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Forced labour and rape, the new face of slavery in America

In the Midwestern heartland, police are encountering a new social evil: trafficking, often involving women and children who are forced to work as prostitutes or unpaid labour; and the outcomes can be brutal.

Mexicans attempts to cross border into California via New river

Mexicans seeking a new life in America use plastic bags to float down the heavily polluted New River into Calexico, California. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Human trafficking has become a major issue in the Midwest heartland of America, causing some campaigners to dub it a modern form of slavery.

Figures from the State Department reveal that 17,500 people are trafficked into the US every year against their will or under false pretences, mainly to be used for sex or forced labour. Experts believe that, when cases of internal trafficking are added, the total number of victims could be up to five times larger. And increasing numbers of trafficked individuals are being transported thousands of miles from America's coasts and into heartland states such as Ohio and Michigan.

"It is not only a crime. It is an abomination," said Professor Mark Ensalaco, a political scientist at the University of Dayton, Ohio, who organised a recent conference on the issue. In Ohio a human trafficking commission has just been set up to study the problem, while in the northern Ohio city of Toledo a special FBI task force is tackling the issue. For many local law enforcement officials, it is a bewildering new world.

In one recent incident a 16-year-old Mexican girl was found to have been trafficked across the US border. Doctors noticed the heavily pregnant girl showed clear signs of physical abuse when she was brought into a hospital in Dayton to give birth. The police were called but the couple who had brought her had already fled. When the girl's story emerged, it became clear she had been kept against her will in the nearby city of Springfield and used for labour and sex. "I thought slavery ended a few centuries ago. But here it is alive and well," said Springfield's sheriff, Gene Kelly.

He emphasised the risks to the girl's baby after it had been born if the doctors had not been so alert: "Like the mother, the baby could have ended up a victim for years to come. Who knows? Future labour? Future person to traffic?"

Ohio anti-trafficking campaigner Phil Cenedella, founder of Combating Trafficking Anywhere, believes that the baby was destined to be sold off by her captors. "They would have put the kid on the black market. It is crazy that this is happening." Human trafficking – defined as forcing someone against their will to work for no reward – has been dubbed modern slavery. At the Dayton conference, it was discussed as a growing social problem, not in some far-off foreign land, but among the cornfields of Ohio.

"The problems are broader than we realised," said Ohio's attorney general, Richard Cordray. "What we want to do is find and disrupt these networks."

One of the country's leading anti-trafficking advocates is Theresa Flores, a former victim. Flores puts a different kind of face on human trafficking in America. She is white, middle-class and blond and looks the epitome of a suburban American woman. She grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit in Michigan and did well at school. Yet Flores tells a nightmarish story of two years being drugged, raped and sold for sex.

Flores, whose ordeal was turned into a book called The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery, was attacked and raped when she was 15. Her assailant used the threat of photographs he had taken during her rape to force her into having sex with strangers. She became the effective prisoner of a drugs gang that used her as a prostitute and kept her earnings, or gave her away free to gang members as a "reward". "People don't think that trafficking looks like me or that it can happen to someone who came from a nice neighbourhood. But it does. People need to see outside that box," said Flores.

Flores said that her lowest point came when the gang took her to a seedy motel where she was raped by as many as two dozen men. She woke up alone, abused and with no clothes. "I was told I would die if I told anyone. It happened over and over for two years as I became a sex slave for those men," she said.

Anti-trafficking campaigners point out that cases in the US come in a wide variety of forms involving men, women and children. One major area is that of trafficked labour with people used for domestic work or, more commonly, for back-breaking labour in agricultural industries. But trafficking cases have also occurred in businesses such as restaurants, hair salons and beauty parlours. The overwhelming majority of the rest are sex cases, usually involving young women or children forced into prostitution. The methods used to keep people vary. They include confiscating the passports of those brought in from a foreign country or the threat of extreme violence. Other tactics are to threaten family members if a victim does not comply or, as in Flores's case, to use blackmail.

Trafficking represents a new challenge to law enforcement, especially in regions which have traditionally not thought of it as a major problem. That is especially true where it happens within an immigrant community. Languages are a problem as well as cultural issues and a natural fear that many immigrants – some of them possibly illegal – have of contacting the police.

