World Day Against
Trafficking in Persons


The Long and the Short of the Human Trafficking Problem

Op-Ed By Jennifer Stagner

Featured Photo: @mikkymay via Twenty20

Jennifer is a Writer and a Social Studies and English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her life-long passion is promoting positive systemic change at all levels of society.

In 2013, the United Nations adopted a resolution to designate July 30 of each year as the ‘World Day Against Trafficking of Persons.’ “Let us reaffirm our commitment to stop criminals from ruthlessly exploiting people for profit and to help victims rebuild their lives,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Many people know a little about the injustice of human trafficking and feel a sense of moral outrage at its perpetuation. Far fewer understand the scope or intricacies of its continuation on a global scale.  

Operation Underground Railroad is an American non-profit 501c3 organization that seeks to free victims of child sex trafficking. OUR was started by former Homeland Security Special Agent Tim Ballard. According to family friend Leah Bonner, he grew “tired of all the red tape” that prevented him from extracting children and bringing down rings of traffickers. By starting his own non-profit, Ballard was able to partner multinationally across organizational lines that were formerly convoluted by his association with the US Government. According to the OUR website, he and the organization use the power of the internet to locate and infiltrate pedophiliac organizations where information is shared, and then dismantle the child sex trafficking rings that move children internationally. Then, as noted by Secretary-General Guterres to be so critical to the mission, they provide aftercare, helping victims to recover from the abuses suffered in captivity. They operate on a one hundred percent donation-based budget, thus freeing themselves from the constraints of, and strings attached to, government money.

Bonner says, “Tim had to give up undercover operations when he became too widely known.” As the organization’s stature has grown, Ballard and the work that his team does have been featured on Fox, CNN, CBS, NBC and numerous local newscasts. According to the website, he has also testified before the United States Congress on “best practices to liberate children from sex slavery,” and continues to train special agents for US Government task forces. With his international partnership with law enforcement agencies across the globe, he has become a highly visible force in the fight against child exploitation.

The website is filled with the crusader’s language of outrage and calls to action. It should be, for multiple reasons: child sex slavery is inexcuseable, it should be stopped in any and all instances possible, and nothing stops injustice in its tracks like a crusade. But also, let’s face it: pleas to emotion garner donations.

Donations make the important work happen. If trafficking children into sex slavery is big business – as we’ve all been exposed to with the recent Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell scandals – then it takes big money to take them on. Powerful people have pulled the strings behind the scenes for far too long, utilizing the position and privilege to protect themselves from prosecution. The amount of money brought in by OUR, and the incredible work they do is testimony to the power of Populist sentiment when the populace opens its purse.

Credit @NEOSiAM2020 via Pexels

The current international uprising against oppression of all forms, including #Metoo and George Floyd protest movements, are raising awareness of the deeply systemic nature of oppression and injustice to everyday citizens. What most Americans are discovering for the first time, however, is just how deep their roots run in American power and money.

As a nation, we have prided ourselves on being a bastion of justice and serving as the world leader in freeing oppressed peoples since World War II; and our preeminent position in world organizations across the globe – NATO, the UN, the WHO, and the G-Summit panoply, just to name a few – has been proof-positive that the world has trusted us to exercise that power magnanimously. But rather suddenly (at least on a global and historic time scale), that stature is slipping…and many Americans are just beginning to scratch the surface of the answer to the trillion dollar question: Why?

The Vice Documentary “Crossing Mexico’s Other Border” begins with the narrative of Yoana, a Guatemalan sex worker who crosses the border regularly to work in Mexico. Her story is told by her, but fleshed out by the narrator and multiple clips of those who interact with the migrant population: humanitarian aid workers, brothel owners and law enforcement officials all contribute their perspective. Yoana sometimes brings her children with her, who are introduced in the course of the 23 minute video. She explains how she makes as much money in a day as she might make in almost a month of working back in Guatemala – if or when any such work is available in one of the poorest economies in the world.

The documentary pays little homage to American puritanical sensibilities about sex and sex workers. It is a steely-eyed look at the financial realities of life in Central American countries that make legalized prostitution a necessary and welcome addition to the economy of the region. Father Alejandro Solalinde, a priest and activist in the region, depicts in detail how the allure of jobs draws vulnerable women through the “Tolerance Zones” in Southern Mexico, where brothels, gambling parlors and bars are the primary attractions. His approach balances compassion for the victims with a certain acceptance for the conditions set by the oppressors – not out of agreement, so much as the recognition that he is powerless to change them.

He describes how most of the people who pass through seek financial freedom, explaining that while a few do enter into consensual arrangements with job providers, many more find themselves trapped in some form of violence: “extortions, kidnapping, human trafficking, drug trafficking, labor and sexual slavery.”

In academia, and in books such as Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, this violence is often portrayed as the legacy of centuries of oppression of the multitudes, carried out by the powerful oligarchs and foreign governments who have controlled the fates of the masses in Latin America since the first missionaries arrived in the 15th century. While the horrific tales of brutality perpetrated upon peaceful natives is the current popular fairy tale in the American media – how many of you now hate Christopher Columbus? – the true history is much more complex. Native American warring civilizations were enormous in scope, as National Geographic documents in “Lost Treasures of the Mayan Snake Kings.”

