Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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Each year, hundreds of thousands of women and children are smuggled across international borders and forced into prostitution or domestic labor. Easing this worldwide crisis is the aim of SAIS's Protection Project.


P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    &    I N T E R N A T I O N A L

Vile Crimes
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Illustration by Michael Gibbs

Rosa was 14 years old. She cleaned hotel rooms in Veracruz, Mexico, and helped out at home, caring for her three brothers and four sisters. Then a man from a prominent family in town came to her door. He asked if Rosa wanted to make an honest living in the United States. She could join dozens of other young Mexican women who were living the American dream. Her parents were reluctant to let her go so far away from home.

But Rosa was excited about seeing the United States, and she knew her family could use the extra income. The man assured Rosa's parents that she would be in good hands. A job in a restaurant awaited her. Smuggled across the border from Matamoros, Rosa ended up in a rundown trailer in Orlando, Florida. There she was told the truth: she was brought to the land of the free to be a prostitute. Her "bosses" said she now owed more than $2,000 for the cost of the trip and, like other girls held in the trailer and elsewhere, would have to pay off her debt by having sex with up to 20 men a day.

"I had never imagined myself working by selling my body. I had never even had sexual relations with a man before," Rosa (not her real name) said in testimony to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp in Miami last year. "I would never have agreed to come to the United States for this. I asked [the man] for any other job. . . . They told me no other jobs were available and that I had a debt to pay. When they showed me the short and skimpy clothes I was expected to wear for this new job, I began to cry."

During her first nights in the brothel, she was raped to teach her how to have sex. Over the next three months, Rosa would be cycled from trailer to trailer every 15 days. Flimsy partitions separated one mattress from another. The men, members of the Cadena family from Veracruz and their employees, told Rosa that if she tried to escape, the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) would catch her and put her in jail. Strangers paid $20 for 15 minutes of sex with the women, but Rosa wasn't given any money. In fact, she was forced to "borrow" money to buy food. The trailers were guarded by men who carried guns and beat up the women. When Rosa became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion so she could keep working.

Though Rosa and others feared the INS, a few women had escaped and found their way to the Mexican consulate in Miami. The U.S. Border Patrol, Florida police, and FBI began to investigate, and, starting in fall 1997, investigators raided several brothels, according to press reports. More than 27 women, including Rosa, were freed by the agents. But at first such liberty was fleeting. Most ended up in detention centers, in the custody of the INS for months before the case went to trial. Rosa and 16 others would testify.

The damage was done. "I cannot forget what has happened. I can't put it behind me," Rosa testified. "I find it nearly impossible to trust people. I still feel shame. I was a decent girl in Mexico. I used to go to church with my family. I only wish none of this had happened."


Olga was living in Siberia in the winter of 1998 when a neighbor started flashing money around. The woman said she had been to Israel, where she worked as a housemaid. Jobs were plenty and language was no problem---many Russian immigrants in Israel wanted to hire Russian women so their children would not lose their heritage. Olga decided to go.
   A few days after she got off the plane, men took her passport and told her she had been sold for $10,000, and would have to prostitute herself to work it off. She screamed and fought when men were brought in; her captors drugged her with Ecstasy to make her work. After a raid, Olga was deported back to Russia.
   --source, The Protection Project survivor story testimonies before Congress.
Rosa's private horror is becoming one of the human rights issues of our time. As many as 700,000 to 2 million women and children are smuggled across international borders each year, according to a report commissioned by the CIA and U.S. State Department. Many are forced into indentured servitude as prostitutes or domestic laborers, or are sold by relatives for $1,000 and then resold to traffickers in other countries. Researchers at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies' are Protection Project are chronicling vast numbers of these cases, and the ruination of human lives, to document a crisis some women's rights advocates and others have termed a modern form of slavery.

"The evils are identical to the evils of the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries," says Michael J. Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a public policy research group, and a recent speaker at The Protection Project's seminar series on sex trafficking.

Young Nepalese women are drugged and thrown into car trunks, only to wake up in locked rooms in countries where they don't speak the language. Women in Russia are promised jobs, husbands, or other versions of new lives in Israel or Japan, and then when they arrive are stripped of their passports, beaten, and threatened with violence. Some become alcoholics and drug addicts to survive in basement prisons or brothels, some die from AIDS, and others commit suicide, researchers say. Those who escape or are freed during police raids might be detained indefinitely by immigration officials, and then deported home to face families who reject them.

The kidnappers and pimps, if caught and convicted, often face only fines or a few years in jail. When the women are deported, investigators have no witnesses to prosecute cases. Old attitudes about prostitution blind some law enforcement officials to the abuse.

