16 – Gangs and Human Trafficking, with Laura Lederer

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo

Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Dr. Laura Lederer from Global Centurion. They discuss the connection between street gangs and human trafficking and how law enforcement and the wider community can begin to address this new criminal activity in their community.

Laura Lederer

Laura J. Lederer founded and directed The Protection Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1997.  From 2001 to 2009, she served as Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons in the U.S. Department of State.  She also served as Executive Director of the Senior Policy Operating Group on Trafficking in Persons, a high-level policy group that staffed the President’s cabinet-level Inter-agency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons. She has worked as a Subject Matter Expert for the U.S. Department of Defense designing trainings on trafficking for the military and data collection instruments to track DoD related trafficking cases, and as Subject Matter Expert for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help integrate human trafficking into Runaway and Homeless Youth programs.  She designed and conducted the first retrospective study of health consequences of human trafficking. Her book, Modern Slavery: A Documentary and Reference Guide (Greenwood Publishing, 2018) examines primary source materials to track the development of the 21st century anti-trafficking movement.

Key Points

  • Through an international case law project at Global Centurion, Laura and her team discovered the connection of gang involvement in human trafficking.
  • To stop the reactivity to trafficking, they changed their framework to understanding human trafficking as supply, demand, and distribution.
  • Addressing the root of trafficking means looking at the demand, those who are purchasing commercial sex from women, men, and children.
  • Case law reviews revealed how often gangs are running sex trafficking rings of women and children.
  • There is a major disconnect between task forces focused on gangs and task forces focused on human trafficking, even though they are becoming more and more linked.
  • Addressing this new criminal activity requires more training and law enforcement for the community and for vulnerable youth.
  • Seven key recommendations:
    1. Make sure you have anti-gang laws, whether at the state, county, or city level.
    2. Introduce new policies that address gangs facilitating human trafficking.
    3. Charge and prosecute all gang criminal activity, including human trafficking, so these trends can be identified.
    4. Adding human trafficking to injunction and restraining orders preventing criminal gang activity.
    5. Use already established local laws to de-incentivize the facilitation of human trafficking, such as property abatement laws.
    6. Educate youth: boys about recruitment in gangs, and girls about recruitment into sex trafficking. As well a teachers, caretakers, church leaders, etc. with tailored trainings.


[Note from the Ending Human Trafficking podcast team: This episode was recorded in 2011 so the contact information provided is no longer accurate. Please refer endinghumantrafficking.org/contact for the correct contact information to get in touch with the EHT podcast.]

Love the show? Consider supporting us on Patreon!


Dave [00:00:00] Hello. You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 16, recorded in October 2011. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:29] And I’m Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:31] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And Sandie, we have today a very special guest with us who is someone who’s just been a tremendous leader in the fight against human trafficking, not only here domestically, but around the globe. And I am going to give you an opportunity to tell the audience who we who we have here today.

Sandie [00:00:56] I’m very excited because probably the most significant teacher mentor for me learning about human trafficking when I first started is Dr. Laura Lederer. And when I met her, she was working for the State Department and now she is the founder and president of Global Centurion. And we’re going to talk to her today about the link between street gangs and human trafficking. And Dave, why don’t you just give us a little bio on her background.

Dave [00:01:26] I’d be happy to. Laura Lederer founded and directed the Protection Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government back in 1997. And from 2001 til 2009, she served as the Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons to Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, who was Paula Dobriansky at the time, and then Senior Director of Global Projects in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of State. And from in addition to that, from 2001 to 2009, she was the Executive Director of the Senior Policy Operating Group on Trafficking in Persons, which was a high level interagency group that staff the President’s Cabinet level Inter-Agency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons. She has her BA magnum cam laude in comparative religions from the University of Michigan, which is not an easy school to get a magnum cum laude from so that’s very cool and after ten years in philanthropy as the director of community and social concerns at a private foundation, she continued her education at the University of San Francisco Law School and DePaul College of Law and received her juris doctorate in June 1994. And I could go on literally for about 10 minutes of the accomplishments she’s had. But I think that I’m going to turn it over to you, Sandie, and say a very welcome hello to Dr. Laura Lederer.

