Working at The Exodus Road, I’ve had the chance to sit down and talk with people who act as undercover investigators of human trafficking. They actively search in dark, hidden places for traffickers exploiting vulnerable children.
These people who have dedicated their lives to fighting human trafficking — who have sacrificed their safety, their sleep, and their very peace of mind — have an utterly surprising posture towards traffickers.
While this doesn’t represent the perspective of survivors of human trafficking or the totality of what trafficking might look like in different contexts, it represents the experience of the investigators I’ve met who are working to fight the sex trafficking of minors in brothels in Asia and Latin America. And it represents a significant departure from the prevailing public attitude towards traffickers.
“Usually, when we think of traffickers, we picture a movie version of an evil person doing evil things,” says Drew,* The Exodus Road’s Director of our DELTA team, who investigates human trafficking crime around the world. (*We’ve changed his name for security.)
“I’ve been investigating human trafficking for seven years,” Drew continues. “With only a very few exceptions, every trafficker I have ever met was trafficked themselves. Even the male traffickers I’ve met were victims of human trafficking who moved out of the situation by trafficking others.”
With perhaps the exception of the wealthy transnational traffickers at the top of the pyramid — probably the ones we picture when we think of human traffickers — many sex traffickers are caught in a cycle of exploitation. They were abused and exploited themselves. They found that the only way out, or the way to continue earning a living as they aged, was to begin exploiting others. Some are even still being trafficked while they begin trafficking others. It’s an ugly, complex cycle, and it begins with poverty.
Here’s an example from cases we’ve recently seen in South America. There’s a 16-year-old girl in Venezuela whose family is barely surviving. She has three younger siblings, and her single mom can’t provide for them in the crumbling economy. As the oldest, she knows it’s her responsibility to help feed them. So when an acquaintance reaches out, telling her about a job as a model in another country, she takes it.
It’s scary to travel to another country so young, but she would do anything for her little brothers and sisters. When she gets there, she learns that it’s not a modeling job. Through threats, abuse, and coercion, she’s forced to sleep with men. She’s too ashamed to tell her family. But she also doesn’t know what else to do. Her family needs her support. The traffickers offer her drugs, and she takes them. They help her escape from her situation.
A year passes. It’s a blur of abuse. She hates her situation, but this is her life now. Her focus is survival. She’s still able to send money back home, and that’s the most important thing to her.
One day, she hears that if she brings in another friend or two from back home, she can move up. She won’t have to serve as many customers, and she can even earn a little more. She decides to do it. That begins her process of moving from trafficked to trafficker.
What would you do in that situation?
Drew reflects on this: “In the US, I’m considered low-income. But I’m still wealthy relative to other people in the world. These people are desperate. They live in poverty and they have no education or opportunities. I can’t understand what it’s like to have been in their position. How do I know what choice I would make?”
Doing this work, the investigators get to know traffickers. They learn about their families. They get to understand them, relate to them as humans, and even like them.
Drew investigated one woman who was trafficking girls for sex. She was a 34-year-old mom of four kids. The youngest was just 6 years old. This trafficker had been trafficked herself as a girl for sex.
Drew realized that the evidence he delivered to law enforcement would put her in jail. Knowing there were kids at home, he ensured this mom had a babysitter for the night of the raid. This would buy her a little time to figure out childcare for her children.
“When she was arrested, she grabbed both of my hands and said, ‘Drew, I have children,’” he remembers, reliving the look of desperation on her face. “She had been sold her whole life. You’re supposed to have hate for her?”
“Traffickers are broken people. I don’t hate them at all. It’s easy to hate from afar. But do you know their story? They are human beings. They are not faceless evil people.”
Hate is the furthest thing from what motivates Drew and our other investigators to do this work. It’s love.
“I believe that you can’t overcome evil with hate. You can only overcome evil with love,” he says.
It’s love that motivates our investigators to find and free people being exploited, and it’s love that drives them to interrupt the cycle of abuse traffickers are perpetuating, hoping that they will be jolted out of their abuse and change their lives.
And that work is effecting change. When Drew first started gathering evidence in the red-light districts of Pattaya, Thailand, it was widely known as a place Westerners could go to easily buy a child for sex. Walking down the streets, it was obvious and it was everywhere.
But now, just a few short years later, Drew says that if you walk down the street, you will be hard-pressed to find a minor being sold. That’s thanks to law enforcement who, with the support of NGOs, have cracked down on the sale and abuse of minors.
If you are deeply angered by the abuse of children, which we all should be, you truly can make a difference. Not by allowing that anger to turn to hate, but by supporting the work of nonprofits actively supporting law enforcement in wiping this crime off of the streets.
You can also refuse to participate in the perpetuation of human trafficking by not consuming content involving the online sexual exploitation of children — the demand for which is only growing and which perpetuates the sex trafficking of minors.
Let’s use our anger at injustice and the oppression of the vulnerable to fuel not hate, but freedom. Let’s dig in to generously support those who are sacrificing and dedicating themselves to fight human trafficking. Let’s share about it with our friends and family, so we can get even more people involved in making a difference for the vulnerable.
Let’s close with the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on our lips as we keep on working for justice:
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”