"When people say prostitution is the oldest profession, I say that, no, pimping is the oldest profession in the world," says Laura J. Lederer, director of The Protection Project. Lederer, who is in the midst of putting together the first international survey of sex trafficking and related laws, is one of the nation's leading voices on the issue.

An elegant woman who wears long tailored skirts and jackets, Lederer speaks bluntly and passionately about the plight of kidnapped Nepalese girls or duped Russian women, and the worldwide criminal network that uses them. "There are a number of illicit materials traffickers can make money on--mostly drugs and guns," she says. "With drugs and guns, the penalties have become severe and the risk is higher. In the trafficking of women and children, laws are often nonexistent or very weak, and the risk is low.

"When you traffick a child under 18, you can sell her and sell her again and again," she adds. "Twenty men in a day is very profitable. The risks are low and the profit is high."

For the past five years, Lederer, a longtime women's rights activist and law scholar, has been documenting the survivors' stories, trafficking routes, laws, and other information she and her staff of a dozen researchers have gathered from 190 independent states and 63 territories. In late fall, the project is releasing a 500-page country-to-country human rights report culled from regional police, human rights groups, religious missions, nongovernmental aid groups, the media, and other international sources. An advanced online database that features the laws and other information should be up and running by late fall, with a version available to the public early next year via the SAIS website,

The $1 million Protection Project, sponsored in part by the State Department, UNICEF, and funding from private philanthropies, including The Randolph Foundation, came to SAIS from its former home, Harvard University, in June. A round of federal funding cuts had nearly shut down the research when SAIS Dean Paul Wolfowitz heard about the project's dilemma and offered to house it at SAIS, hiring Lederer in the school's Foreign Policy Institute.

As many as half a million Russian women annually are smuggled or lured to more than 30 countries, says Lederer.
Photo by Keith Weller
"Advocacy is an area we don't normally get into," the dean notes. "But it's like if someone wanted to do a project on human rights torture. You can't look at it without advocating against it. It's hard to imagine being totally neutral in those studies."

Neutrality and subsequent inaction on the sex trafficking issue are fast falling by the wayside. This fall, Congress and President Clinton are debating whether to put pressure on countries who do too little to prohibit sex trafficking, or punish smugglers and pimps. With trafficking bills before Congress, and Clinton declaring a possible readiness to sign, the nation's top lawmakers are starting to get the message.

That's partly because of the efforts of an unlikely, but powerful coalition of supporters: feminists and conservative religious leaders; State Department investigators and international human rights activists; pro-abortion rights Democrats and anti-abortion Republicans.

Just how big is the crisis?

Because the slave trade is conducted underground (and victims are afraid to come forward or are isolated by language barriers) Lederer and other experts say exact numbers are difficult to pin down. But a few brief statistics Lederer's Protection Project has gathered from human rights groups, the State Department, and press reports paint an outline of the story:

An estimated 50,000 women are trafficked into the United States each year.

The Thai government reports that 60,000 Thai children have been sold into prostitution. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimate that the number is more like 800,000.

Of 155 cases of forced prostitution tried in the Netherlands, only four resulted in convictions of traffickers, a 1995 human rights report shows.

The United States is one of the primary "buyer" nations. Government and civilian experts estimate that of the 50,000 women and children smuggled into the U.S. each year, more than half are from Southeast Asia, 10,000 from Latin America, and 4,000 from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Primary source countries seem to be Thailand, Vietnam, China, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic. "This modern-day form of slavery is prevalent across the globe and likely to increase in the United States," wrote an analyst with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in an April 2000 report done for the department and the CIA. Among other indicators, the report noted, the INS discovered 250 brothels likely involving trafficking in 26 different U.S. cities.

In Atlanta, for example, federal authorities last year indicted 13 members of a smuggling ring who brought in 500 to 1,000 women from Vietnam, China, Thailand, and other nations in Southeast Asia to work off their $30,000 to $40,000 "contracts," according to press reports. The women were kept in apartment-house brothels ringed with barbed wire fences and guarded by dogs. Some were moved to other brothels in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and elsewhere, prosecutors charged. In the past few years, similar gangs have been charged in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

The crime of sex or labor trafficking emerges from the dark side of the new global marketplace, where advances in technology and communications make the flow of goods--and people--easier, State Department experts note. Says Wolfowitz: "Globalization brings some marvelous things, but it also leaves some unfortunate side effects in its wake."

