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Why we should question the FBI's recent human trafficking sting

by Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco | @MehlmanOrozco | Human trafficking expert witness
Tuesday, 24 October 2017 16:19 GMT

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach (C) talks at a news conference alongside Stephen Anthony (L) of the FBI and Ashland City Police Lieutenant Joel Icenhour, about the arrest of three individuals accused of human trafficking in Ashland county, at the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio in this 2013 archive photo. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Unfortunately, arrested human traffickers are rarely convicted

In the latest nationwide human trafficking sting known as Operation Cross Country, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 120 child sex traffickers and rescued 84 kids, including a three-month-old baby and her five-year-old sister. The sting involved coordinated operations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia, and is being publicized as a win in the war against sex trafficking.

However, behind the headlines, the reality is much different than what the public is led to believe.

Unfortunately, arrested human traffickers are rarely convicted for these crimes. Charges are often dropped or offenders accept plea bargains for tangentially related offenses, which carry much lighter penalties.

Victims, on the other hand, are typically denied services, erroneously arrested, and/or revictimized post-'rescue.'

For example, during the course of my work as a human trafficking expert witness and author, I've researched the outcome of Operation Gilded Cage.

According to media reports, the 2005 human trafficking sting involved 400 federal and local law enforcement officers, who raided 11 suspected brothels in the San Francisco area. The raid led to the arrest of 27 suspects and recovery of more than 100 female sex workers. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan described the traffickers' treatment of the victims as "horrific, demeaning, and oftentimes brutal." Brad Schlozman, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, called the raid "one of our biggest" nationwide and stated that law enforcement had unraveled a "sophisticated criminal enterprise." The raid commanded headlines from across the United States and was heralded as a successful operation in combating the scourge of human trafficking.

However, court documents told a different story. Of the prosecuted defendants, the lengthiest imposed sentence was about 12 months credited for time served and 36 months of supervised release. The alleged kingpin, Young Joon Yang, was only sentenced to time served, three years of supervised probation, and an assessment fee of $400. Although the defendants in this case were successfully charged with bringing in and harboring aliens, money laundering, and a Mann Act conspiracy, the charges that carried the longest sentences -- sex trafficking and aiding and abetting of sex trafficking -- were dismissed.

Or take the case of Global Horizons Manpower, Inc. In 2010, the FBI called it the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history. However, two years later the criminal case was dropped.

The outcomes of these cases suggest that persons arrested for human trafficking are rarely convicted of human trafficking offenses.

In addition, given the narrative disseminated by our federal law enforcement agencies, most Americans assume that victims' lives are restored post-'rescue.' But this is not true for many human trafficking survivors, including children.

Even if a human trafficker is one of the few who are actually convicted and sentenced for this heinous crime, their victims often experience continued abuse. For instance, Carlos Curtis was the first pimp tried in the District under the federal sex trafficking statute. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison for sex trafficking a 12-year-old girl from New York to Washington DC.

However, post-'rescue' the child he victimized was placed in a juvenile detention center, where she was sodomized by two inmates with a toothpaste tube. She was later held in detention as a material witness until she gave her testimony at trial. Therapy was not provided because "she didn't avail herself." This little girl -- a child victim of sex trafficking -- likely ended up back on the streets in the commercial sex industry, after her sex trafficker's conviction.

Ultimately, this latest human trafficking sting success story appears to be consistent with law enforcement's pattern in disseminating information through rose-colored glasses to the public. Stories of arrests are quickly shared with the media, leading Americans to assume we are becoming more successful in combating the human trafficking scourge. However, this story, like the ones before it, likely conceals the unfortunate reality of the impunity enjoyed by offenders and continued exploitation experienced by victims.

Hiding these facts is, in part, why these miscarriages of justice continue.

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium," will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this month. Dr. Mehlman-Orozco’s writing can be found in The Washington Post, Forbes, The Crime Report, The Houston Chronicle, The Baltimore Sun, The Diplomatic Courier, among other media.