Despite millions spent, human trafficking’s scope is unknown

The situation was dire, police warned. The City of Atlanta was under siege by human traffickers.

Some 1,000 Asian women and girls ages 13 to 25 were being “forced to prostitute themselves” in the city, a 2005 internal police email said. Many of the victims, police said, were Korean.

To free them, police forged ahead with a $600,000 task force.

Had agency leaders questioned the estimate, they would have found it defied common sense. If it were true, one in eight of the city’s Asians would have been sex slaves.

Perhaps, then, it’s little wonder that the program had such poor results that it drew scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice. An initial report said Atlanta police had found more than 200 victims, but auditors could only confirm four.

The APD project is an example of how government officials have charged into the fight against human trafficking without a clear sense of who is being exploited and how, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

While the term “human trafficking” conjures images of foreigners smuggled into the U.S. to work at brothels and sweatshops, its definition shifts, sparking complaints that public dollars are being spent the wrong way.

Mexicans have been brought to Gwinnett County and forced into prostitution. Was this the area’s biggest problem? Was a case of Nigerian maids held in Suwanee a sign of a larger trend?

What about gay male teen runaways pushed to have sex for money? Or homegrown girls sold by local pimps?

Despite more than a decade of federal and local initiatives and millions of dollars spent, policymakers don’t have information that can answer these questions. What does exist suggests that government officials either don’t understand the problem, or are failing victims.

“You have to raise big questions on whether policies are appropriate in the first place,” said Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University professor and expert on human trafficking. “More resources spent on sex trafficking means they’re lost elsewhere.”

Money and results

Atlanta launched its search for Korean prostitutes as hundreds of millions of dollars began to pour into anti-trafficking efforts nationwide. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 gave special assistance to foreign victims in the U.S. and paved the way for a 2004 Department of Justice initiative to fund local human trafficking task forces.

The goal: To increase rescues of foreign victims by 15 percent each year.

City officials argued they desperately needed the money. “Human trafficking is now beginning to get a foothold in Atlanta and must be stopped before it becomes entrenched,” police told Justice Department officials.

The Atlanta Police Department won a $450,000 three-year grant, and the city chipped in an additional $150,000. Two investigators and a sergeant joined forces with a Korean translator.

At first blush, the task force seemed to be a success.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that Atlanta police identified 216 potential victims from January 2005 through December 2006.

But this count was later revealed to be grossly inaccurate. Auditors for the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General could find documentation for only four victims, a July 2008 report said.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance made a mistake that added 93 victims to the count. Atlanta had actually reported 123 victims. The city could not explain the 119 that auditors couldn’t track. Police said the figures were reported by a city employee who retired before the Justice Department inquiry.

The team disbanded in 2007.

In a recent written statement to the AJC, Atlanta police conceded that the unit was "ineffective in identifying victims of human trafficking, and had not produced the expected results."

“The Atlanta Police Department came to the belief that while the issue of human trafficking is a true concern, the scope of the problem inside the city limits had declined from what was once thought during the inception of the grant,” the statement said.

Such problems weren’t unique to Atlanta. Auditors found victim over-counts by task forces across the nation, although none was as bad as Atlanta’s.

The City of Los Angeles, for instance, identified 49 victims and the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., found 51. Auditors confirmed none of them.

Auditors also found that nearly $32 million in federal funds for victim assistance groups aided far fewer people than expected.

The conclusion: Not enough victims were being helped.

“[H]uman trafficking grant programs have built significant capacities to serve trafficking victims, but have not identified and served significant numbers of victims,” the Office of the Inspector General reported.

Seeking evidence

Horrific abuses do take place, but evidence that foreign trafficking victims are pouring into the country is scarce.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement busted an international trafficking ring that operated in Atlanta’s suburbs from spring 2006 through June 2008.

The operators tricked 10 girls and young women, mostly from rural villages in Mexico, to come with them to America. Then they forced them to become prostitutes in Norcross.

Ringleader Amador Cortes-Meza initiated them into the trade by making them have sex with upwards of 20 men on the first night. Four of the victims were juveniles. One was only 14, investigators said.

One victim pleaded to return to her family. Cortes-Meza dunked her head in a bucket of water until she thought she would drown. Another tried to escape. He beat her with a broomstick so badly she was permanently disfigured.

Cortes-Meza was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 40 years.

