From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

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After a month in Aaron Cohen's mind-boggling world, I'm relieved to be leaving it, even if it means returning to Florida, where my father is dying. My plane is boarding just as the phone rings, so I'm only half-listening as the familiar placid voice comes on the line. "So last night I met with Laura Bickford . . ." The name means nothing to me. "Yeah?" I say, waiting for more names to drop. "She's the producer making the film about Che Guevara, and so Benicio del Toro, who's gonna play Che, and Pablo Guevara, Che's nephew, were there." He wants me to congratulate him, I guess, but somehow I don't feel up to it. What, I ask, is his connection to Guevara?

He tells me the producers want firsthand advice on the life of jungle revolutionaries. Cohen has met more than a few of those on his travels. And I try to indulge him in this conversation for a moment, but my thoughts are elsewhere. I have to hang up, I say. My plane is going back to the real world.

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

Aaron Cohen, peacemaker and would-be high priest, has surfed with Perry Farrell, had lunch with the Dalai Lama, and probably helped save thousands of lives between his night-frighting and testimony on behalf of enslaved people everywhere. Does he really need Hollywood's approval? Then I remember something the OC Task Force's Dottie Laster said that puts things in perspective: "There's a certain shock value to this issue. Some people want to be there for the fun part—the celebrity events or whatever. And don't get me wrong, those are important. But Aaron does this out of genuine concern for the victims. He grieves for the ones left behind. . . . Here's someone who could be leading a much more profitable existence, but he's there 24/7."

True, Cohen's altruism radiates from every pore. But as LA disappears from view, I begin thinking that none of our motivations are untainted by self-interest. There's something about slavery—its sheer awfulness and our desire to eradicate it, single-handedly even—that gives anyone who comes close to it some delusion of grandeur.

I think back to a conversation I had on that Hollywood hilltop with Lisa Miller, who made a documentary on the subject for a Cambodian audience and is working on another. "Trying to understand human trafficking is like being sucked into a black hole," she told me. During her six years in Phnom Penh, Miller got close to all kinds of people involved in sex trafficking—from "nice girls" sold into slavery by their parents right up to the corrupt government officials and well-meaning NGO officers trying to "do something" about it in the face of competing political agendas. All of them, she says, were paralyzed by the issue's complexities, but "Aaron understands the problem, so he's not freaked out by it." Miller is still processing the issues her film project has brought up for her. "There's something so powerful about trying to bring light into the dark places," she said. "But we're all trying to heal ourselves at the same time. So when you take it on, it can take you down."

Settling into my grimy airplane seat, I flip once more to Cohen's diary and reread a passage he wrote just before the Myanmar mission. It makes more sense now:

Searchers after horror like myself try to be in prayer on Channel 1. Channel 2 is stay alive. Three is filled with the beauty seducing me off path, or untying me from scruples . . . to take them away as a "pretty woman" from all of this, and payloads of grief, living out their short lives as sex slaves, but I am no Hollywood actor. The haunted go-go bars, massage parlors and red-light nightmares are where I am on Channel 4. But the true epicenter in the terrible reality of my own self-realization is my own loss of feelings. There is no Channel 5; I go numb. . . . I don't wait in vain for some fantasy idea that sees me receiving the simple and beautiful blessings of life and family. Expect nothing, after all—how can I have a family? . . . This is my job; I am a slave hunter. In many ways now, I too am enslaved to the poor. I get a lot of hero this and hero that talk, but more and more I am drifting away somewhere else.

After a few days, I call Cohen. I'm hoping to hear him say he's been sleeping in or going to the beach, but he starts talking about an international academy to school police and special operatives in human-trafficking networks—a longtime dream he's hoping to set up in Bangkok. Then there's the "Pandora's box" he may have opened by taking part in the Westminster raid. His normal schedule involves traveling on the missions, then coming home for a few days to recuperate before the next one. Now, he's involved on a local level. "If I continue on this path," he says, "I will not be able to base myself here anymore."

The women rescued from the Westminster brothel are in a safe house while federal agents conduct follow-up interviews, he tells me. So far, the suspect has been charged only with harboring an illegal alien, but the shell-shocked women are likely candidates for T-visas, which grant human-trafficking victims who assist in investigations the right to stay here for three years before applying for a green card.

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