We are just beginning to uncover their sheer size, and map out how they were equally as complicated, incestuous and aggressive as any European conqueror. In 2013, to the shock and awe of political scientists and historians everywhere, Galeano publicly denounced the conclusions of his foundational work, thus hastening the deconstruction of the ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ narrative in Latin American history.

Regardless of the current popular sentiment regarding the whys of history, it is generally accepted internationally that violence to persons is an unacceptable way to govern a country. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in 1948, and continues to be the gold standard by which every nation’s governance is judged by the international community. The convincing of a person to exist in a state of unequal power, subjugated by a system, religion or another human, to a status of lesser personhood, is usually enforced by either physical violence or emotional abuse, or threats thereof. Since by nature, oppression is an act of violence, any oppression is universally decried.

Human trafficking is another form of oppression. If all human trafficking victims rose up and bucked the chains that bound them, eventually there would be no market for trafficking victims. The very allure, for the purchaser (of the victim or their services), is that they wield power over another. This is the short of why human trafficking still exists in the 21st century: people can still be convinced that they are powerless to overcome the oppressor, or that they themselves are somehow benefitting from their position of mental slavery.

In the poorest of countries, it isn’t just others outside of the family unit who steal children: parents have been known to sell or place their children into slavery arrangements. They aren’t just monsters; they come from a place of being desensitized to the violence, and often genuinely believe that they are giving their child a better shot at success in this world. Sometimes they are just trying to prevent their child from falling victim to starvation, which is a horrible and certain death sentence, and an all-too present reality for millions of people around the world. If we recall the story of Yoana, it becomes clear how sexual exploitation is sometimes the least of a parent’s worries in these parts of the world.

Families are often the indoctrinators of children into the mindset of the enslavable – or the enslaver. In his searing account of his own family’s history of employing forced labor, Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist Alex Tizon explains in “My Family’s Slave” how he was eleven years old before he realized who and what his Lola really was. Americans who read his account were forced to confront for the first time that they probably knew someone, or of someone, who might be considered enslaved. As the reader, we see that Lola really could have left at any time, had she had the self-confidence to overcome her ingrained belief that she could not; if she had spoken up to someone in the years she lived in America, she probably would have been sent home. Instead, she waited for her oppressors, Alex’s parents, to recognize the error of their ways – which of course they never did. She loved them and willingly sacrificed her life for them, and they couldn’t even buy her a plane ticket to see her family for fear she wouldn’t come back. What folly.

What was far more likely was that she was bound by her sense of honor and duty, instilled in her by the culture in which she was raised, and a fear of not being loved. Given the chance, returning home could have reinforced those ties, instead of breaking them – but such is the power of fear over the oppressor. In fact, she did return home, sent decades later by the author, only to return to the US to live with Tizon until her death at the age of 86. Freedom post-enslavement takes many forms, some of which may be unrecognizable to the typical American.

As proud Americans, we have a deep cultural aversion to giving up our autonomy. We believe in our right to be free; we stand up for individual liberty and the freedom to make choices; and we ALWAYS question authority. From our judgment seat, we have a cultural blindspot to the mentality of the oppressed. Are you being mistreated? Speak up! Don’t have a job? Just go get one! Want to stay out of jail? Show respect and don’t do anything wrong! Don’t want to work a minimum wage job? Go to school! The roadblocks faced by those who have been victimized in some way, and the blindness of others to the shelter of their own privilege, go hand in hand. The failure to see – whether willful or ignorant – is what perpetuates the bully-victim cycle.

Looking at the opposing sides in the George Floyd debates, it becomes pretty clear who identifies with the bullies and who stands up for the victims. Incredulously, and famously for all the world to see, policemen across the United States continue to stand up and say, “We are victims too!” This isn’t hypocrisy: they believe it. It is equal parts their truth, and oblivion to the role they play in systemic oppression, serving as a crystal clear example of how power ties the hands of the powerful with its own set of conscriptions to perpetuate the system.

And so, we circle back around to “the long of it.” Why does trafficking continue? Why do people enslave children for sex? How do grown adults not recognize and break the bonds of their own oppression? The answers to these questions are interwoven in the tales above: economic and political systems, corrupt government officials, the influences of the tools of power and money – all weaponized to maintain systems of power and privilege. The psychology of abuse has been studied extensively and laid out for the world to see; but so often, we fail to see how the countless microaggressions of our very existence blind us to how we ALL play both the victim AND the perpetrator in some scenario or other. Did you buy fair trade coffee today, or did you conscript another child into forced labor? Do you KNOW your new shirt wasn’t made in a sweatshop?

As Americans, we are sheltered from the effects of our choices – we have to seek out the evidence that we are participating in oppression. The media is too busy glossing it over, corporations are paying to keep us happy and oblivious, and our own psyches battle us to remain in ignorance of the reality that we are BOTH the good guys AND the bad guys, depending upon the conflict.

