Thursday, August 9, 2012

Unintended effects: How the war on drugs is fueling human trafficking

What do a Berkeley real estate tycoon and the Italian mafia have in common? Lakireddy Balireddy, infamous landowner, and several members of the Italian mafia have been key players in the business of human trafficking. These recent cases mark a change within organize crime groups. While gangs and other organized groups have been historically known for perpetuating the underground drug business, the war on drugs has marked a shift in operational focus. Tighter regulations and stricter enforcement have been behind several drug busts around the country, and gangs were not blind in noticing the threat to their livelihood.

When it comes to exploiting, gangs often are the first to recognize new avenues for profit and are dissuaded by little. Faced with the rising risk of engaging in large drug deals, they were left looking for a way to sustain overhead funds. They soon realized that smuggling humans could be an enormously profitable enterprise; women could be prostituted multiple times while drugs could only be sold once. Furthermore, the girls carry the bulk of the risk of getting caught and prosecuted rather than the traffickers.

In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in response to this shift in the underground sector. However, the act was difficult to enforce and ultimately was regarded a missed opportunity to prosecute traffickers under these concrete terms.

Part of the reason for the increasingly difficult to prosecute gang members is because little research has been conducted on the details of the operations. In an effort to shed light on the issue, the Australian Institute of Criminology conducted an economic analysis of the trade. The research found that the most sophisticated trafficking circles are structured like actual businesses and are designed to respond to change quickly while maximizing profit. Common roles include anonymous investors, recruiters who find potential migrants, transporters who smuggle victims, money launderers who cover up the cash trail and corrupt officials who provide the documentation necessary for operations to proceed smoothly.  

Sadly, gangs have been largely successful in their newly chosen trades. The Chinese trafficking ring is controlled by the Chinese snakeheads and together make between $2.4 and $3.5 billion annually. The Italian mafia now has a combined capital of $800 billion, and the BBC estimates that one in five Italian businesses is controlled by an organized criminal group. They work in collusion with Albanian gangs and German foreign intelligence reports that they will be expanding operations soon.

When gangs have been in existence for centuries, it’s difficult to know where to begin to dismantle their operations.  The Witherspoon Institute has deemed these steps as necessary for improving the situation:

1) State and local governments must add human trafficking to the list of suspect activities for criminal gangs
2) Gang and human trafficking task forces must coordinate and plan joint prosecutions
3) Gang investigations should include specific tactics for actively spotting human trafficking 
4) Gangs involved in human trafficking should be charged under the TVPA or state trafficking-in-persons laws in addition to other criminal charges
5) Communities should develop specialized outreach, education, and training programs to address gang-related trafficking
6) Asset forfeiture laws should be utilized more extensively in gang related human trafficking cases
7) New and creative approaches to prosecution (such as using the child soldiers provision in the TVPA) should be explored and established.

While international human trafficking and gang activity have been growing issues of importance on the world stage, they are seldom looked at in conjunction. Clearly, a link exists between organized crime and the perpetuation of large scale trafficking circles. Acknowledging this connection is a stride towards combating trafficking more effectively. 

Nikhitha Murali, Intern

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