Metropolis: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
Traffic Slow-Down

A Fort Worth legislator is working to add state laws against human slavery.


Civil rights activists are claiming small victories in their fight against human trafficking in Bosnia, although they continue to criticize the complicity and complacency of DynCorp, the Fort Worth company that sends American civilians and police officers on overseas missions.

“Two years ago, nobody was paying attention to trafficking,” said Madeleine Rees, the Bosnia representative of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Human smuggling and forced prostitution had skyrocketed after Americans were sent as part of a United Nations humanitarian mission to help Bosnians recover from years of war and genocide. Most Americans did their jobs well, but some began frolicking in brothels operated by organized criminals, purchasing illegal weapons on the black market, and buying young girls forced into sexual slavery.

Rees told Fort Worth Weekly she is seeing some improvement in the situation, most notably after the U.N.’s international police force (led by Americans) was replaced with a smaller British contingency. The U.K. police force is less inclined to flout local laws, and the United States now appears to be demanding that American civilian employees keep their noses clean. “There is a strong mandate coming from the Department of Defense to help alleviate the situation,” she said.

Meanwhile, local activists are hoping for passage of a state anti-trafficking law and happy about their progress in battling the problem in Texas. “The CIA said in a report that Dallas is one of the top 10 cities for trafficking in the United States,” said Dolly Warden, founder of the Metroplex-based Victims of Trafficking Initiative, which hosted a February conference to educate local agencies. Some discussions centered on the recent arrests of traffickers in Fort Worth. “If we can get information and education out to the victims and the communities where they might be, we could have some more of these people coming forward,” she said.

The trafficking of humans is widespread, both internationally and in the United States, but a movement by lawmakers to explore the situation and take action is relatively new. A federal anti-trafficking law was passed in 2000. The U.S. Department of Defense recently sent a representative to Bosnia to study ways to thwart trafficking, and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft deemed human trafficking to be his department’s primary civil rights issue.

Documenting the problem and seeking solutions can be critical, as a similar U.N. peacekeeping mission is anticipated in post-war Iraq.

Martina Vandenberg spent three years investigating human trafficking in Bosnia as a Human Rights Watch representative. Her report documents the ways in which young women are tricked, kidnapped, threatened, assaulted, and sold as chattel to provide sexual services to Americans and others on a supposed goodwill mission. The report said traffickers and U.N. peacekeepers, including DynCorp’s civilian and police employees, are granted immunity and allowed to escape prosecution. In most cases, authorities turned a blind eye. In some instances, the revelers were fired and sent home but not prosecuted.

“Until there is actual legislative change, the individuals who commit these crimes do so without any fear of prosecution,” said Vandenberg, who is now practicing law in Washington, D.C.

Despite the recent attention, trafficking will continue to thrive in the midst of peacekeeping missions unless the U.N. takes responsibility for punishing offenders or allows them to be prosecuted in countries where the crimes occur, human rights advocates said. “The mandates of the U.N. don’t allow any more than to send the person home, which is clearly not adequate because there is no punishment and no record,” Vandenberg said.

DynCorp helicopter mechanic Ben Johnston of Lubbock spent about two years in Bosnia working at an American military base and grew disillusioned by the number of co-workers who spent their off-hours in brothels with girls who were often teen-agers from poor countries who had traveled to Bosnia under the false promise of decent-paying jobs. Once there, many were often forced into prostitution against their will, forced to pay back inflated costs for visas, sold to other brothel owners and customers at random, and beaten if they refused to cooperate. Some DynCorp employees purchased women from the brothels and held them as sex slaves in their homes, Johnston said. DynCorp fired him after he complained. Johnston sued and received an undisclosed settlement.

The Human Rights Watch report included testimony from victims of trafficking. A 22-year-old woman identified only as B.B. told Human Rights Watch she was forced into prostitution after answering an advertisement for work abroad, and then was prevented from returning home. “My father is looking for me,” the woman told rights workers. “For two months I have not been able to call home. I have been in Bosnia for three months. I came to work here in a bar. I knew nothing when they took me to Serbia. I was sold there four times to different men. [The traffickers] brought me to a bar and told me that I had to work as a prostitute. ... I worked and they never paid me. Every time I refused to work, they beat me.”

In addition to damaging young girls’ lives, the human rights violations are also causing fallout for the United States, Johnston said. “There is no telling how many Muslims in Bosnia see what we are doing,” he said. “We say we are moral, but we go over there and act like what they call infidels, and then we wonder why everybody is mad at us.”

DynCorp, which has corporate offices along I-30 near Ridgmar Mall, agreed to settle with Johnston for an undisclosed amount of money, less than 24 hours before a Fort Worth trial was to begin.

Former U.S. resident and police officer Kathryn Bolkovac was hired by a European subsidiary of DynCorp to work as a U.N. police officer in Bosnia. She, too, filed suit after DynCorp fired her for revealing sexual abuse of women and children by her colleagues. The chairman of the British employment tribunal that heard the case described DynCorp as “callous, spiteful and vindictive” and ordered the company in November to pay Bolkovac about $150,000. DynCorp has appealed the decision.

In Texas, legislators are considering a proposal that would, for the first time, provide state criminal sanctions for traffickers. The bill, by Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, would resemble the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which strengthened penalties for trafficking-related offenses, offered new protections, and expanded services to trafficking victims.

The state’s budget woes might prevent the bill from being passed this year, but Burnam is also lobbying for Gov. Rick Perry to create a task force to educate state agencies about human trafficking. “A lot of people have not recognized, including some police and social service agencies, that it’s a growing problem,” Burnam said.

The issue hits close to home for Burnam — literally. In 2002, federal and local law enforcement agencies busted an organized ring of traffickers who were smuggling dozens of Honduran women into Fort Worth and forcing them to work as prostitutes in bars. “This just slapped me in the face because all those bars in the North Side are in my district, and most of the houses where the people were living were in my neighborhood, the Fairmount neighborhood,” Burnam said. “They [the women] are lied to, they believe they are coming for domestic jobs, and they are trying to get out of horrendous, awful economic situations. They get up here and ... are literally enslaved.”

Dolly Warden’s group, the Victims of Trafficking Initiative, has provided Burnam with information. Warden is thrilled by the growing awareness. “The U.S. government didn’t have a law against it until Oct. 21, 2000, when it was signed into law by President Clinton,” she said. “Trafficking was thought to take place in other countries but not here.”

The federal government has since prosecuted more than 100 cases, but tends to focus on large organized rings. “What we’re hoping is the state will pick up where the feds leave off or where they don’t get into cases, such as ones that have a smaller number of traffickers or victims,” she said.

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