By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Take These Chains
Aaron Cohen says he tried to put victims and spirituality ahead of his own amazing exploits in his new memoir, Slave Hunter
*This article was altered on July 6.
Pinning down Aaron Cohen is no easy task. The sometime Costa Mesa resident spends more time on the road than a rock star, which is ironic given he once lived that life as Jane’s Addiction front man Perry Farrell’s business partner before parlaying his industry connections into a new career as a global slavery abolitionist. His activism takes him everywhere from the jungles of Burma to the streets of Little Saigon, and he’s frequently incommunicado.
Weekly readers were introduced to the 44-year-old’s daring exploits to rescue victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation two years ago (Christine Buckley’s “From Hunter to Hunted,” June 28, 2007, which ran concurrently in LA Weekly). His memoir, Slave Hunter: One’s Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking (Simon & Schuster), which he co-wrote with Buckley, came out June 23 and immediately shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s human-rights best-seller list. Two days later—and an hour after his plane landed at John Wayne Airport following a flight from New York—a bleary-voiced Cohen was on his cell phone talking about his wild ride.
OC Weekly: What do you make of the immediate, positive reaction to your book?
Aaron Cohen: This is exciting for us. I have to credit my co-writer, Christine Buckley. She did an amazing job with the advance work in New York. It knocked off Nelson Mandela’s book [from Amazon’s top spot]. I’m sorry about that. [Laughs]
Besides the horrific things you’ve encountered as an activist, you’ve struggled with personal demons [drug abuse, questions of faith, strained relations with father]. Was it difficult revisiting those?
“Demons” is a good way of putting it. When you review your life, you have so many memories to select from. A certain amount you leave out. But in the process of doing that, you reflect not only on the tragedies, but also the triumphs. In a way, they all become tragic. It’s a very lonely process to write a memoir. My family and friends and my girlfriend, Jennifer, thought I was crazy because I would go disappear in my room for so long.
I’m sure you’ve heard this many times before, but your exploits are so cinematic.
There have been offers to the rights to my life for an action-based feature film. But I get these sort of contracts where all the language has all these restrictions that keep you from doing the things you want to do. I want to continue to do child-rescue missions and have investigations televised, but a lot of film contracts would try to cut those out. So I’m going to wait and see. It was great having Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone interested in it. I did have the opportunity to meet Bruce McKenna, who wrote Band of Brothers, and Sean Stone, who has an incredible mind and is one of Oliver Stone’s sons. I look forward to exploring film, particularly with Sean Stone, who I think is a bright young star.
But if a movie was made, would you fear the human-slavery issue might get sacrificed, that people would figure it’s being overdramatized for the sake of a movie plot?
The facts are the facts. The U.S. government and the CIA—they seem to know what they are doing sometimes—do a lot of research. If you go to the CIA website right now, [the site] will say there are 12.3 million slaves in the world and that it has passed arms sales and will pass drug sales [as the No. 1 global crime]. In terms of a making a movie, it would have to be sober and considerate in how to portray a human-rights issue. I came up with a word: de-spectacularizing. When we wrote the book, we went out of our way to de-spectacularize the story. There were a lot of things in Christine’s article that are not in the book. We wanted to focus not only on the issues, but also on the real things that go into developing the individual spiritually. If it were just scenes of being shot and poisoned and one chase scene after another, people would immediately think, “This is the same genre action-adventure thriller like all the rest.”
Christine’s story kind of left us hanging about the final outcome of the Westminster brothel case. How did that turn out?
I’m not sure if it was resolved. I think there were some plea bargains and some other people went to jail.
Have you been able to keep in touch with the girls who were rescued?
No, you are not allowed to keep in touch with those particular girls. They went into a witness -protection type of situation, so it is hard to keep track. I will say community-service programs do a fantastic job with victims. It is a strict program . . .
Because you could become compromised . . .
Right. It’s like Mafia investigations. These are really bad guys. Look at all the port cities in Mexico right now: Juarez, Tijuana. Here in Orange County, we live an hour-and-a-half drive away from martial law. The Mexican Army is surrounding those towns and Tecate. My entire life, I have never seen the military presence in Mexico like it is now. And the death toll and the beheadings in Juarez are a dark omen of something. It means there is more human trafficking in this country than ever before.
Do you still talk with Perry Farrell?
Oh, yeah, I went to Coachella, and backstage, I saw Paul McCartney and Perry and Flea and his girlfriend and my girlfriend, Jennifer, and Perry came over and gave me a big hug and congratulated me on some stuff I had been doing. Then he took me over to meet Shepard Fairey—you know, the artist who did the Obama “Hope” poster. He was really sweet and said, “I want to use my art to free slaves. What can I do?” By coincidence, Brian Sirgutz of Causecast [an interactive community that connects notables and brands with human-rights activism] had asked if I could get Shepard Fairey artwork for our Burma campaign. Perry made the big introductions, I now have the portrait here, and we got a Burma benefit together in New York—all in a week—because of Perry. So, yeah, I’ve been really blessed to have wonderful friends.
Considering Iran’s role in these global crime networks you’re fighting against, what do you make of what’s happening there now?
On the one hand, you have people looking at the world from an older paradigm. Others are looking at it with fresh eyes, through a lens of peace and reconciliation and communication. Iran has to open up its country. The power of technology, I think, is going to effect peace in the world. Some look at scriptures and believe in peace through apocalypse, but the same scriptures also talk of love and peace and reconciliation. The Middle East is the epicenter, where we should be operating as human-rights activists because that is where people are falling through the cracks. The [anti-slavery] cause is just an omen of something else that is happening in the world around us. So is the collapse of investment banks. This isn’t wild conspiracy-theory talk; this is current events.
I can’t imagine you feel settled and comfortable while abroad, doing what you do. And yet, because of what you do abroad, you probably do not feel settled and comfortable at home, either.
I joke that when I arrive at the airport, I’m finally home. I’m comfortable: I have my online connection there, everything is working, all my food is ready, I don’t have to clean up afterward. I travel so much for so long I’ve lost my roots, the need for home. My girlfriend helps me with this now. Jennifer has me thinking about home and missing home. Since my father passed away, I’ve been on nonstop missions.
That’s how you dealt with it?
Yeah, I dealt with the pain of losing both parents by putting myself right into the epicenter, the Middle East. When my parents died, it gave me courage. It’s like this is a way to be with them.
For more Slave Hunter talk, see our exclusive interview with Cohen's co-author, "'Slave Hunter' Co-Author Christine Buckley Wears Her Journalism on Her Sleeve."