As economies falter in Russia, Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia, troubled family lives and unemployment are putting more women and children at risk, Lederer points out. Women from Ukraine, for example, are tempted by seemingly above-board invitations (often extended by other women) to apply for tourist, student, or entertainer visas to travel to jobs in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, or America. Trafficking is going on under the guise of mail-order bride services; job hires in bars, restaurants, and massage parlors; offers for work as maids, nurse's aides, or daycare providers; illegal foreign adoptions; and other cover industries.

Regional conflicts in Africa and the Balkans are fueling the numbers of refugees who may fall into prostitution or domestic slavery traps, Lederer says.

In Albania, for example, gangs are abducting Kosovo refugee girls and trafficking them to brothels in Italy, with some young women being sold for $10,000. An estimated 50,000 Albanian women were brought into the country in the mid-1990s, according to press and human rights reports cited by The Protection Project. Elsewhere in Western Europe, they are lured by promises of legitimate jobs. In Belgium, police say, Albanian girls make up nearly half of the foreign women forced into prostitution. They are between 14 and 15 years old.

Trafficking Routes into U.S.
In our own backyard: Some 50,000 women per year are trafficked into the United States, according to Department of State reports.

The year was 1975 and Lederer had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in comparative religions. Her father was Jewish, her mother Lutheran, and the study of religions was mostly an academic endeavor. She hadn't thought too much about taking an active role in women's issues.

Then she went to visit a friend in California who was attending a conference on violence against women and children. Lederer tagged along. She remembers walking into a room wallpapered with images of women and children. The first wall featured photos from the mainstream media, including advertisements from magazines such as Time. A second was covered with soft-core pornography from magazines like Playboy. The third was hard-core, images of bestiality and S & M. The last wall was child pornography.

"You saw the influence of the really hard-core images, back through the soft-core to the mainstream. Images were repeated," she says. "That's how I got involved. It kind of clicked."

Lederer, who spent 10 years designing grant programs for a private philanthropic foundation, became a leader in the women's movement, founding a group called Women Against Violence and Pornography in Media. In 1977, she helped organize a "Take Back the Night" march along Broadway in New York City: tens of thousands of women and men closed the street along the city's primary pornography strip. She also edited Take Back the Night (1980), the first collection of articles by women against pornography, and her efforts sparked an annual college campus march by the same title to protest rape and violence against women. In 1994, searching for career advancement in philanthropy, she earned her law degree from DePaul College of Law in Chicago.

Soon after, she founded the University of Minnesota Law School's Center on Speech, Equality, and Harm, which specialized in research on sex trafficking, hate crimes, and child pornography. And while at the University of Minnesota, her network of women's rights groups helped spark The Protection Project. In the mid-1990s, Canadian human rights expert Kathleen Mahoney, who was heading off to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, asked Lederer to look up laws regarding the trafficking of women and children. As Lederer began her research, she couldn't find any repository, so she started calling the ministries of justice in various countries and gathered about 20 laws. She drafted evaluations of each country, which were presented at the conference. "The evaluation sheets came back with writing all over them. Women wrote to say, 'Please, keep going on this,' or, 'Here is the law in our country and here are the people to contact,'" Lederer recalls.

Lederer received $5,000 for the project from a private donor and other contributors joined fairly quickly, including the Shaler Adams Foundation. At a Global Fund for Women conference in 1996, where she spoke, Lederer was approached by two State Department officials trying to get a handle on the same information. They asked her to do the job. "The $5,000 sleepy research project had grown into a half-million dollar project," she says.

Even before Lederer moved her project to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1998 on a two-year contract, she also looked outside, to UNICEF, and other non-governmental funding sources: "We wanted to say it was an independent academic research project that didn't answer to any one government, even ours."

So far, Lederer has held the project together, merging her expertise in law, philanthropy, and women's rights issues. The Hudson Institute's Horowitz, a former civil rights lawyer and fellow advocate on the sex trafficking issue, puts it this way: "Laura has been the oxygen source for this movement."


Anita Sharma Bhattarai had been selling vegetables in a small village in Nepal when a man and woman sitting next to her on a bus offered her a banana. After eating the fruit, she started to feel a headache, so they offered her a pill and a bottle of mineral water.
   She woke up in a train station in Gorakhpur, India, warned to keep quiet because she had just smuggled drugs across the border in plastic bags under her dress. She was taken to a brothel and put in a room without windows. Other women in the brothel beat her when she protested. She escaped one night and ran to police. The house was raided, and the women freed.
   --source, The Protection Project's survivor story testimonies before Congress.
In Washington, D.C., Lederer sits in an office on the seventh floor of SAIS's Rome Building, an office with scant decor. Children's drawings adorn a file cabinet, and a world map tacked to the wall is marked with blue and green dots. The dots indicate which justice ministries have returned surveys regarding their laws. She boasts a 96 percent return rate, with fewer than a dozen countries failing to respond. "We tackled this like a campaign," she says.