Kelly believes that is the case in Springfield, a town that is almost the Midwestern archetype. It was once featured in a story in Newsweek magazine entitled "The American Dream". But its 65,000 citizens also face all the problems of a modern America in the grip of a deep recession: an immigration crisis and profoundly changing demographics. The town now hosts several prominent minority communities who make up more than a fifth of its population, including Russians, Chinese, Latinos and Somalis. "There are a lot of people who distrust law enforcement. We need to break down those barriers. Our officers need training, especially in languages," said Kelly. "If you can't speak to people, you can't reach them."

Some commentators and experts have accused victims' advocates and academics of overstating the problem, arguing the problem has been exaggerated and expressing scepticism at the notion that vast organised criminal networks are dealing in human beings for sex or labour. Law enforcement officers also acknowledge that the definitions of trafficking may need refining.

In North Carolina last week the mother of a five-year-old girl was charged with human trafficking after being accused of offering her daughter for sex. The child was later found dead. The crime was horrific, but the distinction between trafficking and simple, sadistic child abuse might not be immediately obvious.

"We have a problem with definition. It is not always straightforward and easy to explain," said Laura Clemmens, a government lawyer in Dayton. "The hard part is bringing it into the light. At the moment these crimes are clouded in secrecy."

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Forced labour and rape, the new face of slavery in America

This article appeared on p37 of the World news section of the Observer on Sunday 22 November 2009. It was published on at 00.06 GMT on Sunday 22 November 2009.

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  • vcbhutani vcbhutani

    22 Nov 2009, 12:46AM

    I am sorry to read this report. I happened to be in Texas, USA in 1975 for a few weeks. One of my hosts while driving me to a friend's place pointed out to me a half clad male worker in a field. He told me that the chap was a 'chicano', which he defined as people of Mexican origin who corssed over illegally and often without any papers like passport and visa. Such people just crossed over and took work.
    Naturally, such people would not approach the police for any kind of relief. If any such illegal migrants were women, they would naturally be targets for sexual exploitation as well.
    I have forgotten the name of the place or my host. Nor have I been in touch with my hosts in Texas over the years.
    There will be unscrupulous people in every society. It is hardly surprising that illegal immigrants are being used for what has rightly been described as a new form of slavery in the US.
    It makes me sad.
    Viney C. Bhutani, Delhi, India, Nov 22 2009, 0615 IST

  • pcenedella pcenedella

    22 Nov 2009, 2:15AM

    Thank you for this excellent article Paul. Having you represent your excellent organization in Dayton meant alot to the speakers and we thank you and your editors!

    We also invite all your readers to join the international DEFENDERS project which will coordinate the efforts of all the "good people" to stop this nonsense in our lifetime.

    Updated information on the DAYTON HUMAN TRAFFICKING ACCORDS may be found at:

    Thank you and Cheers,
    Phil Cenedella
    CTA - Combating Trafficking Anywhere

  • turningleaf turningleaf

    22 Nov 2009, 3:37AM

    slavery was common in the united states untill the end of WW II. The remarks by Gene Kelly, the Springfield sheriff who was quoted for this article, that he believed the United States ended slavery "a few centuries ago" is a common and well entrenched belief in americans of every type. A recent pulitzer, Slavery by Another Name, provides details about post 1865 slavery in the US continuing on a large scale in the deep south untill 1945. Thankfully slavery in America may have become an endangered crime in the last half century, yet wouldnt kidnapping immigrants make sense to remaining racist "slavers" as opposed to continuing the exploitation of black people, who have been gaining more (if not enough), of the privlages enjoyed by whites in the US? This includes protection from law enforcement, something which illegal immigrants do not trust (to put it mildly) in the US, in the mind of an immigrant asking for help from police and requesting a one way ticket south are one and the same. This is another reason for immigration reform to happen quickly instead of perfectly.

  • sharlamusabih sharlamusabih

    22 Nov 2009, 5:01AM

    It was an honor to be involved in this proactive event!

    I would encourage all Governments to cooperate with ngo's in the same way that I witnessed at the amazing human trafficking accord in Dayton!

    The key to unlock the suffering is in the cooperation between ngo's and Governmental bodies!
    From Africa to the Middle East to Europe & across the U.S it is the same problem with the same salution, cooperation & transparency are what is needed to better understand this complex issue!

    The continued propaganda that comes from the tourist capitals of the world needs to be ceased, it is not fooling anyone, the time is now to work together as dignified nations to end slavery!

    The time is now that we hold all Governments accountable for non cooperation with defenders of victims world wide!

