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Homeland Security Investigations: Fight Human Trafficking with a Full Arsenal

By James A. Dinkins, Executive Associate Director, Homeland Security Investigations, Washington, D.C.

In the summer of 2009, a desperate young Ukrainian woman sought the help of the Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Police (CCSP). The woman, whose neck was branded with a distinctive horseshoe-shaped tattoo, described to police how she had been held captive by a man who had lured her to suburban Chicago with the promise of employment, a place to live, and immigration assistance. Once there, he confiscated her passport, regularly beat and sexually abused her, forced her to work long hours at his massage parlor without pay, and drove her there and back from various locations where he kept her so that it was virtually impossible to escape. She also told police that he subjected other Eastern European women to these same torments. The tattoo, she explained, marked all of them as members of his so-called family.

Based on this lead from CCSP and a second account from a Belarusian woman who later that summer contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) Chicago office, HSI special agents launched an undercover human trafficking investigation, one of 566 HSI initiated that year. By January 2010, as part of a joint investigation led by HSI in cooperation with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, HSI and CCSP arrested the massage parlor owner, Alex Campbell, and his co-conspirator. In January 2012, with the help of the coconspirator’s guilty plea and testimony, Campbell was convicted on multiple federal charges of forced labor, harboring illegal aliens for financial gain, confiscating passports and other immigration documents to force his four victims to work, and sex trafficking by force and extortion—unfortunately, typical charges in human trafficking cases. In late November 2012, Campbell was sentenced to life in prison.

Law Enforcement’s Human Trafficking Challenge

Human trafficking crimes are among the most horrific, with a global scale that boggles the mind, especially in the 21st century. Defined as modern-day slavery, as many as 27 million people worldwide—mostly women and children—were victims of sexual exploitation or forced labor, according to the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2012. Precise estimates for human trafficking victims in the United States, as well as successful prosecutions of offenders, are difficult to come by since most victims are afraid or unable to seek help. However, according to the 2011 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report, Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents 2008-2010, of the 2,515 cases the DOJ-funded Human Trafficking Task Forces opened in that time, 82 percent were sex trafficking and almost half involved victims under the age of 18. In 67 percent of labor trafficking cases, which represented 11 percent of all cases opened, victims were illegal immigrants.

Fortunately, in the past decade, many governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and law enforcement entities around the world have made human trafficking a priority. In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) reauthorized with expanded powers three times since October 2000, providing the first federal tool that law enforcement and the courts could use to investigate, charge, and convict human traffickers. The TVPA covers both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.

Within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its component agency, ICE, HSI is the lead federal law enforcement entity responsible for investigating human trafficking. And because human trafficking has long-reaching tentacles to a wide range of other federal crimes that HSI investigates, such as child sex tourism, forced child labor, narcotics smuggling, conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens to engage in prostitution, document fraud, and illegal immigration, human trafficking is an HSI senior leadership priority.

Last year, HSI initiated 894 human trafficking investigations and made 967 arrests, resulting in 559 indictments and 381 convictions. These numbers represent double-digit, year-over-year increases since 2006, when HSI initiated 299 investigations and made 142 arrests. Yet, for HSI, which is a member of the DOJ-funded Human Trafficking Task Forces, these numbers are only a beginning.

In 2011, HSI joined the DOJ, the Department of Labor, and the FBI in a pilot interagency human trafficking enforcement initiative called Anti-Trafficking Coordination Teams (ACTeams). Born out of the interagency Federal Enforcement Working Group (FEWG), ACTeams are composed of HSI special agents; assistant U.S. attorneys; and HSI Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA) special assistant U.S. attorneys, who coordinate with existing federal human trafficking task forces to increase efficiencies, with the ultimate goal of opening more investigations and prosecuting more human trafficking offenses. This year, HSI will increase programmatic and training support to ACTeams, now in place in offices in Atlanta, Georgia; Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and El Paso, Texas.

Definition of Human Trafficking
Trafficking in persons, sometimes called TIP, is a modern-day form of slavery and is defined as
  • sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
Please note that human smuggling and trafficking are not interchangeable terms. According to the U.S. Department of State, human trafficking involves forcing someone to commit “commercial sex acts, or to subject them to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery,” whereas human smuggling is “the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation or illegal entry of a person(s) across an international border, in violation of one or more countries laws, either clandestinely or through deception, such as the use of fraudulent documents.” For information, visit
HSI and the Human Trafficking Victim

Human trafficking cases share common despicable traits. Traffickers typically promise marriage, a legitimate job, or a sound educational opportunity to lure victims to a foreign country. Once the victims arrive, traffickers variously use coercion, fraud, violence, drug and psychological dependency, and debt and impoverishment to exploit them to perform sexual or other kinds of forced labor, usually as housekeepers or farmworkers. Human trafficking robs children of their childhoods, tears victims from their home countries and families, brutalizes and shames them, and renders them powerless to escape. That victims usually cannot speak English deepens their alienation and dependency on their captors.

