January 9th, 2014
11:47 AM ET

Ghana: Journalist goes undercover to expose traffickers

Police in Ghana storm a camp being used to keep children in slavery after one journalist spent weeks infiltrating the traffickers. In this video, CNN correspondent Vlad Duthiers meets the journalist and asks the minister responsible for protecting children what the government is doing to help.

Mira’s Cambodia Journal – Day One: Arrival in Cambodia
December 12th, 2013
02:31 PM ET

Mira’s Cambodia Journal – Day One: Arrival in Cambodia

Editor’s note: Mira Sorvino, a human rights activist and Academy Award winning actress, went to Cambodia with the CNN Freedom Project to expose child sexual exploitation. This is an edited journal from her week in the country.

By Mira Sorvino, Special to CNN

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (CNN) – We have just landed in Phnom Penh, to begin one of the most important journeys I have ever embarked upon.

I have been an activist on the issue of human trafficking since 2004, the year I was expecting my first of four children. I was spokeswoman for Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign, which brought the issue of modern-day slavery to light for me. Before this, I was blissfully unaware that slavery was alive and well – it had just gone underground. Meeting survivors of human trafficking changed my life, and deepened my commitment to fighting this terrible scourge that affects most every country around the world.

Since 2009 I have been a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Goodwill Ambassador Against Human Trafficking, one of the greatest honors and challenges of my life. I have interviewed scores of survivors in many countries, as well as government officials, NGO workers, law enforcement and even a man responsible for sex trafficking about 4,000 girls from Latin America to European club-brothels.

I've also partnered with the CNN Freedom Project several times; this time I'm taking off my UN hat and joining forces with CNN to present this documentary. We are here to see why Cambodia continues be a hub of child sex trafficking and virgin sales, and what we can do to help expose the problem and suggest solutions.
I’ve never been to Cambodia, though I made a fictional movie, “Trade of Innocents,” about child sex trafficking in Cambodia (shot in nearby Thailand). I am excited to discover this new place, but feel trepidation over delving into our heartbreaking topic. FULL POST

December 11th, 2013
03:43 PM ET

Mira Sorvino: The mothers were desperate

Oscar-winning actress and anti-slavery activist Mira Sorvino joined a CNN team to investigate the child sex trade in Cambodia. In this video she tells CNN's Andrew Stevens about the assignment - and the horrific memories which she says she will never forget.

Every Day in Cambodia airs for the first time on CNN International on Saturday 10 a.m. CET.

Inside Cambodia's hidden brothels
December 11th, 2013
01:53 PM ET

Inside Cambodia's hidden brothels

Karaoke bars are a common front for child prostitution. As part of the documentary "Every Day in Cambodia", Oscar-winning actress and activist Mira Sorvino writes about what it was like going behind the scenes of this illicit trade.

FULL STORY
Forced sex trade thriving in U.S. Midwest
June 20th, 2012
06:53 AM ET

U.S. Midwest in crosshairs of child sex trafficking fight

By Deborah Feyerick & Sheila Steffen, CNN

Tamara Vandermoon is barely recognizable in the photo she holds up; her face is swollen and bruised, her eyes nearly battered shut. She was 19 at the time. "My pimp had beaten me and stomped my face," she says. "I was black and blue."

The Minnesota woman has seen a lot in her relatively short life. Abandoned by her father and angry at her mother, she ran away when she was 12, the same age she turned her first trick trading sex for money and gifts.

"I just wanted to be accepted and loved. I was told how beautiful I was and if you do this I'll get you this ... and I'll make you my girlfriend." Before she knew it she was prostituting herself up to 50 times a night, the money going to her pimp or to feed the drug habit she developed, she says, to "numb the pain" of her life.

Her eyes fill with tears as she remembers: "I was just a baby. I was 12 and they preyed on me. What would a grown man want with a twelve-year-old child?!" Now 31, she is finally getting out after nearly two decades in the sex-trade.