The Protection Project is a campaign. And Lederer, now a mother of three young girls, remains passionate about protecting the rights of women and children. As she speaks, her forehead crinkles in worry and her mouth tightens. "She has a sense of compassion for humanity in general and women in particular. It comes out in the way she speaks about the issue," says Robert Miller, a legislative liaison for The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Miller worked with Lederer during a presentation to the National Order of Women Legislators' annual conference in August 1999. Lederer was showing a Power Point demonstration of sex trafficking routes detailed in The Protection Project, in which lines appear like missile launches revealing routes from Southeast Asia to Europe, and Europe to Israel. When the arched lines started hitting the United States, he could hear women in the room gasp. They realized the problem was in their own backyard. Says Miller: "She lets the facts speak for her. She doesn't have to yell at people to have them get it."

Often, her demeanor is all business. She moves about her office in a harried series of darts, juggling phone calls, consultants, class preparation notes, and reams and reams of project documents. Her staff, mostly paid interns, are multilingual and multitalented, but they, too, sometimes seem overwhelmed by the task at hand.

And it's a daunting mountain of tasks. On an afternoon in early September, her staff members are checking, double-checking, and triple-checking all of the demographic data, citations, and laws in each of the country-by-country reports. Yellow sticky notes tacked onto computer terminals remind them to call the Bulgarian and Russian embassies to verify if the laws already sent are up-to-date and accurate. At one point Lederer blows up after a country's capital city is misspelled on a survey that has already been sent to the embassy. "This is labor intensive," she says later.

Lederer is not the only advocate for this issue--which has drawn the attention of numerous groups including the International Human Rights Law Group, Equality Now, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But she is the first researcher to create a law-by-law database to be tapped by advocacy groups and others. "If the situation is well-documented," she says, "you can help others on the ground do their jobs better."

Says Regan Ralph, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch: "Human rights advocates love to have laws from any country because they are so hard to come by."

As part of the survey done so far, Lederer and her staff asked each nation's justice officials to send copies of their laws on such crimes as forced prostitution, debt bondage, trafficking in women and children, rape, and legal age for sexual consent.

Some nations have perfect laws but no enforcement, says Lederer. Others have sex or slavery laws that are too archaic to accomplish much. Most important, the political will to change differs widely.
Her hope is that increased awareness about the inadequacy of laws might bring about reform within nations. "We are in the foothills of consciousness in recognizing this," Lederer says. "Some countries are in denial." Some nations have perfect laws but no law enforcement, she points out. Others have sex or slavery laws that are simply too archaic to accomplish much. More important, the political will to change differs from country to country.

Since The Protection Project started surveying countries (and as high-profile cases draw attention to the issue) at least six nations have toughened their laws on child pornography, including Japan, Ireland, and Sweden, Lederer says. The survey itself is an educational process for countries whose justice ministries take a closer look once they realize they could be listed in a database, she says. While at SAIS, Lederer plans to conduct a similar survey on law enforcement, contacting other nations' police and immigration agencies to find out the measures they are taking to investigate the crimes or break up routes.

Lederer hopes that by tapping the Protection Project database, lawmakers throughout the world can compare their legislation to that of other nations and review recommendations on model laws. Police or justice officials can scan the database for information on trafficking routes to shore up investigations. Advocates for women and children can find out which laws apply in which countries to help prosecute cases and press for stiffer penalties, as well as focus aid efforts. And scholars could cross-analyze demographic data from various countries-- determining, for example, whether low literacy rates contribute to higher rates of forced prostitution.

"Without her providing information, facts, and figures, we would be without credible solid information," says Lisa Thompson, policy representative for government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. "Her scholarly work lends credence to this issue."

One of the project's difficulties, however, is tracking down reliable, verifiable information. Aside from the survivor stories and laws, many of the project's human rights summaries cite secondary sources, albeit reports of the United Nations, the State Department, and UNICEF. Yet other information in the database is pulled together from figures and cases cited in the New York Times, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency, or other media. Also, some of the estimates and anecdotal evidence comes from in-the-field advocates who some might argue would have a reason to emphasize the issue, or from governments that might play down problems within their borders.

Estimates of the number of people involved also vary widely, partly because different groups focus on cases of sex trafficking, others include domestic labor, and yet others incorporate illegal alien smuggling. Lederer admits the estimates are sometimes pulled out of the statistical hat.

