Welcome to the third edition of the Getting to the Roots series.

This series is meant to help us better understand what factors — from large-scale societal structures to the circumstances of an individual’s life — contribute to someone engaging in trafficking, either as a victim or a trafficker. Sociopolitical factors are those particular “structural” circumstances that affect an entire people group, making them vulnerable. Since these affect a whole group of people, this is prime ground for a trafficker to exploit. Today, we’ll address three of these factors: war, ineffective justice systems and gangs.

War, suddenly and for an extended period of time, can take away someone’s basic barriers to violence and exploitation. When someone is without shelter, regular access to food, or a family to protect them, that leaves multiple areas where a trafficker can come along and “provide” for those needs. According to Polaris Project, traffickers often identify and leverage their victimsvulnerabilities in order to create dependency.[1] They make promises aimed at addressing the needs of their target in order to impose control. Even those who would normally be able to provide for themselves in a time of war are not able, because the normal pathways they would use to find a job or food are no longer there. War puts women in a desperate state, because both “their difficult situation and their efforts to find a solution or exit from it contribute to their inaccurate perception of risks and to the failure to anticipate danger.”[2] When someone is in a desperate situation, they are more likely to take risks they otherwise would not to fill those needs. That is where the trafficker swoops in. War pushes people into places of vulnerability and removes a system that would safety take them out of it.

In addition to putting people in a place to become a victim or a trafficker, war also increases the demand for commercial sex. With an increase in military presence, there are more purchasers in an area during the conflict, which leads to increased demand in the aftermath. “A good illustration for that is the expansion of sex tourism in Thailand after the Vietnam War, and later trafficking of Thai women to the West,” stated Nikolic-Ristanovic.[3] There have also been examples where peacekeeping forces were clients of the brothels in the area where they were working. John Picarelli cited, “The combination of the end of hostilities and the arrival of relatively rich peacekeeping operation personnel drove the hasty establishment of brothels and, in turn, founded the links between UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) personnel and trafficking syndicates.”[4]


War, therefore, not only increases a people group’s vulnerability by removing the systems which would allow them to safely and legally retain or regain security and stability, but it also increases the demand for their exploitation by bringing in more people who would and could purchase them.


With an ineffective legal system, we are looking at systems that don’t allow people to leave a trafficking situation. Some of the most common barriers to investigating human trafficking cases “included victim distrust of law enforcement, lack of training/knowledge (inability to identify cases); lack of resources, and lack of interpreters (language barriers).”[5]


Without effective legal systems, victims of trafficking will remain in trafficking and traffickers will continue to find trafficking a viable option due its high-reward and low-risk nature. When it comes to working a human trafficking case well, training is key. Without proper training it would be easy for law enforcement to mis-identify a human trafficking case, because it wouldn’t be on their mind to look for it or identify it as human trafficking. The more training an officer has, the more likely he/she is to perceive human trafficking as a serious problem,[6] indicating that the more training an officer has the more likely he/she is to be on the look out for trafficking and to spot it.  Only 17.9 percent of randomly sampled agencies had training on human trafficking in the US, and only 38.5 percent of agencies in medium to large population areas had human trafficking training.[7] Without that training, cases can go unidentified, leaving the victims in a life of slavery.


It is common for victims of human trafficking to distrust law enforcement, which means that to be effective, law enforcement need to be prepared to work with victims who, at least at first, do not want to work with them. Some of victims may already distrust them because of fear of deportation, and their trafficker will also teach them to distrust law enforcement.[8] Law enforcement view training on how to work with victims as even more important than learning about the laws and legalities of human trafficking.[9] But as noted above, only 38.5 percent of agencies, even in larger populated areas are trained on human trafficking at all, much less the nuances of working with human trafficking victims. Because the victim is so important to a case, in order to have an effective legal response to these cases, it is important law enforcement receive at least some training on how best to work with them.


Where war increases a people group’s vulnerability, and ineffective legal systems keep them there, gangs are an organized system to get people involved in trafficking and then make it harder to leave. Gangs did not create sex trafficking, but they are adept at spreading it. Where you can only sell a drug once, you can sell a person over and over and over again.


San Diego Deputy District Attorney Mary Ellen Barrett told the San Diego Union-Tribune that more than half of the 68 defendants charged with sex trafficking since January 2013 were gang members. “I actually think that its higher,” she said about gang activity in sex trafficking. “The police will tell you 90 percent.”[10]


Not only are gangs carrying out this crime, but they are less likely to be turned in by their victims. In that same article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, a victim was quoted as saying “the emotional tie with her pimp was hard to break even after his arrest.” Susan Munsey, the founder and executive director of GenerateHope, a safe home for victims of sex trafficking in the San Diego area, said that response “is typical for victims who experience ‘trauma bonding,’ ” adding that the bond seems even greater with victims who have worked for gangs.[11]


A gang can fill the needs that many young people lack: family, protection, a way to provide for themselves. Gangs pull someone who might not have been headed in that direction into trafficking and make it harder for them to leave.


