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

The word got out about Cohen's efforts in Sudan, and in 2003, he was subcontracted by the State Department on his first official assignment, training Nicaraguan police and helping them to develop trafficking-prevention programs for schools. That was his day job. The evenings were devoted to fieldwork—assessing the way sex trafficking worked in Managua.

Cohen watched clean-cut government vice agents try to infiltrate brothels with mixed results. Recognizing that his American party-boy image could give them unique access, the Nicaraguan agents asked Cohen to take part in a retrieval—and found that his approach helped recover more than the usual number of underage victims. That success led to subsequent assessments for the U.S. government's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which documents efforts by foreign governments to combat human trafficking and, via a tiered rating system, calls to task countries not doing enough. In the past four years, the TIP assignment has taken Cohen to five continents.

When Cohen first started raiding brothels, or "night-frighting," in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, there was no protocol. "Since we had essentially just determined that this thing [human trafficking] existed," he says, ". . . I had no mentors." So he developed his own system: He would go into a brothel and find a girl with whom he shared a genuine connection—someone he liked and who liked him back. "Then I'd play it like the lonely guy," he continues. "I would say, 'I don't want to have sex; I just want someone to spend time with and talk to me, and maybe we can go shopping tomorrow.'" Cohen would build the girl's trust, tipping the mamasan, the bartender, the bodyguards—all night long. "I became their favorite party guy," he says. "I'd continue building a relationship with the one girl I was closest to for a day or two."

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

And then he'd confess how much her situation broke his heart. She'd begin to think this tall American was the one who might save her. And she would inevitably reveal the whereabouts of other prostitutes, often underage trafficking victims.

Cohen thinks one key to his success is his long hair and sometimes-scruffy beard—hardly the typical federal-agent look. "The State Department officials were so straight you could see them coming a mile away," he says. "I look like somebody who could be a druggie or a rock-star kind of person . . . and from Dave Navarro and Perry Farrell, I learned party skills that would translate into me finding more underage victims than the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents, State Department and police combined."

"Now," says Cohen, "once I find out there are underage victims there, it's a new game. Because in a friendly country, jurisdiction's easy—you call the police, you say, 'We know where the girls are,' you show them . . . then we surround the building and bring everybody out." But the countries with the worst human trafficking, he says, are those where he's forced to operate without jurisdiction. "Like Vietnam, where low- and midlevel police corruption have resulted in systems of enslavement."

Cohen says he is no longer welcome in Vietnam, which has been coming down hard on dissidents ever since it earned a long-coveted WTO membership in January. Last week, Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet arrived in America—the first visit to the U.S. by a Vietnamese president since the end of the Vietnam War—to wide protests by Vietnamese-Americans and a welcome at the White House, where President W. Bush pressed Triet to improve human rights. The Vietnamese leader, whose visit also included Orange County (see R. Scott Moxley's "Protesters Don't Rattle Vietnam's President"), said he and Bush "agreed to disagree." That's not good news for those trying to stop human trafficking in Vietnam, where, says Cohen, "if you retrieve a girl, you risk her life and yours."

*   *   *

Things did not go exactly as planned in Myanmar. "Here is where the world's best poppy is grown," says Cohen, unfolding a map and touching northeastern Myanmar's Shan State. Roughly the size of Cambodia, it borders Thailand and China and—like the territories that are home to other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, such as Karen, Chin and Kachin—has been under the rigid thumb of the ruling SPDC for decades.

During 120 years of British colonialism, hill-state people (who had been ruled separately by their own kings for centuries) were allowed to remain largely autonomous, a freedom they enjoyed even after Burmese independence came in 1947. But since 1962, they have been given the option to assimilate—under arbitrary, often bloody military rule—or fight. The Shans and other groups that have refused to sign cease-fire agreements with the SPDC maintain their own armies and are considered rebels; therefore, they are subjected to a sort of scorched-earth policy.

Lush, mountainous Shan State also happens to contain the bulk of the country's best natural resources—gold, silver, copper, rubies, lead and uranium. Its fertile soil also makes it ideal for growing poppy, as well as rice and tea. Cohen says that since the war in Afghanistan shifted much of the world's heroin production back to the Golden Triangle, as much as one-third of the global supply is coming from Shan State. More and more regional mafias have been taking advantage of that.

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