16 – Gangs and Human Trafficking

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We are just beginning to recognize the link between gang activity and human trafficking crimes. Sandra Morgan, the Director of the Global Center for Women & Justice and Dave Stachowiak, one of the Center’s board members, interview Dr. Laura Lederer from Global Centurion on her work to better understand the connection between gangs and trafficking.

Key Points

  • Dr. Laura Lederer founded and directing The Protection Project.
  • Those who were trafficking young women and children are usually involved in street gangs.
  • There is a triangle of activity: Supply, demand, and distribution.
  • Demand side: Who are the buyers, what motivates them to buy, learn more about demand.


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Dave: Sandie, we have today, a very special guest with us who is someone who has just been a tremendous leader in the fight against human trafficking (HT), not only here domestically but around the globe and I am going to give you an opportunity to tell our audience who we have here today.

Sandie: I’m very exciting because probably the most significant teacher/mentor for me learning about HT when I first started is Dr. Laura Letter. When I met her, she was working for the state department.  Now she is the founder and president of Global Centurion. We’re going to talk to her today about the link between street gangs and HT. Dave, why don’t you give us a little bio on her background?

Dave: I’d be happy to. Laura Lederer founded and directed the protection project at Harvard University’s JFK school of government and from 2001 until 2009 she served as the senior advisor on trafficking of persons under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs who was Paula Dobranksy at the time.  And then Senior Director of global projects in the office to monitor and combat at the US Department of state. In addition to that, from 2001-2009, she was the executive director of the senior policy operating group on trafficking in persons which was a high level inter-agency group that staffed the president’s cabinet level interagency task force in tip. She has her B.A. manga cum laude at the University of Michigan which is not easy to get magna cum laude from so that’s very cool. After 10 years in philanthropy at a private found. She con. And received her doctorate In June 1994 I could go on literally for about 10min

Sandie: Thank you, yes. It just goes without saying that she has impacted this issue globally. We’ve travelled together to Greece and Iraq and she’s been out her at vu at the GCWJ. So were going to dive right in Laura and talk about the connection between street gangs and ht.  Do you want to frame that for us?

Laura: Let me just give you a little background first on how we came to make the link between street gangs and HT, Sandie. We were collecting case law; this is an anchor project of global centurion. Collecting the case law worldwide that addresses HT, pulling data points from the case law, it’s part of the work that were doing to understand the demand for HT. 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 we could, anywhere in the world, where a street gang was involved in HT, we could then identify that very quickly as a part of the coding. It was through that we came to know that there was this connection. So far, we have over 200 cases in North America alone of street gangs involved in mostly sex trafficking, but in HT.

Sandie: Wow. So explain how Global Centurion takes on this kind of research.

Laura: For the first couple of years after the passage of the TVPA I think the focus was on the victim’s side, in fact we even say that the law is victim-centered and that’s because, rightly so, we needed to, once we discovered what the harm of HT was, we needed to focus on the victims. We needed to focus on rescuing, restoring and reintegrating those victims into society. About 5 years into my work at the state Department, I realized that it would be a constant mop-up job if it were only focused on the victims’ side and that we needed to look at HT in the same way that we look at drug and arms trafficking as A triangle activity where there’s supply, demand, and distribution. The supply are the people, men women and children who are being trafficked. The distribution is the traffickers, there 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 fuelling the market. A couple of us who have 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 criminals who are driven by a sort of criminal mind?  Are they addicts who need this kind of gratification so they buy young women and children in order to satisfy a need? Are they an average every day young man or man who just does it because he can or because he has been given a lot of messages over the year that its okay to purchase or exploit a young woman or child? We just don’t know very much about that demand side. So when I left the state dept. 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. And to educate to try to use social marketing campaigns, educational modules, curriculum to reach young men and boys who make up the demand side in order to help them understand the harm. And we also work with Law and law enforcement to address from the legal perspective drafting and passing laws that focus on the demand as opposed to the victim’s side.

Sandie: So, then the link between the street gang and human trafficking, how can the everyday person understand what that means to us?