When it comes to child and adolescent sex-trafficking in the United States, the FBI ranks Minneapolis-St. Paul among the top 13 places in the nation. With its tangle of highways known as Spaghetti Junction, its year-round sporting events and frequent conventions, millions pass through on any given day. "There's the thought no one's going to catch you in the Midwest," says Dan Pfarr who works with teens in crisis.

FULL POST

Life gets strange hunting traffickers in the U.S.
Sergeant Craig Friesen speaks with an alleged prostitute in Orange County, California.
June 13th, 2012
07:47 AM ET

Life gets strange hunting traffickers in the U.S.

Editor’s Note: CNN Freedom Project this week is reporting from the front lines in the fight against sex trafficking - not in the poverty-stricken developing world but in affluent Orange County near Los Angeles, where prostitutes are now treated as trafficking victims rather than criminals.

By Martin Savidge

Anaheim, California (CNN) - It feels odd to be in a car sat next to a guy texting a pimp. Even more odd, he's pretending to be a prostitute. It can all get a little strange in the digital pursuit of human traffickers.

I'm sitting in the front seat of an SUV in a part of Orange County, California only the locals see - where the hotels are not chains and have names that cops and criminals alike know well. The "prostitute" beside me is actually Sergeant Craig Friesen.

Nearby, either parked or patrolling, are four other vehicles holding the rest of his undercover team.

Earlier, we saw a pickup truck in a parking lot across the street approaching several women. The guy wasn't having much luck - which was too bad since he was on Friesen's crew.

FULL POST

March 23rd, 2012
04:08 AM ET

Undercover filmmaker: Trafficker priced me up

By Mimi Chakarova, Special to CNN

For the past decade, photographer-filmmaker Mimi Chakarova has examined conflict, corruption and the sex trade. Her film "The Price of Sex," a feature-length documentary made over seven years on trafficking and corruption, premiered in 2011. She was awarded the Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. It will air in the U.S. on The Documentary Channel on April 11 at 4.30p0.m. ET

She was wearing a polka dot skirt and her favorite pink flip-flops the day she left her village in Albania. Her mom called out her name before she got into her boyfriend's red Mitsubishi. She didn't turn to wave goodbye. She was 12 and angry. FULL POST

Breaking the chains: Freedom's successes
This image showing enslaved fishing boys in Ghana was one of the first to appear on the Freedom Project.
December 19th, 2011
03:44 PM ET

Breaking the chains: Freedom's successes

(CNN) - Since its launch in March, the CNN Freedom Project has helped shine a spotlight on all aspects of modern-day slavery and spurred action from governments, corporations and individuals.

CNN reported on sex slaves and bonded workers, children and adults caught in despair, and the inspirational against-all-odds work of individuals and organizations fighting the trade.

Nearly 2,000 people have come out of slavery, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the hundreds of  stories broadcast on air and published online.

FULL POST

November 11th, 2011
09:35 AM ET

Inside a Nigerian prostitution bust

CNN went undercover with the Mossos d'Esquadra - the human trafficking unit in the Catalonia region of Spain - as it tackled a major investigation into Chinese prostitution in the region.

Now, the unit takes CNN inside another case it has cracked. But this Nigerian prostitution ring had many factors investigators hadn't seen before.

November 7th, 2011
09:42 AM ET

Undercover: Taking down a crime syndicate in Spain

Undercover police are on the frontlines of the fight against human trafficking and the Freedom Project has accompanied several agencies that have given CNN unprecedented access to ongoing investigations. A few months ago, CNN showed how the Mossos d'Esquadra - the human trafficking unit in the Catalonia region of Spain - solved one of Europe's largest forced labor cases.

This time, CNN takes a look at another major investigation into Chinese forced prostitution in the region.

Watch "Undercover Catalonia" on CNN International, November 24, London 0830 / Berlin (CET) 0930 /Abu Dhabi 1230 / Hong Kong 1630; November 25, Abu Dhabi 0930 / Hong Kong 1330; November 26, London 0730 / Berlin (CET)  0830 / Mexico City 2200 / New York 2300.  