A years-long FBI investigation uncovered labor trafficking victims held in Gwinnett County. Bidemi Bello took two impoverished young women – one 17, the other 20 - from their Nigerian homes to live with her in Suwanee.

Their new home had four bedrooms, but Bello made them sleep on a couch or the floor. Bello owned a lawnmower, but made them cut the grass with their hands. They cooked meals but were only allowed to eat spoiled leftovers. When the food made one of them sick, Bello forced her to eat her own vomit.

Bello beat them when they disobeyed her. One ran away with the help of friends. The other found refuge in a Marietta church.

Bello was sentenced in 2011 to 11 years and eight months in federal prison on forced labor, trafficking and other charges.

While these prosecutions make headlines, such cases have been rare.

“We are told by the State Department that every year 15,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. But then, where are they?” said Elzbieta Gozdziak, research director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

If the problem were pervasive, more victims might have applied for special visas created by the 2000 anti-trafficking law. But between fiscal year 2002 and June 2010, the U.S. issued fewer than 1,900 of the visas, which allow victims to stay in the U.S., the Congressional Research Service found in a December 2010 report.

“Why are the numbers so small? Is it because the scope of the problem is not as big as they say? Or is it small because we don’t know how to find them?” Gozdziak asked.

Those numbers are proof that the fight against human trafficking has gone wrong, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a November 2011 report on a bid to reauthorize the trafficking law. While he supported it, he sought more accountability.

“Either the government is doing an unconscionably poor job of finding victims or there are not that many total victims in the first place,” Grassley wrote.

And if the number of foreigners is inflated, the government may be spending money on the wrong programs. In an unpublished 2011 report obtained by the AJC, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, said Congress needs to ensure domestic victims aren't being overlooked.

“Over the last decade, Congress has failed to conduct the oversight necessary to ensure the programs and agencies tasked with fighting these terrible crimes are operating in an efficient and effective manner,” the report said.

The victims

Information problems stunt state-level programs, too. Programs in Georgia focus on underage girls sold for sex, leaving boys nowhere to turn.

The Georgia Care Connection Office, the state’s anti-child prostitution program, served no male clients in its first two years. Researchers who surfed Craigslist for the state’s count of minors who were sex trafficking victims did not search for boys.

Had researchers looked, they might have seen the Craigslist ads by a Douglasville man pimping a slender teenage boy for $160.

Steven Donald Lemery lured troubled gay teen runaways to his home and forced them to peddle sex online. Some of their sex ads would receive hundreds of responses.

They lived with Lemery’s wife, his boyfriend, his wife’s fiancé, and a rotating cast of characters that included broke drag queens, drug addicts and friends of friends.

The case came to light only when a 16-year-old showed up at an Alabama rape crisis center in 2011. He had with what looked like cigarette burns on his arms and chest and said he got them when he refused to have sex with two men Lemery booked as his clients.

Lemery was convicted in August for trafficking the teen from Alabama and another teen from South Carolina, as well as molesting a Georgia boy. His housemate Christopher Andrew Lynch pleaded guilty in the trafficking of a local transgendered boy.

Prosecutors sought services to help the victims recover, but all the programs were designed for girls, said Rachel Ackley, an assistant state attorney in Douglas County, where the teens were kept.

Kaffie McCullough, a longtime trafficking opponent, said that this may be advocates’ fault. “We thought, maybe wrongly, that there were more female victims instead of male victims,” McCullough said.

Whether Georgia is overlooking scores of boys sold for sex is anyone’s guess.

A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report counted victims in cases opened by the nation’s 42 federally-funded anti-trafficking task forces from 2008 to 2010.

Of the sex trafficking victims, fewer than six percent were male.

But 24 of the 42 task forces gave such low-quality information that the bureau could not include their victim numbers. None of these units are located in Georgia. Furthermore, these counts reflect only the cases that investigators know about.

Trafficking is a hidden crime. Gay runaways duck police to avoid being sent home. Girls confuse investigators by calling pimps their “boyfriends.” Foreign victims stay in the shadows because they fear deportation.

“There really isn’t any concrete information,” said Meredith Dank, an Urban Institute researcher who studies domestic and foreign trafficking.

Local police agencies plan to collect data on human trafficking starting in 2013 as part of the Justice Department’s nationwide crime statistics program.

Yet a better understanding remains years into the future, said Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University professor who oversees the program to count federal task force cases.

“It’s going to be a decade for us to have good data, if we ever have good data,” Farrell said.