around the world as trafficking heroes for the activities that they did in the last year in order to fight modern slavery. Some of those heroes who are not with us today include the commander of a national anti-trafficking unit in Greece, a victim turned advocate in Indonesia who fights for the rights of workers from Indonesia and other parts of the world as they find themselves in domestic servant – service in the Middle East, and a lawyer from Mozambique who, when he heard other men boasting in a bar about the availability of a high-end call girl ring in South Africa, didn’t join in, didn’t let it drop, but instead posed as a john and infiltrated the ring to get the evidence that he could take to the South African police. He didn’t do that because he was an NGO. He didn’t do that because he was a police agent. He did that because it was the right thing to do. And that is why we call upon the civilians of the world, not simply the NGOs and the government actors, to engage, to actually step up and confront this crime.

We are lucky to have two of the trafficking heroes today who were honored this morning by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: Vera Lesko from Albania and Mariliana Morales Berríos from Costa Rica. They are going to also talk to you this afternoon, and all of us will be available for questions.

MS. LESKO: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon. My name is Vera Lesko. I am the director of a shelter in Albania from 1997 until now. I am here to give my thanks and my happiness for the award that I was given. I wish I was able to give an award to the hard work and to the work that was done by everyone in the last 12 years. This award and event was not only for me, Vera Lesko, but it was also for the many staff members that I’ve helped and for the many women that are now no longer victims of trafficking and have left the vicious circle of being trafficked.

We have worked a lot, and we have fought a lot. Our path has been long and very difficult, because we not only had to fight against the traffickers and their protectors that used women in prostitution, but also government institutions that were indifferent, that were not only indifferent, but also that took very few steps in helping this – end this problem.

Nevertheless, I’m very happy to tell you that this war also had its wins. Albania has now come out of the Tier 3 countries and is now a Tier 2 country. We have put together and written the plans and the strategies for anti-trafficking. The laws have been strengthened, but nevertheless, we still have a lot of work to do. The fact that helping out the victims of trafficking still continues to be a problem is still yet another war to be fought for us to continue our work.

I support what the ambassador has said, because just the fact that people are trafficked is a criminal activity. Nongovernmental organizations, even though they contribute to preventing trafficking, it’s the government’s and governmental institutions who – it’s those institutions that should fight this crime. The government should use its funds to fund nongovernmental organizations that help in contributing to fighting victim – to fighting trafficking and to helping victims of crime.

Thank you very much. And I’m here to answer any questions you might have because our work has a lot of things to be told and a lot of things to be said.

MODERATOR: Okay. I think before we go to questions, we’ll go ahead and do opening remarks, and then we’ll go back to questions.

Ms. Morales.

MS. MORALES: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon. I’m Mariliana Morales and I’m from Costa Rica. God guided me to start the foundation, the Rahab Foundation 12 years ago, just like my colleague here, back in 1997. This organization has emerged in these last 12 years to protect the victims of sexual trafficking as well as their family members. Each victim that turns to us has a family, so we need to work with the families of those victims. It’s impossible to break the pattern of violence and the problems that families have if you work only with an individual. It is also important to give these people, once you have rescued them from these mafias, from these horrible situations, it is important to provide them with training.

At the Rahab Foundation, we provide these people with job training, legal assistance, and more importantly, with spiritual guidance. When I began all of this, I have to confess as I do so often, it was not my idea. This began as part of an existential crisis that I was living through at that point. So I challenged God. I said, “God, I would like to know you. I want to know you, but if you want me to know you, I need to hear you.” And so when he answered me, I said, “Well, now I know that you exist, so I do not want to fight against you. I want to serve you, but tell me how.” And even if it sounds crazy, I have to say it because that’s the way it happened. And what I saw, as if written on the heavens from left to right, “prostitution.”

