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June 28, 2016

Myth: Human Traffickers Are Always Part of Large Criminal Enterprises

A common misconception: human trafficking always involves a large and elaborate criminal enterprise engaged in systematic exploitation of victims. In reality, it occurs in a wide range of settings, and there is no one type of trafficker or trafficking operation.

Sexual exploitation is frequently just one element of gang-related activity, and can also be perpetrated by single individuals acting as pimps, or by business owners in the adult entertainment industry. Labor trafficking is also often committed by both lawful and illicit businesses, including single individuals and “mom and pop” operations, large companies, and intermediaries like labor recruiters.

There have been several criminal cases in the past decade involving domestic servitude perpetrated by just one principal trafficker. In the 2011 case U.S. v. Bello, Georgia woman Bidemi Bello brought two women into the United States from Togo. Bello subjected them to demeaning physical and verbal abuse, forced them to do grueling housework, and had them sleep on the floor and eat only leftover or spoiled food. A similar domestic servitude case, U.S. v. Sabhnani, received a lot of media attention due to the sadistic nature of the abuse. Varsha Sabhnani and her husband recruited two women from Indonesia to work as servants in their Long Island home. Mrs. Sabhnani forced them to work twenty hours a day and subjected the women to a combined five years of physical and psychological torture.

It clearly does not take a very large number of conspirators to orchestrate a sophisticated human trafficking operation. The 2009 forced labor case U.S. v. Afolabi exposed a scheme in which just four traffickers forced more than twenty young women from West Africa to work in New Jersey hair braiding salons. The 2011 case U.S. v. Maksimenko involved only three traffickers who forced at least twelve Eastern European women to work in Detroit strip clubs.

Trafficking requires neither a vast criminal network nor an explicitly shady business. It can occur anywhere, from a suburban home to a popular small business to a strip club in a city center. For more information on the scope and prevalence of human trafficking in the United States, please visit our webpage, Understanding Modern Slavery.