Laura: The best thing is to look at a couple of the cases in order to understand what that link looks like. We were surprised, even in the Washington DC area, where I live, that just in the past couple of years, there have been 12 cases of street gangs involved in HT. If you look at these cases, they’re pretty frightening cases. For example, in your area, there was an arrest in SD in 2011, where 3 dozen members of the Crip street gang and 2 motel owners were indicted for running an online prostitution ring that targeted underage girls. The gangs were using social networking sites Facebook, craigslist to recruit and to sell. They were working together to target underage girls from broken homes that they knew were susceptible to this and once they got them into the gang then they have a modus operandi, where they would wine and dine them (or whatever the up to date equivalent of that is), buy them presents, do kind of a “Romeo” thing on them, and then match them up with one or another gang member who would become their “boyfriend”. He would have them for a while and then suggest, “You know I’d really like to share you with my other friend here in the gang” and then 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 forced into there was 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. That’s one example. There was another case in Brooklyn in 2010, where 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 per day out on the streets. There’s a whole modus operandi, 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 years old) said that the gang members were offering what they called “skip parties” where they would invite these kids in middle school to skip middle school and come to a party at a private house. Those skip parties were the places where the recruiting would take place. 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 ring, and then very quickly turning them back out. While those ways of recruiting are sort of classic like the Romeo method or like even just a kind of a snatching or kidnapping 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, and they’re using all the new technologies in the social media to find customers and to make their money.

Dave: Laura, 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 HT and we don’t hear as much in the media about gangs as we did 5, 10, 15 years ago. It’s such a sad thing that gangs are involved in this now too and that its still such a part of the activity around this. It’s just a really sad story to hear.

Laura: What we found shocking was that Law Enforcement has been developing very sophisticated programs to address HT and very sophisticated programs across the US to deal with streets gangs and their criminal activities. But, there had not been any way of putting those 2 together. There are about 200 task forces on street gangs and about 40 task forces on HT that the Department of justice has developed across the U.S.  These 2 kinds of task forces had never met, had never come together, had never compared notes so this new. It’s a relatively new activity; it seems, form street gangs. They’re mostly known for drug trafficking, and they do small weapons trafficking, robbery, extortion, murder, witness tampering so they’re charged with those activities fairly routinely. The HT is going on at the same time but that charge is not being brought. But that’s changing since we’ve found these cases and since we’ve made the connection. Justice Department officials also came to some of my workshops were also seeing some more sophistication at least on going after the gang members who are involved particularly in trafficking children..

Sandie: If this is new and were beginning to get a handle on it, what kind of new approaches do we have to look at to fight this?

Laura: Well I think we have to do the same kinds of things that we have done with HT. First of all, just having an awareness that this is a new criminal activity that street gangs are moving into and looking for it proactively. We’ve always said that Law Enforcement has to be proactive in terms of HT cases because unlike some other crimes like robbery or murder where the phone rings and the Law Enforcement officer, generally, is reactive. Someone calls and reports a crime and Law enforcement reacts. With HT, Law Enforcement has had to develop proactive methodologies in order to find it because it is underground criminal activity. We need to use the same kinds of methodologies that we’ve used in drug trafficking and in arms trafficking. Surveillance and sting operations and strike forces, special task forces where Law Enforcement develops the kind of expertise 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 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 in middle schools, at school, or after school in the malls, or in places where teens hang out. We also have to be developing the kinds of programs where we can reach young kids. This is difficult. I know here in Virginia, the organization that is working with the victims of the most recent street gang cases has been asked to come into the middle schools to talk about HT and about street gangs and then when the head of the organization showed her PowerPoint,  the PTA was didn’t approve it because it was too hard hitting. So we have to find ways to talk about this in order to address it. 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 HT we should be able to combine those and develop some new programs. So I have 7 recommendations that I make when I discuss this in communities.

Sandie: Okay, why don’t you just go through the 7 with us?

Laura: The first one is to draft and task local anti-gang laws that address HT. 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 very important. And training LE to look for HT as a part of gang activity is very important. I think as these cases come to light, we’ve had a good 2 dozen high profile cases across the US (in Florida, in New York, in Boston, in Washington state, in California, in Texas),  as those become better known, Law Enforcement will know more what to look for, so that is the first one. It has to do with the law.

The second one also has to do with the law. SD has taking the lead in this regard and that is to add HT to the list of suspect activities in state and local gang legislation. So if you have a gang law already, most of the anti-gang laws list 30 or so offenses that are where they increase penalties for gang related crimes and adding HT to that list of 30 or so gang activities is important. I think there are a couple of communities that have done that and I think there will be more.