So God is a part of this. He want – God wants the people who are part of the sexual trafficking situation, the people who are suffering, he wants them to get on with their lives. He wants them to move forward. So I receive this award, first by thanking God and as well as the rest of my team. It’s a very large task. It was something that one – a single person cannot do all on their own. Our families are also involved, as I’m sure it was the case for Vera and all the other people that are part of this. Our families also played a role in this effort.

It’s not an easy task, first of all, because we are fighting organized crime. And every person that you manage to get to leave the sexual trafficking – when you do that, you’re actually hurting someone’s pocketbook. And the mafia – the organized crime will definitely be looking to shut down anyone is who affecting their business. So this is very exciting work. And I invite all of you to participate in organizations such as this because it is something that really captures your heart. It reminds us that all of us are travelers, passengers in this life. And everything we do, or at least the good things that we do, will remain here. And just as we all go to the supermarket on some occasion and we see that products have the sell-by date on them, all of us here also have an expiration date on us. (Laughter.) So let’s do something good in this life before that date comes. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you. (Applause.) Okay. So now we’re going to take questions. And I would ask you, since we have three guests, if you would please direct your question – who are you asking the question of, please, and identify your name and news organization. Thank you.

QUESTION: To the lady of Costa Rica, I would like to ask her – I would like to ask the question in Spanish. Will that be okay?

MODERATOR: It would be better if you asked it in English.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I would like to know what is the experience you have had in the trafficking use in Mexico as a transit point, especially from too many women coming out from Eastern Europe, maybe Asia or Central American countries. I would like to know if you are aware of this trafficking. And what do you think about the actions of the Mexican Government in regards with what they are doing?

MS. MORALES: (Via interpreter) Thank you for your question. Yes, definitely, Mexico is a country that is moving a lot of women into the sexual trafficking. We see many women who are tricked into going to Mexico. We need to be very clear here. We need to put an end to corruption that takes place within governments. This illegal, terrible business exists because there are people who are corrupt inside the governments.

In fact, right before coming here, there were two young Costa Rican girls who were recently returned to Costa Rica under this very same situation, where they had been tricked into leaving. And there was a high-ranking official within the Mexican immigration service who was facilitating this crime. I hope the Mexican legal system is very – is strict with him, as it should be in all countries.

QUESTION: Can you identify the officer of immigration? Do you maybe have his name?

MS. MORALES: (Via interpreter) I don’t recall his name right now. I’d love to give you the name, but I don’t know it. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Okay. Do we have another question? Okay, Silvia.

QUESTION: Good evening. I would like to ask Mr. DeBaca, according – according to what you told before in the State Department, you said that up from this year – starting from this year, if some country’s been for more than two years, or two years consecutively, in the watch list, it would pass to the third category, Tier 3. I would like to know –this is the case, at least for some countries like Argentina and Venezuela and Guatemala, for example. Would that mean the next year they would be in Tier 3, and what implications could that have with – could there be the U.S. could put some sanctions on them? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: First of all, I’ll answer that backwards. The consequences for a Tier 3 country is that they are exposed to sanctions from the United States. Those sanctions are, first of all, reviewed. If countries within a certain amount of time, after 90 days, have actually made very substantial progress towards addressing trafficking, they can be upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. At the same time as well, if they don’t make substantial steps, there is a mechanism whereby the President can waive – choose to waive sanctions if it’s in the United States’ national interest.

But the sanctions threat is a real threat. And what we have seen is that most countries who are on Tier 3, especially if they’ve fallen to Tier 3 from the watch list, take substantial steps to address their trafficking problem so that they don’t remain on Tier 3.

As far as the parking lot issue, as we affectionately refer to it, there are a number of countries that have bounced between Tier 2 and Tier 2 Watch List. There are other countries that have just been on the watch list and kind of flatlined. What we would like to see is for countries to aspire not because they want to move up on our graph. This is not about the United States and its rankings. But the fact that the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking are a yardstick against which countries can measure their own efforts. Argentina is a perfect example. There were a number of good first steps in Argentina in the last year, things that we think will have an awful lot of promise: passage of a new law, engagement by the Argentine Government; but at the provincial level is where the prosecutions are happening.

