What is one of the most welcomed developments in the fight to end human bondage in 2009? Activists across the anti-trafficking spectrum welcomed the news in May of 2009 that Luis CdeBaca was appointed by President Obama as the Ambassador-at-Large of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Frequently referred to as Lou by friends and admirers alike, deBaca faces enormous challenges in his work to spearhead the US effort to pressure and monitor foreign governments in their efforts to free slaves. There are an estimated 12-17,000 people trafficked into the United States each year and as many as 27 million people living in slavery worldwide.
A Mexican-American who grew up in Iowa, deBaca has long experience both prosecuting traffickers and rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking survivors. Mr. deBaca was a trial attorney for over 14 years, then became a special litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and, subsequently, served as Majority Counsel at the House Judiciary Committee. A highly decorated prosecutor, he has convicted over a hundred human traffickers, updated US anti-slavery laws to help police prosecute traffickers, and received the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award for his service as lead trial counsel in a case involving the enslavement of over 300 workers in American Samoa, the biggest slavery case ever prosecuted in the US.
Mr. deBaca’s tireless fight to prosecute traffickers is matched by his determination to rescue and rehabilitate trafficking survivors. According to Benjamin Skinner in a great piece in the Huffington Post in May of this year, Most meaningful to de Baca, however, are his successful rescues and rehabilitations of over six-hundred slaves. That is a record unmatched by any law enforcement official at any level since Reconstruction. And central to his approach has been his deeply felt compassion for the victims. "I always felt safe when Lou was working on our case and I knew we would be okay," said "Katya," a survivor of brutal sex traffickers who Lou helped put behind bars for a total of 21 years. "He is a good man." Too often in the past, law enforcement has dealt with slaves as if they were the perpetrators of a crime against the state, rather than victims of a crime against humanity. But for de Baca, fighting slavery is personal. Those of us who have met slaves, survivors and traffickers know de Baca's passion well, because we feel it ourselves.
Mr. deBaca is keenly aware that the other ally governments have in the anti-trafficking fight is the advocacy community, be they church groups, human rights groups, mission groups, unions or engaged individuals. During the release of the 2009 TIP Report, deBaca stated that he wanted to add a fourth “P” to the anti-trafficking categories: prevention, prosecution, protection, and (now) partnership. This was a move widely heralded by activists as a step forward and showed the US government was making a real effort to work in partnership with others around the world engaged in anti-trafficking efforts. In conjunction with the first ever release of a review of US efforts to fight trafficking that was promised for next year, it helped to lessen the impression that the US was less interested in pointing fingers at others and more interested in joint efforts and engagement.
I believe it’s also important that Mr. deBaca is committed to fighting slavery in all of its forms, from slave labor to sexual exploitation. The previous administration focused its evangelically influenced campaign a bit too much on sexual exploitation to the exclusion of other forms of trafficking. While human trafficking for sexual exploitation is deplorable and an abomination, the ILO estimates it represents about ten percent of those in slavery globally and our approach should be as multifaceted and proportionate as the phenomenon, addressing all types of human bondage.
Mr. deBaca has also shown his ability to contextualize human trafficking within the wider geo-political context. The US-Mexico border has a long history of transnational crime, including drug and human trafficking. The rampant criminality, along with the difficulty the long, porous border represents for law enforcement, has been highlighted by recent events, such as the Mexican sex trafficking ring that was broken up in November of last year by Brooklyn police and the murders of Juarez women. In May of 2009, Mr. deBaca has stated that human trafficking is a area where the US and Mexican governments can cooperate and is hopeful that sharing information on human trafficking cases will strengthen relationships between US and Mexican officials that would in turn strengthen transnational relations that help fight narcotrafficking.
What is also refreshing is that Mr. deBaca’s drive to fight trafficking is holistic. In November of last year, Mr. deBaca stated that "A phenomenal job of fighting trafficking still means that there’s trafficking. Having the best homicide detectives in your city doesn’t mean there’s not going to be murders. The fight against trafficking means that you try to keep it from happening, but also you’ve got cutting-edge tools to address it when it does. And to treat the victims the way they should be, but also to investigate and prosecute cases."
Mr. deBaca is welcome addition as the Ambassador-at-Large of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. While his approach is noteworthy and signs so far have been promising, he has to contend with a wafer-thin budget, which could shrink further under the weight of the current economic recession. Additionally, Mr. deBaca will need to build a constituency with the American and international public, as well as with key senators on the Foreign Relations Committee. I look forward to more positive developments in the fight against human trafficking this coming year and I believe Mr. deBaca is up for the challenges inherent in his position.