HSI-led investigations apply a victim-centered approach, focusing on victim identification, rescue and safety, and post-rescue victim needs. Thirty-nine human trafficking subject matter experts—at least one in every domestic field office—pursue investigations and serve as designated points of contact for local law enforcement and points of referral to the Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.

In addition, 17 HSI field offices have full-time victim assistance coordinators who provide emergency assistance through medical help, food, and shelter to victims. Referrals also are made to NGOs for case management, legal services, and long-term needs. For example, certified human trafficking victims who assist investigations and prosecutions may petition DHS’s Customs and Immigration Service (CIS) for a nonimmigrant T visa, which allows an individual to remain in the United States for four years and then apply for lawful permanent residence. HSI also has two dedicated Washington-based child forensic interviewers who travel to victims regardless of their locations anywhere in the world.

Public Awareness-Raising Campaign

HSI’s victim-centric strategy does not rely on victims alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes a village to rescue one—that is, to know the signs of human trafficking in order to feed leads to law enforcement. To that end, in 2011, HSI launched a public awareness media campaign called Hidden in Plain Sight, in 25 U.S. cities. Print ads listing human trafficking indicators and the tip line to encourage public reporting appeared in 122 different foreign-language newspapers with a total readership of about five million per issue. During the month of November 2012, HSI ran a similar public service radio announcement nationwide in Spanish and English.

Training Law Enforcement in the U.S. and Abroad

HSI-developed human trafficking training is entrenched within its broader training, both domestically and abroad, at each of its 26 domestic field offices, at its 73 foreign offices in 47 countries, and as part of its training outreach to foreign law enforcement. This global approach is guided by DHS’s Blue Campaign, which was established in 2010 as an agency priority and emphasizes training, information sharing, and investigative partnerships. Since 2007 alone, the HSI has given more than 140,000 human trafficking presentations to federal, state, and local law enforcement entities, NGOs, and governments of host countries where HSI has a presence.

At international law enforcement academy programs, HSI’s human trafficking modules are part of the regular curriculum, with topics including investigative methodologies in human trafficking cases, human trafficking indicators, and victim interviews. At the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), HSI human trafficking investigations experts teach these same topics as part of FLETC’s curriculum. Last September, HSI launched an advanced pilot training course it developed in collaboration with FLETC based on a team approach towards human trafficking investigations aimed specifically at ACTeam members.

Cases Take Toll on Investigators

No matter how much training HSI special agents receive, human trafficking cases are among the most emotionally difficult to investigate. Victims’ fear and shame, particularly if they are underage, make them reluctant to reveal their abusers. Investigators must cultivate close bonds with victims, and, even then, months may pass before a victim trusts an investigator enough to disclose what they suffered.

“’Evidence’ in human trafficking cases is not like that of any other cases,” said an HSI San Diego, California, special agent who worked on narcotics cases prior to her first human trafficking case. Describing that initial experience, which began with a lead provided by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, she said,

I never talked to the narcotics. I was not concerned with what the narcotics ate or where it slept. I didn’t have to ask the narcotics to tell me about shameful and painful experiences. I didn’t have to determine if the narcotics were ‘tricked’ into coming to the United States or if its end destination would result in life-altering exploitation. In a human trafficking case, finding the evidence, the victim, is difficult. It’s hard to ask someone about what they want to keep most secret, but you have to. It’s hard to watch their eyes tear up as you dig for the necessary facts. Perhaps what hurt me most was having victims tell you that they volunteered to be prostitutes because they loved their abusers. They don’t see what happened to them, nor understand. How do you tell someone that they were a victim, when that is the last thing they ever want to be considered?

With even more vigorous, more comprehensive human trafficking efforts in 2013, HSI investigators and their state and local partners will have more tools than ever to identify, rescue, and help victims reclaim their lives and take their tormentors off the streets. ♦

HSI relies on tips from the public to dismantle human trafficking organizations. Trafficking victims are often hidden in plain sight, voiceless, and scared. The public is urged to report suspicious human trafficking activity to the ICE HSI Tip Line at 1-866-347-2423 or report tips online at Anonymous calls are welcome.

Please cite as:

James A. Dinkins, "Homeland Security Investigations: Fight Human Trafficking with a Full Arsenal," The Police Chief 80 (February 2013): 54–56.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 2, February 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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