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State Department’s Key Role in Stopping Human Trafficking

State Department’s Key Role in Stopping Human Trafficking

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Among the numerous federal law enforcement agencies that work to prevent human trafficking, the State Department is one of the lesser known. It is nevertheless a key player in halting the worldwide scourge.

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American Military University Faculty Director Dr. Michelle Watts recently sat down with John Freeman, Supervisory Special Agent in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the State Department, and Ronnie Catipone, Director of the State Department’s Office of Investigations, Counterintelligence and Domestic Operations.

Their conversation centered on how the State Department is working to combat human trafficking in concert with its allied nations.

Freeman explained that cases often begin “way down at a basic human level.” Investigations can originate from something as simple a Special Agent talking to a colleague or an official in the host country. “We need to see if there’s enough [evidence] to start a case,” Freeman explained. If there is sufficient evidence to open a case, prosecutors are brought on board to begin the legal work to go to court.

Catipone acknowledges that in the fight against human trafficking the State Department can’t match the manpower of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. “What we bring is the global reach,” he said, because of the more than 270 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

Cooperation between US and Allies a Tight and Successful Relationship

Catipone leads an international cooperative effort called the Overseas Criminal Investigation Program. It is staffed by 122 special investigators stationed at various U.S. embassies and consulates. He characterizes the cooperation between the U.S. and its allies to stop global human trafficking as “very, very tight and successful.”

The law enforcement professionals also investigate passport and visa fraud cases. It’s another way the State Department prevents human traffickers or their victims from entering the United States. “We think we add tremendous value to the nation’s security,” Catipone says.

Asked about the role of social media and human trafficking, Freeman acknowledges that “we don’t have a good counter” to the many social media platforms that air false information. These social media use phony job opportunities in the U.S., bogus visa and work permit information, and other false inducements to attract potential trafficking victims. “There’s so much opportunity for the bad guys to get their point across,” Freeman admits.

Asked to explain what constitutes human trafficking, Freeman says if someone has a terrible job with few or no benefits but is free to walk away from that job, that’s not human trafficking. The line is crossed into illegal human trafficking when someone threatens to harm another person or that person’s family, or keeps most of the worker’s wages and prevents her from leaving the job.

Trauma and Fear of Retaliation Hamper Victim Interviews

One of the main problems in building human trafficking cases is the mental state of the victims. Freeman must determine if they “are at a point where they can talk about it.” Because human trafficking victims often experience trauma, it will often take several one-on-one interviews with U.S. investigators before the victims will open up and talk about their experience.

Candid interviews are also hampered by the fear of retaliation from the trafficking perpetrators. The U.S., however, cannot guarantee the safety of human trafficking victims or promise them that they will be relocated to the United States, Freeman admits.

Despite the combined efforts of the State Department, U.S. law enforcement agencies and host countries, “we have no shortage of cases or allegations,” Freeman adds. Victims can originate in the U.S. or in an allied country, and may involve victims of all ages.

Despite these handicaps, Catipone insists, “We bring great value added to disrupting these [trafficking] networks working in partnership with our federal partners and our foreign partners.”

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