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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"I don't want to get all conspiracy theory on you," says Tommy Calvert Jr., "but the Department of Defense came out years ago saying that Osama bin Laden was moving weapons and people around. I had buddies in the Navy SEALs who were stopping ships in the Persian Gulf, and they've seen it. . . . Slavery provides the fastest revenue for organized crime. And when the rumors and facts start to jibe, someone has to tell the truth and start making progress in global security."

Calvert is a 26-year-old wunderkind who first went to Sudan in 2002 with the American Anti-Slavery Group. But his involvement there, like Cohen's, began in the late '90s—"long before George Clooney and other folks were out there." After an unsuccessful run for Congress in his native Texas, Calvert became an outreach specialist for Orange County's Human Trafficking Task Force in January. For a while, he says, he was the "highest-ranking black person" on this issue.

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

In the thousands of nail salons, acupuncture offices and massage parlors that clog the commercial strips of Southern California, Calvert sees the faces of both forced labor and sexual slavery on a daily basis. "I feel the presence of the traffickers and their evil," he says. At first, "It surprised the hell out of me that we were fighting that battle here."

Calvert's colleague, task-force law-enforcement liaison Dottie Laster, is grateful that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has finally given police the tools they need to start going after the perpetrators. But her unit received federal funding only last year. It partners with a nonprofit called Community Service Programs to assist victims and run interference between the law and social-service agencies.

Even with a grant and the TVPA on their side, getting a human-trafficking conviction isn't simple. That's why Laster calls Cohen's international perspective on the issue "invaluable" to her office. "He's dealing with the source [of trafficking], and here I am at the destination," she says by phone from her Santa Ana office. "We make a good team."

"Human trafficking" has been on the lips of politicians as well as celebrities for the past couple of years, but none of them can agree on what to call the thing. In late-March testimony before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Grace Chung Becker outlined "legal options to stop human trafficking," which she defined as "a form of modern-day slavery that touches virtually every community in America." The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, who has long detailed its horrors from Cambodia to India, recently scolded world leaders for doing little to prevent what he calls the "big emerging human-rights issue for the 21st century."

No matter what we choose to name it, Michele A. Clark thinks we ought to spend more time thinking of creative ways to deal with what she sees as "human trade." Clark comes at the issue from the policy side, as the second-in-command of the human-trafficking office at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, the world's largest regional security organization). She first met Cohen on the 2003 training mission to Managua, and she grew to admire him during subsequent trips they made together, like one to Ecuador, which needed to address its sex-trafficking problem in order to avoid U.S. sanctions. While Clark and other diplomats were asleep in the hotel, Cohen would be out night-frighting—collecting evidence he'd return with at dawn and pass on over morning coffee. If his methods freaked her out at first, Cohen's results were effective. "He's unique," says Clark by phone from Vienna. "His [field] work greatly contributed to the strength of the report we wrote because it was able to show situations from the victim's point of view. He sees the big picture."

Clark, who currently advises the OSCE's 56 member states—such as the former Soviet Republic of Georgia—on implementing actions to prevent slavery, plans to return to advocacy work in the U.S. "Much of the focus [in terms of this issue] is on prevention, protection, assistance and prosecution," she says. Which sounds fine unless you consider what it leaves out: where the demand is coming from. "Most resources are spent combating trafficking in source countries," she says. "But what about the countries that drive the business? The West is where you find those rich enough to pay for those kinds of services."

Orange County is one of those places. On May 16, Cohen rode along with the Westminster Police Department and the OC Human Trafficking Task Force on a successful raid of two acupuncture/chiropractic clinics the cops suspected were brothels. "After a month of surveillance," says Cohen, "Westminster P.D. could tell these women were not just prostitutes doing their jobs. They were never left alone. Every morning, an SUV transported them from the home where they were being held to one of the other locations, where they were forced to have sex with customers." At the end of the day, the nine Asian women were picked up and ushered into the SUV with that day's laundry—sheets and towels they were expected to wash in time for work the following morning.

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