Sandie [00:02:49] And it just goes without saying that she has impacted this issue globally and has gone. We’ve traveled together to Greece and to Iraq, and she’s been out here at Vanguard University at the Global Center for Women and Justice. So we’re going to dive right in, Laura, and talk about the connection between street gangs and human trafficking. Do you want to frame that for us?

Laura [00:03:13] Well, let me just give you a little background first on how we came to make the link between street gangs and human trafficking, Sandie. We were collecting case law. This is an anchor project of Global Centurion, collecting the case law worldwide that addresses human trafficking and polling data points from the case law in order to get perpetrator profile. It’s part of the work that we’re doing to understand the demand for human trafficking. And one of the data points that kept coming up was that those who were trafficking young women and children were involved also in street gangs. And after we found about 20 or 30 cases, I actually added a data point so that we could anywhere around the world where a street gang was involved in human trafficking, we could then, you know, we would be able to identify that very quickly as opposed to, you know, as a part of the coding. And so it was through that that we came to know that there was this connection. And so far we’ve had over 200 cases just in North America alone of street gangs involved in mostly sex trafficking, but in human trafficking.

Sandie [00:04:51] Wow. So, Global Centurion explain how Global Centurion takes on this kind of research.

Laura [00:05:00] After for the first couple of years after the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, I think that the focus was on the victims side. In fact, we even say that the law is victim centered. And that’s because, and rightly so, that we needed to once we discovered what the harm of human trafficking was. We needed to focus on the victims. We needed to focus on rescuing, restoring, and reintegrating those victims into society. But about five years into my work at the State Department, I realized that it would be a constant mop up job if we were only focused on the victim side and that we needed to look at human trafficking in the same way that we look at drug trafficking and arms trafficking as a triangle of activity where there’s supply, demand and distribution. The supply are the people, men, women and children who are being trafficked. The distribution, those are the traffickers. They’re in this for the money. And then there’s that other corner of the triangle of activity. And that is the demand side. Those are the customers who are buying. They’re fueling the market. And a couple of us who’ve been working on this issue realized that we knew practically nothing about the demand side. Who are the buyers? What motivates them to buy? Are they are they, you know, criminals? Are they really hardened criminals who are, you know, who are driven by, you know, sort of criminal mind? Are they addicts who need this kind of gratification? And so they buy young women and children in order to sort of satisfy a need. Are they your average, everyday young man who or a man who just does it because he can or because he’s, you know, been given a lot of messages over the years that it’s okay to purchase or to exploit a young woman or child. We just don’t know very much about that demand side. And so when I left the State Department, I started Global Centurion to focus on that demand side, both in terms of finding out more. So we do research to find out more about the demand, to educate, to try to use social marketing campaigns, educational modules, curricula to reach young men and boys who make up the demand side, who make up the demand in order to help them to understand the harm. And then we also work with law and law enforcement to address demand from the legal perspective, draft and passing laws that focus on demand as opposed to on the victim side.

Sandie [00:08:11] Okay. So, so then the link between the street gang and and human trafficking, how can the everyday person begin to understand what that means to us?

