Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It is shocking, the gasping audience clearly agreed, to learn that solid-citizen Arlington is home to crimes of human trafficking.

A sobering presentation last Wednesday to the Committee of 100 shed light on a rising epidemic of below-the-radar heartbreak brought to our suburban environs in the form of sexual slavery, domestic servitude and forced commercial labor.

Equally impressive, however, was the fact that three of the foremost experts in this grim, globalized field hail from Arlington.

“Human trafficking is not only an abuse of human rights, it’s a business, a culturally determined business,” said Louise Shelley, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University (Virginia Square campus) who directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. The illegal shipping of young people for prostitution or underground peonage differs depending on whether it originates in the former Soviet Union, China or Korea, she says.

But the “emerging threat” dramatizes that “the world is flat,” Shelley said. “The United States is a key destination country for trafficked victims, and has a special role to play in combating the problem.”

Excruciating local detail was offered by Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. The FBI has ranks Northern Virginia 13th in the nation as a site for illegal trafficking, the most prevalent being prostitution of girls, he said. It shows up in Hispanic brothels up and down the East Coast, Korean massage parlors and Vietnamese crime groups, including some at the Eden Center.

MacBride displayed mug photos of tattooed members of the MS-13 gang and the Underground Gangster Crips. For gangs prostitution is an “irresistible, low-risk, high-reward” proposition, he said, because the commodity is local and can be “used” over and over. “They prey on girls as young as 12, particularly runaways. One girl was recruited at a middle-school Halloween party.”

Working with a Human Trafficking Task Force, his office monitors activity off Columbia Pike and in the Chirilagua neighborhood near Gunston Middle School that spills into Alexandria. Police received 30 calls for help from Arlington in 2011 alone, he reported.

Surprisingly, 73 percent of victims are “American-born young people,” MacBride said. “The U.S. is the only developed country with problem of sex trafficking among its own young people.”

Using social media, the pimps might contact a girl and say, “You’re pretty. Wanna make some money?” Many of the girls say buzz off, the prosecutor said, “but a small percentage say okay.” They meet the gangsters and fall victim to sexual assault and drug dependency before they’re put to work in the sex trade advertised on Craigslist and Backpage. Arrangements consummated using mobile phones makes police intervention difficult.

MacBride’s office charged 50 defendants in the past two years, deploying a zero-tolerance policy with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The Washington area is ripe for involuntary domestic servitude, said Kelly Heinrich, an attorney who heads the nonprofit Global Freedom Center, due to its preponderance of diplomats and World Bank employees. Virtual imprisonment of victims is accomplished through deception, debt bondage, confiscated passports— psychological coercion, Heinrich says. Not knowing whom to trust, “victims don’t raise their hands and say I’m a trafficking victim.”

Heinrich calls for education and intervention by schools, immigration officials and social workers. “It takes more than law enforcement,” she said. “It takes a village to catch a criminal.”