In speaking with Leah Bonner, one truth of psychology emerged from the threads of our conversation: We can’t expect anyone else to change. “We have to protect our own children,” she said. “Children are spending more time than ever, unsupervised on the internet, where predators and traffickers wait to reel them in.” She mentioned the recent viral news story, in which a man was arrested in Arizona after he entered a gaming chat room with two twelve year old girls, struck up a conversation, and convinced them to send him graphic nude photos of themselves. Perhaps statistically, the odds were slim that they would fall victim to a child predator; but at the individual level, NO parent would say, “Oh well, that was unfortunate.

How unlikely was it that my kid would be a victim of a child pornographer? Hm, better luck next time.” The fact that this man was caught is testament to his lack of foresight or knowledge of how to use the internet to protect his anonymity; but there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out there who DO know how to block their IP addresses, and who DO engage in the technologically sophisticated dance of cybercrime.

As parents, it becomes imperative to teach children the difference between ‘surprises and secrets.’ This is key to protecting them from falling victim to any sort of sex criminal. Open communication must be established early, and reinforced often. As a parent herself, Bonner said, “I have to bring it up again every six months!” Developmentally, children learn new things which have the potential to overwrite lessons that have only been taught once. The Boy Scouts of America requires annual recertification of their Youth Protection Training for just this reason: learning of this nature requires reinforcement through repetition.

Another element of protecting children from victimization, when teaching them about their bodies, is avoiding the pitfalls of shaming. When children harbor shame surrounding their bodies or themselves, they become ashamed to tell someone if something is going on that makes them uncomfortable, or that sets off their alarm bells. If their warning system is ALWAYS going off – or if they’ve been trained by a predator to turn it off! – then they are unlikely to resist exploitation. The same holds true for adults: we can become so desensitized that we just disable the system altogether. Hence the necessity for the MeToo movement – women have to remind each other to turn it back on. 

The consequences of leaving it off are different for each person. The oppressed, or just the repressed, often become avoidantly fearful of change. On the opposite end of the conflict cycle, oppressors and boundary violators are bound by their privilege to protect the system for fear of facing consequences, or becoming victims themselves – not that this is an excuse, but an explanation. The either-or nature of the bully-victim dynamic is a narrative, not a fact. 

But children: children are innocent victims. Regardless of the intricacies of the choices of adults, and the power games of the elites of society, this truth remains: children don’t deserve this. Not only is it a moral imperative that we stop the trillion-dollar business of all human trafficking – PARTICULARLY child sex trafficking – it is also an American public health crisis. Becky Facer, Bonner’s sister, explains: “People think this is a third world country or minority issue. Like the way that those infomercials pop up on our screen about starving kids in far away countries, not our problem. Or here’s $10 a month to help. But this will take way more than that. This is the biggest public health crisis ever. We look the other way because it’s not our problem.” 

This is a proven falsehood. According to the Innocent Justice Foundation, “Americans are the number one producer and consumer of child pornography.” Americans are also a “sending” country, Tim Ballard explains in his blog, meaning they travel abroad and pay for trafficking victims. As we learn in Econ 101, if there is demand, supply will rise to meet it. Facer doesn’t mince words: “We have a responsibility to fix it because we are driving the need!”

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

 Mahatma Gandhi

We are all members of a globalized society now. For some, this is a mind-boggling concept: buying stuff from people halfway around the world makes you part of their community. It can be hard to determine where your responsibilities to the global community lie – most of us can’t even determine our responsibilities to the local homeless shelter, much less billions of people around the world.

Instead of over-analyzing, start with yourself: take responsibility for what YOU have control over, whether that is your children, your cleaning products or your coffee choices.

Then do more: Don’t view child pornography. Don’t sexualize your children, or anyone else’s. Teach the people around you about the facts of human trafficking, so that they might be aware when they encounter trafficking victims. Facer also shares that there are worldwide rallies scheduled for this July 30th; if these are your thing, this is a FANTASTIC reason to participate. Raising awareness around this common cause could be something to reunite a fractured American populace – there is no moral gray in this equation, and no argument on earth AGAINST ending human trafficking. We settled this debate over a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Sometimes it just takes a while for practice to match theory.

Despite the horror and pain that surround this topic, we should all try to avoid the fear of human trafficking. Fear prevents us from being open to learning – it leads to blocking out the discomfort of having empathy for its victims, and lack of empathy leads to a lack of action. Instead of letting the weight of it all get you down, remain steadfast in this truth: education is the true path to emancipation.

[As I finished this piece, the lyrics to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song kept ringing in my head.]

Redemption Song

By Bob Marley and the Wailers

Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pits

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation


Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery

None but our self can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

‘Cause none of them can stop the time

How long shall they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look?

Some say it’s just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill di book

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever had

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our mind

Oh, have no fear for atomic energy

‘Cause none of them can stop the time

How long shall dey kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look?

Some say it’s just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill di book

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever had

Redemption songs

All I ever had

Redemption songs

These songs of freedom

Songs of freedom

Source: LyricFind, Songwriters: Bob Marley, Redemption Song lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.



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