    We must begin with requesting respectfully for a partnership with all Governments & ngos!

    I commend the UAE for all its latest proactive articles and laws and now I am requesting the President H.H Shiek Khalifa Bin Zeyad to create a forum for ngo's to work with police across the UAE to ensure the rescue of any & all victims of human trafficking,rape,domestic abuse & migrant labor abuse...

    I appeal to this news paper to follow up on an answer to this request!

    Thank you,
    Sharla Musabih,Human Rights activist, Director of United Hope UAE,

  • roxy550 roxy550

    22 Nov 2009, 6:04AM

    Having once been an illegal immigrant in the USA (9 years, paying taxes on a tourist visa) :I enjoyed the benefits of being white. I was asked no questions/never really stopped by the police/was even fingerprinted by the FBI for a teaching job/I realised that it was only by dint of my skin colour that I was allowed these privelidges. Point being, Human Trafficking is not only INhuman, but something pestilent lies at the feet of humanity for this to be sanctioned, even if by greed alone. What is wrong with societies that allows the poor to be fed upon by rapacious scum dressed in tweeds?
    The law should recognise the need for change and give immigrants the protection that oh so needed, and I speak from (passive) experience.
    BTW-I left the USA in 2000.

  • godsend godsend

    22 Nov 2009, 6:19AM

    Yes, this is really bad stuff. The Worm within the Apple.
    I confirm that these matters ARE being reported in the Ohio newspapers, e.g. The Dayton Daily News, and are not being swept under the carpet, which is a really hopeful sign that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
    For an interesting take on the Ohio Justice System, have a look at the link below.

  • TonyPancake TonyPancake

    22 Nov 2009, 12:35PM

    Horrendous as this account is, normal wage slavery is often not very much better. Each year in the UK alone a couple of hundred workers on building sites get killed because of lousy safety - and the law often doesn't "compensate" their families because they are working in the black economy. ("compensate" is in inverted commas because money can obviously never ever compensate for the death of a loved one).

  • TonyPancake TonyPancake

    22 Nov 2009, 7:03PM

    Construction has the largest number of fatal injuries of the main industry groups. In 2008/09p there were 53 fatal injuries giving at rate of 2.5 per 100 000 workers. This is the third highest rate of fatal injuries, behind agriculture and extractive industries

    Well - this is last year, the year of the credit crunch: my statistics are obviously out of date - but not so long ago (I really can't be bothered to google it) it was a couple of hundred.

    the health and safety fascists make my life hard enough as it is

    After all the enormous cutbacks on health and safety rules and personnel especiallyvsince Thatcher, you call these largely ineffective people 'fascists' - but they didn't kill 53 last year, did they? Typical of bosses - even the most minor infringements on their untramelled desire for profit no matter what the human cost , is, in an inversion of the truth, considered 'fascist'. You're beneath contempt.

  • bilejones bilejones

    22 Nov 2009, 11:29PM


    If you were "paying taxes on a tourist visa" you would seem to have been earing an income.
    How did you pay your social security taxes?
    What SS# did you use?
    What other crimes did you commit?

  • hiwaycruzer hiwaycruzer

    22 Nov 2009, 11:42PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • Setanta4Now Setanta4Now

    23 Nov 2009, 10:11AM

    Talaku...glad someone else realises what fascists "health and safety" people are.
    Where I worked I was forced to stand for 10.5 hours a day but not allowed to use my ipod because it was dangerous.
    I don´t feel any resentment towards Roxy.
    She merely exposes the flaws at the heart of US immigration policy.

  • ronsoo ronsoo

    23 Nov 2009, 12:25PM

    This is a problem that exists in all 50 states - as well as through American nationals traveling abroad - in all forms of forced labor and sexual coercion. Wherever an opportunity exists for a trafficker to take advantage of a vulnerable individual, there's a good chance you'll find slavery. Free the Slaves president Kevin Bales and I address the broad spectrum of slavery in our country, as well as the efforts made - and not made - by our government to eradicate this blight, in the recently released The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (UC Press, 2009). It is a problem that cannot be resolved without the awareness of the people - an awareness that, sadly, is lacking among a vast number of Americans - and without the commitment to address and eliminate it. There has always been slavery in one form or another in America, since 1493, when Columbus enslaved hundreds of Taino Indians and shipped them home to Spain; it's encouraging to think that we can be the generation to finally put an end to this curse.
    Ron Soodalter

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