Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Task force seeks signs of slave trade in El Paso

Daniel Borunda
El Paso Times
Monday, December 19, 2005

The shadowy routes of modern-day slavery rings may run through El Paso, say members of a local human trafficking task force formed earlier this year.

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling. Smugglers get paid a fee to sneak someone across a border. In the global phenomenon of human trafficking, men, women and children are held to work against their will.

"Basically, human trafficking is modern-day slavery," said Paul PiƱon, the El Paso Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator. "They are not free to come and go. They are forced to work in everything from brothels (to) sweatshops and agricultural industry work, and their wages are used to pay off their 'smuggling debt.' "

The issue of human trafficking has received more attention this year as the United States and other nations work to address a problem often linked to organized crime, prostitution and the child sex trade.

El Paso was among 18 U.S. communities chosen for the location of human trafficking task forces after being identified by the Department of Justice, according to the "Trafficking in Persons Report" issued in June by the U.S. State Department. Albuquerque, San Antonio and Houston also were chosen.

"The reason (authorities) chose El Paso is they suspect this is a high-volume area where (victims) are coming across," said El Paso Police Lt. Patrick Maloney, who is on the task force. "We are trying to intercept them before they get to any destination."

Maloney said the task force was created not to enforce federal immigration laws but to deal with state criminal law violations. The biggest challenge is finding victims in the secretive world of traffickers, he said.

The El Paso task force includes the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol and the FBI.

Mexican authorities have spoken out against human trafficking, but a lack of resources and endemic corruption make it difficult for that country to fight trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department report. Human trafficking in Mexico has strong links to organized crime and gangs.

Up to 20,000 children in Mexico are estimated to be victims of commercial sexual exploitation linked to trafficking.

Traffickers typically lure the poor with false promises of a good job in another city or country. Once they arrive at the destination, the victims are held in involuntary servitude.

"This is all done through the use of force, fraud or coercion. The force can be physical. Oftentimes they make threats against the person's family in their home country," said Jennifer Romero, an FBI victims specialist.

"I think it's bigger than we realize. ... This is not just people of Hispanic descent. We are talking about Asians, Russians. It has no boundaries," Romero said.

Human trafficking has been linked to cases as varied as child camel racing in the Middle East and prostitution in Europe. An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders each year, and about 80 percent are women and girls, the U.S. State Department reported.

"It's a big issue right now in the USA, and everybody is working together," said Sister Liliane Alam, executive director at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. Victims "are promised different jobs, and once they arrive, they are in a different situation. Locally ... we don't know how big it is."

To read the "Trafficking in Persons Report" by the U.S. State Department, go online to www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2005/

Daniel Borunda may be reached at dborunda@elpasotimes.com; 546-6102.

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