And one thing that we’ve seen over the history of the report is that for a sustainable anti-trafficking movement, upgrading a country merely because they passed a law is not necessarily helpful. Because if they do not then go out and implement that law, that may have been a premature elevation on the list. And so while we certainly see improvement upon – within watch list countries, not every country is automatically going to be moving up. They aren’t –also are not automatically going to be moving down.

Under American law nothing can be done retroactively. And so countries that have been on the watch list for several years in a row will not be automatically dropped, rather the clock has started ticking and so those two years, and then in the third you drop to the watch list, those start with this ranking. And there are a number of countries who are on the watch list here that were not in past years, and we hope that they will actually take action.

MODERATOR: Okay. Up at the front here from Venezuela.

QUESTION: Nitza Perez, Telesur. Mr. Ambassador, can you expand a little bit on the correlation of the economic crisis and the human trafficking? Have you seen an increment? What’s going on? And also, has any – the patterns, have they changed in Latin America? Do you see certain countries with more of it because of the economic crisis?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: It’s a little early to tell. I mean, what we have seen is – our report staff, many of whom are here. Say hello, report staff. The report staff from the trafficking office and our partners in the U.S. embassies and nongovernmental organizations around the world are monitoring the trafficking situation, kind of, in real time. And so we don’t have longitudinal data in which we’re able to say that this is the measurable effect of the economic crisis.

What we have seen is, for instance, in countries with – that are very dependent upon guest workers in the construction industry that labor complaints are way up, as employers are really leaning on the few employees that they have to maximize their profits. Those labor complaints are, you know, kind of – you know, you always hear the English expression “the canary in the coal mine,” it’s one of the warning signs that we look at.

One of the things that we’ve seen in Europe, for instance, is that as – especially in the construction fields, as that starts to collapse, people are returning home to Eastern Europe, people who had themselves left, some of whom were probably in exploitative labor in Western Europe, they’re leaving and going back to Eastern Europe and they’re displacing the Asian workers who had been brought in to take their place. That’s very similar to the patterns that we – the North-South patterns that we see, especially in Mexico and Central America vis-à-vis the United States.

And so where we’re going to be monitoring what happens with returning workers, as a number of folks return home from the U.S. with the collapse of the American construction industry, whether there’s a displacement effect, a ripple effect, down the line. As people come back to Mexico is that then going to displace workers from Honduras, from Guatemala, et cetera?

The big story that I would see, though, in Latin America is the notion, not necessarily that this is getting worse, that the numbers represent a worsening of the problem, but that the numbers in some ways reflect a greater understanding of the problem. A number of American communities expressed shock in the last 30 years as they started being more aggressive in investigating and prosecuting sexual abuse cases because their rape numbers went up. It appeared to some that there was more – that there were more rapes, but actually it was that there was more attention to it and there were more rapes being reported and more rapes being prosecuted.

We think that that’s one of the things that we’re seeing in Latin America, especially is that as countries start looking at it not simply as a migration issue, not that their citizens are only being enslaved when they’re here in the United States or once they’re up in Mexico or something like that, but actually that forced labor begins at home. And as people start turning to what’s the reality of the woman on the street in San Jose, what’s the reality of the workers on the banana plantations or in the western Amazon, they’re actually going to recognize trafficking at a higher rate. So you’ll probably end up having an upward trend as far as the number of victims identified. But it will be unclear whether or not that’s because people are starting to look for them or whether there’s more trafficking in Latin America. That’s a very roundabout way to say that the data really is inconclusive.

MODERATOR: Antonieta.

QUESTION: Antonieta Cadiz from La Opinion. First, I wanted to ask two questions really. First, as you know, here in the United States we have a lot of Latin American workers that work with very bad conditions. So I was wondering when Secretary of State talks about partnership and help each other, is she talking about addressing directly this issue with certain countries in Latin America? And second, in the case of countries like El Salvador that has been in Tier 2 for like almost eight years, is there any idea or initiative to help these kind of countries to go to Tier 1 – that is, I think, the goal of this whole report?

