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Thomas Adcock: Slaves of 2024

Slaves of 2024

 Where are our protectors…?

Of ‘shelf companies’ and ‘pig butchering’

by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2024 – Thomas Adcock

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – U.S.A.

The girl’s dark eyes read disappointment as she looks across a table at men sent by the United Nations to question her. Her eyes hint at the emergence of a young woman, beautiful in all the ways young women are beautiful. She keeps her own counsel until the moment is right to say what needs saying.

Her name is Gita. (Her name was Gita.)

She was fifteen years old that day, long ago, when she met the inquiring U.N. group in a shelter where she lived. A shelter filled with girls like her—rescued victims of sex trafficking. Over a three-hour period, Gita told the men of torture and disease and commercial rape she’d suffered in the brothels of Kathmandu, Nepal and Mumbai, India.

Gita had been raped more seven thousand times, beginning with what are known in the universe of sex trafficking as “professional rapists.” Men who condition female captives to the brutality and humiliation and perversity of brothel life, and death; to internalize the horror of it all.

Among the U.N. delegation seated across from Gita was Matthew S. Friedman, an American-born public health officer at the nascency of what has become his moral cause: the war against modern-day slavery.

Mr. Friedman listened as Gita told a time-stained tale of deceitful men who promise love and abundant new lives to vulnerable women and girls just like her.

Gita was twelve years of age when she was sweet-talked into sexual servitude; when she could hardly know about contracting a ruinous disease known as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

Wincing as he admits naïveté on first hearing Gita’s story, ashamed of his painfully weak vocabulary in speaking of the unspeakable, Mr. Friedman recounted his exact words of flimsy reaction: “Gee, you must be really angry with those traffickers.”

Gita had found her moment.

“No, they’re just bad people being bad people,” she said to Matt Friedman and the others. “I’m angry with you…and you…and you. Where were you every day I was praying for someone to hear me, to come save me?”

In the years following, Mr. Friedman and Gita corresponded often. Among Gita’s letters is one that reads in the manner of a tragic poem, in which she describes the emotional and physical toll brought on by AIDS:

Food has no flavor. It is as sour as my life.
I will never marry. I will never have children.
My spirit is already dead inside.
Where are all the good men?
Where are our protectors?

Eventually, Mr. Friedman lost touch with Gita. Which happens under circumstances that are fluid at best.

Gita is presumed dead. But her heart-stopping words, said back on that day in the Nepalese shelter, survive in the title of Mr. Friedman’s seminal book on slavery in our time: “Where Were You?”

Here in the United States this January of the New Year, we of polite society are encouraged by the State Department in Washington to recognize National Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Accordingly, we are asked to first educate ourselves about the crime of slavery—even though it is a crime seldom mentioned, even though it is a crime that echoes from our past experience in abducting Africans for grueling labor on cotton plantations of the South; even though it is a crime not seen by most of our leaders as deserving of urgent attention.

During January, it is hoped that a few more of us lend our various abilities to lawyers, criminologists, journalists, and international development professionals bound to the unending cause of abolishing slavery. During this month, we must ask ourselves what we may bring to the cause; surely, each of us has something to offer.

Where are we in a world of slavery that flourishes as never before? Where are we in an age of criminal inhumanity that goes largely unpunished? What shall we do about it?

 Numbers underlying the unholy situation are staggering—and mostly unknown to the ordinary citizenry of comfortable nations; unknown or else ignored. Never in history have fifty million people been forced into prostitution, unpaid labor, or sham marriages that camouflage both crimes—fifty million, according to U.N. estimates. Where are we as an international slave economy rings up profits of $150 billion annually (€136 billion), according to the Geneva-based International Labour Organization?

…Where are we in terms of Matt Friedman’s reckoning: Twenty-five thousand people are trafficked into slavery each day, or more than nine million every year; of the fifty million now enslaved, about a hundred thousand will be rescued—less than one percent.

Nowadays, Matt Friedman heads The Mekong Club, a mildly named non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong concerned that slavery is visible every day virtually everywhere in the world. The club’s not so mild mission is persuading private sector executives in the banking, manufacturing, and hospitality industries to address the illicit revenues of slavery—or else.

One of Mr. Friedman’s allies—Barry Koch, a mild-mannered New York law professor and former compliance officer at one of the city’s premiere banks—has a term for visibility unseen: the “banality of cruelty.”

Mr. Koch holds that slavery is not about slavery per se.

“It’s about money,” he says.

Working under the U.N. aegis, Barry Koch manages a variety of anti-trafficking projects in macro fashion: He follows the money.

“I’m not a cop, I can’t arrest bad guys,” Mr. Koch said in an interview. “Besides which, you can’t arrest your way out of slavery. That’s like whack-a-mole.”

He continued: “Yes, we must continue arresting bad guys, but it’s a waste of time not to prioritize the financial aspect. You won’t ever eradicate [slavery], but you can greatly lessen the problem through compliance.”

Most needed then are what Barry Koch calls “compliance tigers,” the proof of his thesis being the downfall of Al “Scarface” Capone (1899-1947), the Chicago-based bootleg liquor baron and king of American gangsters in his Prohibition-era heyday.