The third is to charge and prosecute all criminal activity. In most of the gang cases we’ve seen so far, ganga members are charged for murder, extortion, arms trafficking, or firearms, witness tampering, as I said. There are a series of things that most of these gangs are involved in. HT often doesn’t make it onto that list of multiple charges. It needs to. If gangs are involved in HT, whether or not that’s the charge that you lead with, it should be one of the charges, and there can be multiple charges. Just adding that will help us to identify these cases in the future.

The fourth one is injunction and restraining orders preventing criminal and 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 and they can add HT to that and they can prevent that kind of activity if they’ve already got it 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 civil suit law against the property owner who’s allowing gang members to utilize that property. And this is done when they’re selling weapons out of the house and drugs out of the house, why not also do that for HT?

Sandie: Absolutely. And there are 2 more.

Laura: There are. Education and awareness. I talked about that a little bit. Trying to reach the boys and girls who are in danger of being recruited. This is a problem for both the males and the females, because young men are recruited very early into the gangs and they’re often then ones who are asked to go into the schools and recruit girls that are their age and get them to the skip parties or bring them into the gangs. Finding the way, and this is difficult. I think other countries are ahead of the US in terms of ways 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, Law Enforcement Officials have seized some of the assets of gang members including a hummer, or their very fancy cars, or even their dogs. They sort of reverse-engineer and decorate the cars with anti-gang slogans and messages. They take them into the junior high schools or middle schools or high schools. The kids can go out and climb on them and they have the messages on the car. The pit bulls that the members were using to fight, they then bring the pit bulls in and do anti-gang messaging and have a little banner on them. Creative ways to reach teenagers are important. In one community in California, the school’s board of education ran a video awareness campaign. They didn’t design it. They ask kids in grades 8-12 to take a video camera and to find a way make a message (very short about 60sec or 2min) about gangs and the harms of gangs and the best one won a big prize. Teens against gangs video contest. These kinds of ideas are better than the lecture method. We also need to reach out in concentric circles of care. You want to reach the young people. You also want to reach their parents. You also want to reach their teachers. You want to have educational muddles for community leaders and churches. They have to be tailored for these particular communities. For example, in one city, parents of first offender gang members attended a school in order to help them understand the harms of gang activity and what they can do to prevent their sons or daughters from participating in gangs. Those kinds of specially tailored so there’s not a cookie-cutter approach are going to be very important.

Sandie: 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 2 eventually and maybe bring in some Law Enforcement and education people and do a panel with you, Laura. 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 4 counties here for a summit.  And the fact that there is a lot of the info 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: Yes, and some of this information will very shortly be up on the website. Its www.Globalcenturion.org. There’s basic info about the demand side and what I call the 5 S’s of demand, how to go after the demand side, and the ways we can work on demand. And I’ve written a law review article on the link between street gangs and HT and done a couple of pieces and shortly the PowerPoint that I’ve done will be up also so those are all at least first primers. I agree with you though, I think that Each of us in our own areas of expertise we need to figure out how to collaborate and cooperate, in the same way that we’ve built multi-disciplinary task forces on HT, we need to do the same thing now for street gangs and HT.

Sandie: Dr. Lederer has been a frequent presenter at the GCWJ Annual Spring Conference and we hope you’ll join us again in 2012. Dave?

Dave: 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. We’re just scratching the surface on some of this new information and research that you’re doing and looking into and I’m so glad that you are looking into it. 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 HT.  We did do an episode a few weeks back, episode 11, so be sure and check that out as well.  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 in our website in the show notes so that way folks can reference those as well. Just a reminder for our audience, if this has raised questions or comments for you and questions we can answer on a future podcast, there’s a couple ways to get ahold of us: One way is to send an email to gcwj@vanguard.edu that’s for the GCWJ at VU, or folks can call you, Sandie, right?

Sandie: Right. They can call 714.566.3610 x2242

Dave:  I think we should thank Dr. Lederer for her time. Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us today and we’re so blessed to have had you and to really share your wisdom.

Sandie: Thank you so much!

Laura: Happy to be here

Dave: 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 are involved in HT. So much for us to continue to look at in future episodes. See you in 2 weeks!

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