Laura [00:08:27] Well, the best thing is to look at a couple of the cases in order to understand what that link looks like. Because we were surprised. I mean, even in the Washington, D.C. area, where I live that there were just in the past couple of years, there have been 12 cases of street gangs involved in in human trafficking. And if you look at these cases, they’re pretty frightening cases. For example, I’ll give you one out in your area. There was an arrest in San Diego in 2011 where three dozen Crips, members of the Crip street gang, and two motel owners were indicted for running an online prostitution ring that targeted underage girls. The gangs were using the gang members were using social networking sites. They were using MySpace, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook to recruit and to sell. And they were working together to target underage girls from broken homes that they knew were were susceptible to this. And once they got them into the into the gang, they had a modus operandi where they would wine and dine them and kind of were the whatever the, you know, sort of up to the equivalent of that is. Buy them presents, do a kind of a Romeo thing on them and and then match them up with one or another gang member who would become their boyfriend. Then he would have them for a while and then suggest, well, you know, I’d really like to share you with my, you know, my other friend here in the gang. And then once once she had agreed to that, then she was used by other gang members. And then once she had agreed to that or maybe she didn’t agree, but she just was was forced into it, there was a kind of a seasoning process whereby the gang pushes her further and further into an exploitive relationship and then out onto the street and beginning to sell her. So and that’s one example. There was another case in Brooklyn in 2010 where Brooklyn prosecutors arrested the Bloods gang members on charges of running sex trafficking rings that recruited girls from junior high schools. They were beaten and deprived of food if they didn’t earn $500 a day out on the streets. And so there’s a whole sort of modus operandi that, first of all, targeting very young girls. One of our cases in the Virginia area, the social worker who has been working with the girls and the girls are as young as 12, 13, 14 years old, said that the gang members were offering what they called skip parties, where they would invite these kids in middle schools to skip middle school and come to a party at a private house. And those skip parties were the places where the recruiting would take place. So they have new ways of recruiting, of coaxing, of luring these very young girls into their gang process, not that they become gang members, but luring them into the, you know, into the ring. And then very quickly sort of turning them back out. And then they have and while those ways of recruiting are kind of classic like the Romeo method or like even just the, you know, a kind of snatching or kidnaping and beating, it can run from one extreme to the other, in terms of the recruiting process. The marketing and retailing process is very sophisticated there. The gangs are using the Internet, they’re using cell phones. They’re using all the new technologies and the social media to find customers and to make their money.

Dave [00:13:06] Lori, it’s so interesting to hear you speak about this because I was not familiar with the link between gang activity and the potential for human trafficking. And we don’t hear as much in the media about gangs as we did five, ten, 15 years ago. And it’s such a, such a sad thing that now gangs are involved in this, too, and that that’s still such a part of the activity around this. And it’s just a really sad story to hear.

Laura [00:13:36] Well, what we found shocking was that law enforcement has been developing very sophisticated programs to address human trafficking and very sophisticated programs across the United States to deal with gang criminal activity, street gangs and their criminal activities. But that there had not been any way of putting those two together. So there are task forces. There are about 200 task forces on street gangs and 40 some task forces on human trafficking that the Department of Justice has developed across the United States. And these two kinds of task forces had never met. They had never come together, had never compared notes.

Dave [00:14:27] Oh interesting.

Laura [00:14:28] And so this new, and it is new, it’s a relatively new, it seems, activity for street gangs. They’re mostly known for drug trafficking and for they do small weapons trafficking, robbery, extortion, murder, witness tampering. So they’re charged with those activities fairly routinely. But sometimes the human trafficking is going on at the same time. But that charge is not being brought. Now, that’s changing since, you know, since we found these cases and since we’ve made the connection. Justice Department officials also came to a couple of my workshops and we’re also seeing some more sophistication, at least on the, you know, the going after the gang members who are involved, particularly in trafficking children.

Sandie [00:15:34] So then, if this is new and we’re beginning to get a handle on it. So what kind of new approaches do we have to look at to fight this?

Laura [00:15:46] Well, I mean, I think we have to do the same kinds of things that we have done with human trafficking. First of all, just having an awareness that this is a new criminal activity that street gangs are moving into and looking for it. I mean, proactively, we’ve always said that law enforcement has to be proactive in terms of human trafficking cases because unlike some other crimes, like robbery or murder, where the the phone rings and law enforcement is, generally speaking, is reactive. Somebody calls and reports a crime and then law enforcement reacts. With human trafficking, law enforcement has had to develop proactive methodologies in order to find it because it is underground criminal activity. And so we need to use the same kinds of methodologies that we’ve used on drug trafficking and on arms trafficking. So surveillance and sting operations and strike forces, you know, special task forces where law enforcement develops the kind of expertize and skills and knows what to look for. So I think that having that extra knowledge and knowing what to look for is going to be one of the first things. And then I think there’s a lot that communities can also do in order to begin to work on the issue. Knowing that gangs are targeting young children and they’re targeting them, I mean, in middle schools and so on. They’re targeting them at school or after school in the malls or, you know, in places where teens hang out. I think that we also have to be developing the kinds of programs where we can reach young kids. And this is difficult. This is difficult because I know here in Virginia, the organization that is working with these victims of the most recent street gang cases, has been asked to come into the schools, to talk in the middle schools about human trafficking and about street gangs. And then when she showed her, when the head of the organization showed her PowerPoint, the PTA didn’t approve it because, you know, it was too hard hitting. So we have to find a way to talk about this in order to address it. And I think that taking the best of what we have already done with education on gangs and the best of what we’ve already developed in terms of human trafficking, we should be able to combine those and develop some new programs. So I have seven recommendations that I make when I discuss this in communities.