While sociopolitical factors can increase the vulnerability of a people group, service providers working to fight trafficking must recognize these vulnerabilities and help people overcome them in safe and sustainable ways. Three organizations doing that offer opportunities for you to be a part of the solution as well.

·      Catherine Groenendijk-Nabukwasi founded Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC). CCC has many programs to prevent and protect girls vulnerable to trafficking during the current civil war in South Sudan. CCC provides a drop-in center for girls vulnerable to trafficking and currently has a residential care facility for girls which provides them with education, vocational training, counseling, medical attention and more. CCC also provides support in the impoverished communities around them, so boys and girls can go to school and community members can learn about gender-based violence and child protection. Learn more and support their efforts.

·      At Truckers Against Trafficking, we train law enforcement, members of the trucking industry and the general public to recognize and respond to sex trafficking. As a part of our training DVD and other materials, we work to change the cultural mindset around those who are being prostituted. With our Freedom Drivers Project trailer, we provide the opportunity for people to experience the back stories of survivors of sex trafficking through words and artifacts and then learn how they can be a part of ending this crime by making the call and much more. Through our training, tens of thousands more people have been equipped to report cases, which leads to recoveries and prosecutions.

·      Homeboy Industries provides hope, training and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community. Providing other ways to find community and make a living gives a viable way for men and women to get out of the gang life. Homeboy Industries provides educational and employment services and runs a number of social enterprises, which serve as job training. Learn more and support their efforts.


Beyond supporting the work of these organizations with your monthly donation, there are a number of ways you, too, can help mitigate these sociopolitical factors that contribute to human trafficking in your community. You may not live in a war zone, but one of the issues we noted that comes out of a war is that people are unable to find jobs, rendering them unable to provide for themselves or their families. Helping a family find work not only provides for that person, but creates a ripple effect in that family. You could provide jobs for the hard to employ or internships to provide job skills for the hard to employ to help them get on their feet. If you aren’t in a position to hire others, you can talk with the company you work for about creating such a program or supporting such a program.


Mentoring youth in your community is a fantastic way to prevent human trafficking. Mentoring provides another support person in the lives of the vulnerable and an encouraging voice that can help point them in a better direction. The reason many youth get involved in trafficking, either selling or being sold, comes from not having the basics of protection, provision, love and/or support, so they go out seeking these, and this is where the trafficker steps in. Mentoring a youth is a fantastic way to step into that path and provide another option. Every city and town has organizations or programs to mentor youths, find the one in your area and make difference in your community.


Without the tips from the public, many cases would go unnoticed or would take longer to be discovered. By learning the signs of trafficking and calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, you can help lead to someone’s recovery and the prosecution of the perpetrators. If you work for a trucking company that doesn’t already have our training as a regular part of driver orientation and/or hasn’t shown it at a safety meeting in a while, connect us to your safety director. If you know anyone who works for schools or in the medical profession, get them connected to training, so they, too, can recognize and respond to trafficking if they come across it in their line of work. The key is to share this information and take action on what you’ve learned. It doesn’t take long to learn the signs or make the call and the potential impact is life changing.


Thank you for all you are doing to support your friends, family and community and for wanting to learn more about how you can help by reading this blog. Keep tuned for our next edition in December of this year and keep learning by checking out our Resources and Get Involved page on our website.

Written by Helen Van Dam TAT’s Freedom Drivers Project Director



[1] Polaris Project. (2015, May 28). Sex trafficking in the U.S.: A closer look at U.S. citizen victims. Retrieved from http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/resources/us-citizen-sex-trafficking-closer-look

[2] Nikolic-Ristanovic, V. (2003). Sex Trafficking: The Impact of War, Militarism and Globilization on Eastern Europe. Gender and Globalisms, 17. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.ark5583.0017.001

[3] Nikolic-Ristanovic, V.

[4] Picarellli, J. (2002). Proceedings from UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute 2002: Trafficking, slavery and peacekeeping: The need for a comprehensive training program. Turin, Italy. Retrieved from http://traccc.gmu.edu/pdfs/publications/ human_trafficking_publications/TIP&PKO_EWG_Report_Final.pdf

[5] U.S. Department of Justice. (2006). Law enforcement responses to human trafficking and the implications for victims: Current practices and lessons learned: report from Caliber (Report No. 216547). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/ grants/216547.pdf

[6] U.S. Department of Justice. (2006).

[7] U.S. Department of Justice. (2008). Understanding and improving law enforcement responses to human trafficking: Final report: report from Caliber (Report No. 222752). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/222752.pdf

[8] Department of Health and Human Services. (Resources: The mindset of the human trafficking victim. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/orr/ understanding_the_mindset_of_a_trafficking_victim_1.pdf

[9] U.S. Department of Justice. (2006).

[10] Warth, G. (2014, December, 27), Gangs, sex trade a growing problem. The San Diego Union Tribune, Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2014/dec/27/ gangs-sex-trade-a-growing-problem-in-county/

[11] Warth, G. 

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