As part of the fact checking effort, the project is sending reports to ministries of justice, embassies, and NGOs in each country to winnow out any blatant errors. "This is just about all we've got and it's the lesser of two evils," she says. "There is either no information, or we are reporting what information there is and meticulously sorting it," she says. "Will the numbers ever be totally accurate? No they won't. We have to live with that."

But she says it's clear that the data and specific cases expose a bona fide crisis. "I don't think anyone is questioning that anymore," she says. "There is just case after case after case of hundreds of people being transported at one time, and you know these are just examples of a fairly well-established route."

Abolishing modern slavery would seem an obviously just cause. But just how to end the abuse is more complicated than one would assume.

At Protection Project seminars, in the offices of Ms. Magazine, and on Capitol Hill, the crux of the discussion on sex trafficking this summer and fall has centered on the bills before Congress, and whether cut-offs in nonhumanitarian aid would help halt the problem, or create more economic woes for the women and children already at risk.

In May, the House passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, sponsored by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) Among the proposed measures, the bill would provide assistance for victims and establish severe punishments--up to 20 years in prison for sex traffickers operating in the U.S., and a life term if death is a result of trafficking. Language in the bill also states that the president shall employ economic sanctions against countries that fail to meet minimum standards (though the president can waive that option).

The Senate considered similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), but, in a later compromise version, the president could cut off nonhumanitarian aid only to those countries that do not meet minimum standards and are not trying to do so. (Here, as well, he can waive that sanction.) The compromise bill came out of conference in October and is expected to be signed by Clinton before the end of the year.

But legislative debates are not the only substantial hurdle. There are philosophical and political wranglings among advocacy groups. Just how to define trafficking, for example, and whether to focus on sex trade or labor trade, has complicated efforts. Some question how law enforcement will determine when prostitution shifts from choice to coercion. Human Rights Watch, for example, worries whether some laws would penalize women who emigrate and enter prostitution voluntarily. The group backs the Senate bill, which it says offers a valuable means of prevention: measures to help women find real jobs.

To get the bills as far as they have gotten, Lederer has called in her cards from her most active feminist leader- ship days, working as a liaison between women's and religious groups. Many have long battled at opposite ends of the abortion issue. "Laura played a really critical role in bringing people together who are often fighting against each other," says Pamela Shifman, co-executive director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization focused on the rights of women and girls. "She has a lot of perseverance."

A Trouble Zone
An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Nepali women and girls are trafficked into India annually, according to a recent UNICEF report. An open border between the two countries contributes to the trade and in 1992, the Nepalese government itself estimated that 200,000 of its countrywomen and girls were in prostitution, with many HIV positive. Adding to the problem is a Hindu tradition known as Deukis, in which wealthy families buy young girls and symbolically offer them to temple gods. The girls are forbidden to marry and eventually many are sold into prostitution.
   --The Protection Project
At SAIS, where the project is to be housed under a two-year contract, Lederer plans to expand her research. Again, that means tackling the sometimes tedious, often frustrating chore of international data collection from countries where different languages are spoken and access to information is often troublesome.

Among other expectations: creating a set of model statutes on the commercial exploitation of women and children that could be adapted to the major legal systems--common law, civil law, customary law, socialist law, and religious law. To get a better handle on the scope of the sex trafficking problem, project staff also will closely examine the bigger cases to analyze just how women are smuggled into countries--by land, by sea, by fraudulent visa, "or in countries like Russia," Lederer says, "cozier situations where your next-door neighbor recruits or betrays you."

The Cadena brothers who forced Rosa into prostitution met with mixed fates. Some family members and their employees pleaded guilty and went to prison in spring 1999, including one of the alleged ringleaders, Rogerio Cadena, who was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison and ordered to pay $1 million to the victims (money that will likely not end up being paid). Six others pleaded guilty to lesser charges related to the brothel, receiving prison sentences of less than seven years. Other family members remain on the run, probably in Mexico.

The girls and women who testified in Miami asked for cloaked identities to protect their families from retaliation. Rosa, Lederer says, is now pregnant and ill. The Protection Project had hoped she could testify before Congress in one of several hearings last year, but ended up reading her testimony into the record. She is now one of 50 survivors whose tales are told in The Protection Project's 500-page report.

Whether current estimates of those who are victimized are in reality low or high, numbers can never measure up to the stories of the women themselves. After hearing the graphic testimony of the 17 Mexican women in Florida, Judge Ryskamp called the sex trafficking ring that snared Rosa "one of the most base, most vile, most despicable, more reprehensible crimes that I think I have ever encountered."

At one Senate hearing when the women spoke, Lederer's voice broke during the testimony: "I sort of lost it and had to stop," she says. "You hear these stories and can't help feeling how awful they are."

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.