Sandie [00:19:15] Okay. And why don’t you just go through those seven for us?

Laura [00:19:20] Well, the first one is to draft and pass local anti-gang laws that address human trafficking. Most of the gang law is at the local level, either at the state or the county or city level. So if a community does not have a gang law, developing one that is tailored to that community is important. And training law enforcement to look for human trafficking as a part of gang activity is is very important. And I think as these cases come to light, we’ve had a good two dozen high profile cases across the United States, in Florida, in New York, in Boston, in Washington State, in California, in Texas. As those become better known, law enforcement will I think they will know more what to look for. So that’s the first one, has to do with the law. The second one also has to do with the law. San Diego has taken the lead in this regard, and that is add human trafficking to the list of suspect activities in state and local gang legislation. So if you have a gang law already, most of the gang laws, the anti-gang laws list 33 offenses or something like that, 30 or so offenses that are out there where they increase penalties for gang related crimes. And adding human trafficking to that list of 30 or so activities is important. And I think there are a couple of communities that have done that. And they’ll I believe there will be more. The third is to charge and prosecute all criminal activity. So in most of the gang cases that we’ve seen so far, gang members are charged for, you know, murder, extortion, arms trafficking or firearms,  witness tampering, as I said. I mean, there are series of things that most of these gangs are involved in. And human trafficking often doesn’t make it onto that list of multiple charges. And it needs to. If gangs are involved in human trafficking, whether or not that’s the charge that you lead with, it should be one of the charges and there can be multiple charges. So just adding that, I think will will help us to identify these cases in the future. The fourth one is injunctions and restraining orders preventing criminal gang activity. For example, in San Francisco, visitation valley, the community has some kinds of criminal activity that they’ve listed that gangs are often involved in that they can add human trafficking to that and can prevent that kind of activity if they’ve already got it in a, you know, in a restraining order. The fifth is using just local things like property abatement law. For example, in Los Angeles, the house where gang members are collecting and meeting, you can often use a property abatement, a civil suit law against the property owner who is allowing gang members to, you know, to utilize this property. And this is done for, you know, when they’re selling weapons out of that house or selling drugs out of the house, why not also do it for human trafficking?

Sandie [00:23:40] Absolutely. Okay. And there’s two more.

Laura [00:23:45] There are, there are. Education and awareness. And I talked about that a little bit, trying to figure out the ways to reach boys and girls who are in danger of being recruited. I mean, this is the problem for both the males and females because young men are recruited very early, young boys are recruited very early into the gangs. And they’re often the ones that are asked to, you know, to go into the schools and recruit the girls their age and get them to the skip parties or bring them into the gang. And so finding the ways and this is difficult, I think that there are other countries are ahead of the U.S. in terms of the ways that you can actually reach children. I have on my webinar, which will be up fairly soon on our website, I have a couple of examples that I think are effective in reaching young people. For example, in Canada, the law enforcement officials have seized some of the assets of gang members, including a Hummer or including their very fancy cars or even their dogs. And then they sort of reverse engineer and they decorate the cars with anti-gang slogans and messages and they take them into the junior high schools or middle schools or our high schools and use them. The kids can go out, they can climb on them. And they have the messages on the car. So things that are creative like that or the pit bulls that the gang members were using to fight, they’ll then bring the pit bulls in and do anti-gang messaging. And the pit bulls will have the little banners on there, you know, have a little banner on them and anti-gang message. So creative ways to reach teenagers are important. In one community in California, the Board of Education ran a video awareness campaign and they didn’t design it. They asked great kids in grades eight through 12 to take a video camera and to find a way to make a message, a very short, you know, 60 seconds or two minute message about gangs and the harms of gangs. And then the best one won a big prize. And so, you know that teens against gangs video contests is a very so these kinds of ideas I think are better than you know the lecture method. We also need to to reach out in what I call concentric circles of care. So you want to reach the young people. You also want to reach their parents and you want to reach the teachers. You want to have educational modules for community leaders. You want to have the same thing for churches, and they have to be tailored for these particular communities. So for example in one city, parents of first offender gang members attended a school to help them understand the harms of gang activity and what they can do to prevent their sons or daughters from participating in gangs and those kinds of specially tailored. So that there’s not a cookie cutter approach, I think are going to be very, very important.