By Misty Showalter, CNN

It's the moment the human trafficking unit with Spain’s Mossos d'Esquadra was waiting for: After months of exhaustive preparation and dozens of operations, it finally made the big bust.

This time, investigators broke up a Chinese prostitution crime syndicate ruthless in eliminating its competition - even expanding into an international human trafficking ring. Thirty-nine people were arrested, 17 brothels busted and 30 women freed.

The year-and-a-half-long investigation exposed a calculating group that within just two years wiped out any competitors in the residential brothel business, says Sub-Inspector Xavier Cortes, head of the human trafficking unit of Mossos d'Esquadra, the police agency for the Catalonia region of Spain.

(More: Mossos and unraveling the web of Spain’s sweatshops)

"[The syndicate] began offering a different product set, offering an exotic consumer [choice] of sex and very low prices compared to the rest of the market," Cortes says. "Others had to close and go because, evidently, the client dropped them. The [syndicate’s] prices were much lower and the product was innovative; it was exotic.

“Now that they've cornered the market,” he says, “they also want to recover the consuming market for women from African countries, and are trying to start to diversify the supply within the Chinese-controlled apartments."

The investigation began in June 2010 when detectives started to take a closer look at newspaper ads for Chinese brothels. In recent years, the Chinese population has exploded in Barcelona - the largest city in the Catalonia region where Mossos d'Esquadra operates. Barcelona has become a major trade route from China to the rest of Europe, so the increase in the population wasn't a surprise. But investigators began to notice there were more and more Chinese residential brothels - places of prostitution operated out of apartments - and fewer residential brothels run by any other nationality.

Prostitution is neither legal nor explicitly illegal in Spain. You can willingly prostitute yourself, but you cannot become a licensed prostitute. It's illegal to force someone into prostitution. Proving whether a woman is willingly selling herself, or is being forced into it, makes investigating prostitution very tricky.

(More: Spain’s hot spot for human trafficking)

Brothels are another issue altogether. Investigators say to avoid detection, many brothels try to work around the law by securing licenses to run as bars or restaurants. Women will work inside as waitresses, so that if any sexual activity does take place, they have receipts that show some other service was given.

But investigating Chinese brothels poses even more unique challenges. As Spain’s human trafficking unit knows from breaking up a previous Chinese crime ring involving hundreds of victims of forced labor, the Chinese community is very tight-knit, keeping most of its contacts inside its ranks and rarely communicating with authorities.

"How they network, the manner of hierarchically structuring the organizations, the manner of trafficking the different functions - they're different to those that we know already, of other organizations of the West," Cortes explains.

Detectives started to observe the Chinese brothels, sometimes trying to get inside posing as clients, and then once inside, announcing they are police conducting a routine check.

They would discover what they say is evidence prostitution was taking place: red lights, several mattresses on the floor in one room, condoms and toilet paper by the mattresses. These were no ordinary apartments. Yet the women inside would not admit they were prostitutes.

"Simply from the outside, [you] cannot see anything that catches your eye, just the door of a house,” says one of Cortes’ undercover agents. “Therefore the people who come here have prior knowledge, in other ways, that prostitution is practiced here - in this case Asian."

During the search of one brothel, agents took three women back to the police station. One of the women admitted she'd just come from China the week before. To investigators, this was proof that women were being trafficked from China to be forced directly into prostitution.

After more than 15 months of surveillance, police checks and phone wiretapping, investigators finally gathered enough evidence to make the bust, and on September 26, they moved into 18 suspected brothels at the same time, and another 15 businesses, nightclubs and homes on October 1.

Agents say what they found was not only proof that the sexual exploitation of women was the group's main objective, but also evidence that the organization was using Barcelona as a layover to traffic the women to highly profitable first world countries, such as the United States, Australia and Canada. Police are still investigating exactly where in those countries the women ended up.

