Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Warnings of human trafficking taught to children

August 8, 2005

BY ANNIE SWEENEY Crime Reporter
Chicago Sun Times


RIGA, Latvia -- She was 17, the daughter of unemployed alcoholics in a struggling country where good work can be difficult to find.

So she took a job that, though it required leaving the Baltic state, would help pay the family's bills.

She was going to pick strawberries in Finland.

But as her new employers drove across the Latvian border and into Estonia, everything changed.

She was ordered to take off her clothes and pose for photos that would be posted on the Web.

One snapshot shows her wearing only a black bikini bottom, coyly hiding behind an overgrown plant. Another has her arched against a cinderblock wall. If you didn't know better, you'd think she wanted to be there.

She made it to Finland all right, but as a virtual slave who was forced to work as a prostitute and give almost all of her earnings to her captors.

It's a story too often told in Latvia, which became a hotbed for "human trafficking" after gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Ironically, this recent freedom has helped fuel the modern slave trade -- in which women are tricked or forced into leaving their homes and, often, entering the sex industry -- because of the country's slow crawl toward economic vitality.

Latvia's position in the global problem of human trafficking has forced it -- and many other nations -- to better confront the horror of people being bought, sold and used.

In Chicago, five Eastern Europeans were prosecuted in the late '90s for virtually enslaving five Latvian women who were forced into stripping at clubs. Since then, the U.S. government has stepped up, prosecuting more cases, creating new laws and dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars and other resources to combatting the problem and helping the victims.

Latvia -- which is trying to shed its image as a "provider" nation -- has done similar things, including embarking on graphic education campaigns and establishing tougher criminal penalties for people traffickers. There's also an increased focus on training for police and social workers in dealing with the victims.

Despite the breadth of the problem, it's something most Americans don't know about or really understand.

"They think it's something out of Grade B movies,'' said Landon R. Taylor, the consul at the U.S. Embassy in Riga.

"But trafficking in persons either is -- or is well on its way to -- becoming the largest source of revenue for organized criminal activity in the world, supplanting trade in illegal arms and trade in illegal drugs," Taylor said. "Trafficking is . . . turning that human being into a commodity.

"That is a fundamental insult to human dignity and human rights," he said. "It violates all the principles that underlie our Constitution.''

Why Latvia?

Latvia is a small country sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania with a coastline on the Baltic Sea. Russia looms to the east.

Riga, the capital, is bustling, the cobble-stoned streets filled with young, fashionable people. Flower stalls and comfortable cafes dot nearly every corner.

Tourism seems to be taking off -- Ryan Air now shuttles groups of English and Irish tourists for weekend trips.

This is all new for Latvia. A former Soviet bloc country, it has only been independent since 1991. It joined the EU in 2004, securing some hope of funding and support from its larger, thriving neighbors.

But for now its economy ranks near the bottom. And the transition from Soviet control -- while liberating philosophically -- was not practically easy. Newly ushered-in values of freedom and individualism clashed with an economy built around governmental control and support.

With their economy pulled out from under them, many Latvians were left without a way to earn a living and support a family. Many fell ill to social diseases such as alcoholism and drug abuse, said Liesma Ose, a Latvian social work professor who recently taught and conducted research at Dominican University in River Forest. "It happened so fast it was really hard to adjust," she said.

This is what likely made women here prey to traffickers, and once women are taken into a different country, they are unlikely to turn to police for help, experts said. "In the post-Soviet society, police are a source of danger," Ose said.

Another Dominican professor, Mark Rodgers, traveled to Riga in April to train police, prosecutors and social workers on how to deal with trafficking. He said hundreds of thousands of women are trafficked in Europe annually, and as many as three-quarters come from former Eastern bloc states.

In London alone, as many as 80 percent of the women in the city's sex industry are from those countries.

"Profits are stunning," Rodgers said. "The CIA calculates that profits from one trafficked woman alone averages $250,000."

While it is not as common for women to be trafficked to the United States, Chicago is linked to the Eastern European problem through a 1997 case in which a Russian-born man named Alex Mishulovich, along with others, set up a trafficking ring in Chicago, luring five women from Latvia by inviting them to work "high-end'' jobs as dancers in Chicago clubs.

They were all promised that the dancing would not involve nudity and that they'd each make about $60,000 a year, court documents show.

