US boosts efforts against human trafficking

NEW ORLEANS, United States – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced an expansion of US efforts to fight what he called the “vile practice” of human trafficking. Speaking at the government-sponsored National Conference on Human Trafficking in immigrant-heavy New Orleans, Gonzales said the government will increase funding for prosecuting commercial slave traders by eight million dollars and increase the number of task forces on the issue to 42 from 32.

Some of the money will be used to “put a stop to the exploitation and abuse of laborers” brought into the New Orleans area by traffickers to work in rebuilding efforts in the wake of devastating Hurricane Katrina last year.

“Human trafficking is a violation of the human body, mind and spirit,” Gonzales told some 600 law enforcement officials and victims’ advocates at the conference.

“For the vile practice to be taking place in a country the world looks to as a beacon of freedom is a terrible irony and an utter tragedy.”

The US government estimates as many as 17,500 people in the US each year, mostly women and children, are enslaved for the commercial sex trade or other industries. Worldwide, an estimate 600,000 to 800,000 people fall victim annually to human traffickers.

Human smuggling, in which traffickers move illegal migrants across borders for money without holding them against their will afterwards, is a more prolific problem in the United States.

Gonzales acknowledged that educating the public is a critical part of prosecuting the more cynical trafficking in sex slaves and forced labor.

“Most Americans think that our country resolved the question of slavery with the Civil War,” Gonzales said.

A total of 79 people have been convicted this year in federal trafficking cases, more than double the number in 2005.

Gonzales said the government is currently pursuing a case against a Dallas, Texas nightclub owners who enslaved six South Korean women in a brothel after they were smuggled into the United States.

In August federal authorities arrested 31 South Koreans in an alleged sex-trafficking ring that spanned the northeastern United States.

A federal prosecutor in Florida, which hosted the government’s first human trafficking conference in 2004, said he has 11 slavery investigations underway in his state.

Gonzales said the new funding includes money to stop the enslavement of migrants seeking to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

He said Interstate 10, a coast-to-coast highway that runs from southern California through Texas and New Orleans to Florida, has become a “magnet for human trafficking.”