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Complexities Of Human Trafficking Make Cases Difficult To Prove

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act is supposed to help women, many of them new and sometimes undocumented immigrants. Congress intended the law to be comprehensive: It strengthened punishment for traffickers, created task forces, and provided assistance for victims in the form of visas and restitution. It also established a definition for sex trafficking: causing a person to engage in commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion, reports USA Today. Yet law enforcement and prosecutors struggle to build cases that lead to convictions. Police often rely on victims to say they’ve been forced and to identify perpetrators, which has proven an unrealistic expectation. Prosecutors tend to settle for plea deals on related charges – pimping, pandering, or money laundering – with lesser sentences. More than two decades after the law took effect, women are still being trafficked across the U.S. One of the most organized – and lucrative – forms of the crime is through massage, where traffickers are typically of Asian descent, with a variety of business models. No one knows how many people are trafficked. The National Human Trafficking Hotline attributes hundreds of cases a year to the massage business, but that counts only victims who call the hotline or cross paths with law enforcement or advocates.

Failures by police – and society – to identify women working in sex spas as victims have clouded the picture. Even though officers have become increasingly aware of the complexities of trafficking, some continue to arrest women ensnared in the illicit massage business. Traffickers have seized on confusion over whether the women are victims or consenting sex workers – or both – and adapted their methods of control, which makes trafficking harder to detect and prove. Stories of sex trafficking often are filled with details of police raids, angry neighbors, arrests, and advocacy groups. Rarely are the victims the center of coverage. Traffickers stay one step ahead of anti-trafficking laws primarily by using hard-to-track apps like WeChat. Fake accounts and group chats conceal traffickers’ identities and can be deleted on the spot if the traffickers catch wind of police investigations. That leaves victims no evidence of who recruited them. Additionally, women were expected to perform sex acts in apartments, rental houses, and hotels instead of – or in addition to – spa storefronts. Those locations are less obvious to authorities and keep victims more isolated. Women are manipulated into believing they’re willing participants. Traffickers concoct elaborate stories to justify withholding their passports and present jobs as the only way for them to pay off heavy debt incurred for travel to the U.S. Traffickers often tell them they’re free to leave. Women are made to work in violent environments where traffickers may turn to customers or hire guns for beatings and assaults. That allows traffickers to distance themselves from the violence and leaves investigators and prosecutors at a loss to figure out whom to blame.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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