Once here, things changed drastically. Mishulovich's crew took the women's immigration papers and forced them to live together in tiny apartments outside Chicago, paid them as little as $20 a night and restricted their phone and outside privileges.

Change in the wind

A lot has changed in Latvia since Mishulovich trolled the streets for victims.

In the past two years, the country has taken a hard look at what was happening -- including people being lured off the streets -- and how to stop it, Taylor said.

Laws were strengthened and penalties were increased, he said. Police are going after more cases, and cops and social workers are being trained to recognize the problem and make sure victims get services. The government is working on opening a shelter for victims.

Children are being educated at a very young age -- in a way similar to America's anti-drug messages -- that they must be careful of strangers who might exploit them. For example, elementary- and high school-age kids watch movies with anti-trafficking themes.

The message was brought home most forcefully in a recent campaign that showed a woman dangling like a puppet from fish hooks, her skin stretched.

Women's groups in Latvia also have launched attacks on advertising they believe reinforces the idea that people are for sale. For example, they've challenged a local grocery store ad hawking items for a "two-for-one" sale that shows a man with a bride on each shoulder and the words, "Buy one get another free."

Still, the Latvian government has yet to commit a regular line-item in its budget to the problem, although a regular funding stream was agreed to in a 2004 anti-trafficking action plan, Taylor said.

Yet another area the country is struggling with is changing the mind-set of the people in law enforcement. Even some women who agree to work abroad in the sex industry can be trafficked, he said.

"People are still coming to grips with this problem and what it means," he said.

'Greedy, greedy people'

As part of this new emphasis on the crime, police in Latvia recently busted the trafficking ring that tricked the 17-year-old woman into thinking she'd be picking strawberries for the summer.

Reinis Janevics, a soft-spoken Latvian cop with a good grasp of English, worked on the case. He has dealt with several trafficking victims, as has Dr. Tatiana Kurova, a determined social worker.

Both attended the training seminar in April and told stories about how traffickers prey on the weak and use vulnerabilities -- lack of a job, for example, or having a child who needs support -- to their advantage. Sometimes they even manage to convince women that the lifestyle is a good one.

"They use that problem," said Janevics, 26. "She earns some money and is happy with that. They think, 'Yes, I have a business relationship. It's normal.'"

But many times the women are devastated, like one Kurova met at the Riga airport after she was found in a Vienna hospital, unable to speak about what had happened to her. She was trafficked to Germany after being told she'd wash floors. Instead, she was forced to work in a brothel, and somehow ended up in Austria, Kurova said.

Kurova, with a round face and no-nonsense hair, is a fireplug of a woman and has the edge of a PTA mother in a fight with bureaucrats for more money for schools. She speaks mostly in Russian, her native tongue, but manages in English.

The woman at the hospital had suffered a mental breakdown. She was counseled by a priest, who managed to figure out she was Latvian. He then found Kurova's group on the Internet and contacted her. Kurova arranged to get the woman back home, meeting her at the airport.

"She cry and cry and cry. She can't say nothing,'' said Kurova, who has been involved in social services in Riga for years and now runs an organization called GENDERS. "I say simply, 'Keep my hand and let's go.'"

From there, Kurova went to the Latvian government for money and help.

Janevics, who has closely cropped hair and wears suits, has interviewed countless victims and looked into the lives of various traffickers, whom he calls "greedy, greedy people."

It is hard on victims, he thinks, sometimes to even talk to men after their experiences, so he always conducts interviews in cafes to help them relax. He remembers one who shook every time a man walked past her.

Janevics tries to stay in touch with the victims he's helped and has seen the difficulty they sometimes have returning to a normal life.

The 17-year-old girl is back in Riga. She's dating someone and is trying to straighten things out. But this is only after she returned to Finland to work as a hooker for a second time, Janevics said.

He thinks the teen went back partly because her traffickers threatened her and her family. But the cop has another theory. After a while she gave in a bit, accepting their version that this was an opportunity.

"After some time, you break something inside," Janevics said, leaning back in his chair, fiddling with a stapler.

PART TWO: BATTLING THE PROBLEM

TEEN TRAFFICKING HERE

It doesn't just happen to foreigners. Prosecutors say two Chicago men were involved in child prostitution, one of them even having teens tattooed with his pimp name and another pimping a 14-year-old.

GETTING THE POINT ACROSS

An ad campaign in Latvia aims to warn of human trafficking by showing a woman being controlled like a puppet.

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