Sandie [00:27:45] Our time is fast running out and there’s so much more to talk about. What I would like to do is schedule a part two eventually and maybe bring in some law enforcement and education people and do a panel with you, Laura, because this kind of interaction and getting that cross communication is so important. We recently hosted Juvenile Justice offices from Las Vegas to the beach cities that included four counties here for a summit. And the fact that there is a lot of the information out there that is not being communicated through collaborative community efforts is a tragedy. And it’s something we have to correct as quickly as possible in order to address this much more effectively. Would you tell us again what your website is?

Laura [00:28:43] Yes. And some of this information will very shortly be up on the website. It’s www.globalcenturion.org. And there’s basic information about the demand side and what I call the five essence of demand, how to go after the demand side and the ways we can work on demand. And I have written a law review article on the link between street gangs and human trafficking, and I’ve done a couple of op-ed pieces. And then shortly the PowerPoint that I’ve done will be up also. So those are all at least first primers. But I agree with you that I think that each of us in our own areas of expertize, we need to begin to figure out how to collaborate and cooperate in the same way that we have built multidisciplinary task forces on human trafficking. We need to do the same thing now for street gangs and human trafficking.

Sandie [00:29:47] And Dr. Lederer has been a frequent presenter at the Global Center for Women and Justice annual Spring Conference. And we hope that you’re going to join us again in 2012. Dave.

Dave [00:29:59] Yeah, I just want to let our audience know, first of all, a huge thank you to Dr. Lederer for spending your time today with us and sharing just you know, we’re just scratching the surface on some of this new information, this new research that you’re doing and looking into. And I’m so glad that you are looking into it. And just a reminder for our audience, too, we’ve talked a little bit about demand today and the importance of understanding the demand side of the equation in human trafficking. And we did do an episode on that a few weeks back, episode number 11. So be sure to check that out as well. And for those who are wanting to get in touch with Laura’s organization, Global Centurion, and looking for some of those resources she mentioned, we’ll also put a link to that on our website in the show notes. So that way folks can reference those as well. And just a reminder for our audience, too, if this has raised questions or comments for you and questions we can address on a future podcast, there’s a couple of ways to get a hold of us. One way is to send an email to gcwj@vanguard.edu. That’s for the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard. Or folks can call you Sandie, right?

Sandie [00:31:07] Right. They can call 714-556-3610, extension 2242.

Dave [00:31:14] So, I think we should thank Dr. Lederer for your time. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertize with us today. We’re so blessed to have had you and to really share your wisdom.

Laura [00:31:27] Happy to be here.

Dave [00:31:29] And that’s going to wrap up our time for us today, Sandie. So, this has been a great education for me as far as the importance of looking at how gangs potentially are involved in human trafficking, not even potentially but for sure are involved in human trafficking. And boy, so much for us to continue to look at and investigate in future episodes. And just a reminder, if you have comments or feedback for us, you can reach us at gcwj@vanguard.edu and we will see you back for the next episode again in two weeks. Thanks, Sandie.

Sandie [00:32:09] Thank you. Bye bye.

Scroll to Top