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, there’s – there have been a few countries that have gotten to Tier 1. In Latin America, a country that was on Tier 2 for some years, but that has moved to Tier 1, is Colombia. It’s interesting because Colombia was, at the same time that it was starting its counter-trafficking efforts, it was also reforming its legal system to go to the accusatory model of trials. One of the things that we’ve found in the states in Mexico that have actually moved towards the kind of trials that you’d see on television with a jury and a judge and more oral argument, that that is a very positive thing as far as getting rid of judicial and police corruption. Because too often it is easy for the traffickers to make the papers not flow fast enough, or if a victim has to swear out an actual affidavit, it’s easier to obstruct them from actually doing that.

So one of the things that we’ve seen with the example in Colombia, it’s not only have they worked closely with OEM – IOM the International Organization of Migration, but also they have addressed some of the structural problems within their legal systems. And a number of states in Mexico are doing that as well. I don’t think Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua and D.F., Mexico State, are actually looking at that system as to how the trials would run. That has a spillover effect on all types of cases, but especially in human trafficking cases. Mexico’s passed 22 anti-trafficking laws in its 31 states. And the United States is collaborating with that effort and it’s going to continue to give Mexico the support that it needs.

One of the things that we see here in the United States is that about 65 percent – 60 to 65 percent of all of the identified victims, according to the Justice Department studies and the universities that have studied this for the Justice Department, about 60 percent of the victims are Latinos. And one of the things that I saw as a civil rights prosecutor here in the United States, is that many of the same fields and many of the same counties in which people were prosecuted 30 years ago for holding African American men in servitude to pick, whether it was onions, pickles or oranges, in the southeastern United States those fields are now being picked by Guatemaltecos, by Hondurans, by Mexicans. And as we see that, we see the pattern of exploitation moving over more into the immigrant community.

So we’re committed not only to working with the consulates here in the United States, and I’ve already talked with Ambassador Sarukhan and his team as to how we can work with Mexico and their consulates around the U.S. to protect Mexicans here, but also are working with the PGR and others in Mexico itself so we can figure out how to disrupt these trafficking gangs.

QUESTION: In the case of El Salvador, my question first was for El Salvador.

AMBASSADOR CDEBACA: Well, in El Salvador, they’re stable at Tier 2 at this point. The penalties in the cases could be a little bit more serious is one of the things that we’re looking at. There are a few cases – fewer cases of human trafficking being prosecuted than have been in previous years. But it’s not necessarily – it’s not necessarily, you know, that we’re going to look to see more this year versus last year, because obviously it’s what cases did you find. They seem to be looking, which is a positive step.

One of the things that we’d like to see is continued expansion of the shelter network. There’s a positive in that in San Salvador the government actually reopened a shelter for child victims of trafficking, many Salvadoran children in El Salvador, not people having been moved, but people who were being held by exploitive pimps or exploitive bosses. And the fact that the government reopened that shelter, we think is a very solid step. The fact that they’d allowed the shelter to close, on the other hand, shows that in some ways it’s not constant moving forward.

And at the end of the day, that’s the difference between a Tier 1 and a Tier 2 country is that the Tier 2 – the Tier 1 country is constantly working to improve. And we will certainly help El Salvador. I know that the immigration and customs enforcement agents at the embassy there in San Salvador are having training seminars and are working with their counterparts. And I think that notion of constant improvement is something that you’ll see in the coming year.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for one last question. If there’s anybody in New York who’s waiting, please come to the podium. Otherwise, we’ll take another question from Washington. Anyone have a last question? Okay, if we have no more questions, then I’d like to thank Ambassador CdeBaca, Ms. Lesko, and Ms. Morales for joining us today. Thank you.

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