It was not the hard-charging, high-profile federal agent Eliot Ness (1903-1957) who put the manacles on Capone despite being his scourge. For that, it required a team of publicity-shy accountants for the Internal Revenue Service. The accountants researched Capone’s tax history and found it short of full compliance, therefore effecting his arrest and civil trial.

Accordingly, the gangster king was convicted on twenty-two counts of income tax evasion for the years 1925-29, never mind Capone’s courtroom contention that government “can’t collect legal taxes from illegal money.” He was sentenced to eleven years at the notoriously harsh Alcatraz penitentiary off the coast of northern California, eventually winning early release when the advance of syphilis, contracted in his late youth at a Chicago brothel, debilitated his brain.

Now comes the intrepid Barry Koch to scout the squalid folkways of contemporary gangsters who fix their greedy sights human trafficking rather than prohibited booze. No matter, it’s about the money. Always the money.

Of late, Mr. Koch is interested in two money streams popular with traffickers:

“Shelf companies,” as opposed to ordinarily secretive shell companies, as a means of laundering ill gotten funds. Savvy traffickers who previously used ordinary shell companies to park revenues contended with regulations that require the identities of a set number of company owners. But if one shell company buys out another, and then another and another and so on, identity requirements diminish by scale. Bundled shell companies are shelved, so to speak, and available at fire sale prices in three states—Wyoming, Nevada, and Delaware. No one, therefore, may be certain of exactly who makes investments in the “shelf company.”   

“Pig butchering,” whereby traffickers kidnap qualified prospects to labor at call centers that are, in reality, prison camps. The kidnapped inmates are trained in the art of the romantic scam, in which trust is built over the course of increasingly intimate telephone relationships, spiced with a mutual desire to hit it big time in crypto currency. While the wealthy long-distance victim (the “pig”) loses—often handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars in crypto to his or her paramour—nearly everything about the set-up is pure profit for the trafficker cum warden. The name of the scheme has to do with preparing a pig for butchering.

Mr. Koch is especially proud of the work he’s done in leveraging his financial know-how in the interest of individuals freed from sex and labor trafficking, only to find themselves in economic straits. He worked with others to see passage of the congressional Debt Bondage Repair Act of 2022.

Typically, traffickers will take control of their victims’ finances, running up significant debt in their names. Which leads to adverse court judgments and substandard credit ratings. Victims then face difficulty in seeking employment, establishing bank accounts, or obtaining apartment leases.

As a member of the Bankers Alliance Against Human Trafficking, Barry Koch saw to it that major financial institutions would waive normal requirements in opening checking accounts for victims—accounts that would serve as gateways for a return to stable living.

I write from the city of New Orleans, the vaunted “Big Easy” and home to practically-anything-goes Bourbon Street, as well as the historical Congo Square—so named as the gathering place for African slaves of the nineteenth century.

Slavery then is supplanted today by sex trafficking that is painfully familiar to Sheri Lochridge Combs, director of community & youth engagement at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless young people.

As a girl, Ms. Combs told me, “I ran away a lot, I grew up in foster care, constantly moving from place to place. I met a guy at 17 who told me he’d take care of me. I felt I was safe. When I look back…”

She took a long moment’s pause.

“I’m 49 years old now and I’ve been working at Covenant House for a lot of years. It feels sometimes like nothing’s changed. I see male and female pimps, some as young as 18. The criminal justice system is sub-par. It takes an awful long time to get justice, and it seems to be taboo to talk about certain things—like how kids feel safe on the internet, not realizing the dangers of social media.”

Lurking on social media are sex traffickers who strike up relationships with overly trusting girls—girls like she was—with an initial stream of “love bombs,” as Ms. Combs calls the opening pitch to fraud. Same old same old.

And the same old honey-voiced lure into prostitution, much of it on saloon-clogged Bourbon Street where thirsty customers are twice quenched at establishments such as one with an entrance sign flogging the promise of “hot girls and cold beer.”

For the time being, the temperature on Bourbon Street has at least moderated, thanks to journalist Kevin Littten who blew things up with an exposé published in the Times-Picayune newspaper. Mr. Litten led off with these opening sentences of his investigative series—

“If the pimps, prostitutes and tourists are the gears that keep the sex trade churning on Bourbon Street, many of the strip clubs are providing the grease that keeps the gears turning—often with spotty or inconsistent intervention by [the state of Louisiana’s] Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control and New Orleans law enforcement…”

Ms. Combs credits the newspaper series for the closure of the “bad, bad” joints, reducing their presence from twenty to eight.

“Did we get rid of the problem?” asked Ms. Combs. “No. But we needed someone to listen to us, and Kevin listened. We’re now concentrated on preventing the problem.”

One measure of prevention could be schoolroom counseling on the topic of social media, in which teachers explain to youngsters the facts of life in an age of human trafficking. Ms. Combs finds it unnerving that private schools are more amenable than their public counterparts to permitting the blunt talk it would take to explain those facts of life, necessary as they are to being learned.

It will take time.

Meanwhile, victims and potential victims have been heard by Kevin Litten, at least in New Orleans. He joins Matt Friedman and Barry Koch as three of the good men that Gita of Nepal wondered about before she died.  

Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag. His essays here.