"One of the most recurrent pathways that was being used at this time was the transfer of people trafficked from China to Turkey, to Istanbul with a tourist visa," explains Cortes. "Once there, they took the passport back in order to return them to their country of origin so there is no evidence that this person had not returned. They would then cross the border to Greece by land, where they were given new documentation with a new identity. Within Europe, the mobility is much easier. Once they arrived at the final destination, which was Barcelona, they were put into flats where they spent a period of two or three weeks without being able to go out on the street. From here they waited for their final documents with which they crossed the ocean."

The accused traffickers were able to do all this, detectives say, with a high quality counterfeiting document lab. Agents found hundreds of forged passports, holograms and even stamps to simulate visa entries into different countries. Police also discovered credit card forgery equipment, weapons that they suspect were used to threaten the women and even to extort other Chinese businesses in Barcelona, and a wide variety of drugs - more than 2,600 ecstasy pills, 400 marijuana plants, and the means to make a drug called Ketamine.

Of the 39 people arrested, 33 are in jail awaiting trial and six were freed pending further investigation. Mossos d'Esquadra is also issuing international arrest warrants for accused traffickers in China and elsewhere. The 30 women who were freed will be offered visas to stay in Spain if they cooperate with police.

September 26th, 2011
02:55 PM ET

'Trapped by Tradition': Your questions on slavery in India

Last week we asked for your questions about 'Trapped by Tradition', the documentary featuring actor Anil Kapoor which explored how in someIndia villages girls are sent into prostitution by their families. Here is a selection of your questions, answered by CNN correspondent Mallika Kapur, who worked on the documentary.

Question: Creating awareness is good but what measures have been put in place to help eradicate this abnormal tradition and give these girls hope for a new beginning? – labelle

Answer: Groups like Plan India and its sister organization, Gram Niyojan Kendra, are working hard to stop this practice. Their goal is to prevent the next generation from falling into the same trap, so they are building schools in the area and encouraging children to attend. They have a team of people who work closely with the men and women in the village. They also spend a lot of time counseling people and explaining the dark side of this tradition. Often the people involved don’t realize what they are doing is wrong because it’s been this way for generations, so nobody questions it. One lady, Ranu, who works with Gram Niyojan Kendra, has been living in the village for 10 years. She runs a residential school/shelter and looks after the babies of prostitutes while they are at work. She does this so that the babies are brought up in a safe environment and don’t end up being forced into the sex trade. So yes, there’s a lot of work being done to change the mindset of the people, and to encourage children to go to school.

Question: What is being done to the criminals who are involved in these activities? – Twaha

Answer: Unfortunately, many times, nothing happens at all. This is because the men who push the girls into prostitution are family members of the girls, so it gets difficult to prove they are traffickers.India does have a law against trafficking - the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act - but many anti-trafficking groups say it isn’t very effective. Also, traffickers can be punished only if someone files a police report first. Because family members are involved in trafficking themselves, who is there to file a police report? That’s one of the main reasons traffickers don’t get tried and punished.

Question: How long has this been going on? What part of India? Is there anything we can do to help? – Concerned

Answer: This has been going on for generations. In our documentary, we focused on the Bedia community which lives in a few villages in Bharatpur district in Rajasthan state, western India. You could contact Plan India which works with 40 villages in this district to find out how you can help.

Question: Who started this tradition/business and what do you think about the government’s duty in this matter? – A. Bhattacharjee

Answer: This has been going on for generations and is a by-product of poverty and tradition. Also, the people here are at the bottom of the caste system. Historically, they had few job opportunities and were exploited by the rich, upper castes. They formed the most vulnerable strata of society and had to resort to sending their own daughters and sisters into the sex trade to earn money.
 
The Indian government has good policies and intentions but anti-trafficking groups will tell you what the government really needs to have is targeted intervention. It needs to have specific programs to help this group of people. For example, if the government decides to build schools, it needs to have a school right there in the middle of the village so that the children don’t have a long commute. It needs to counsel the people to send children to school. It needs to sensitize the community there not to attach a stigma to the children of sex workers. So a targeted, specific intervention for this vulnerable community is essential.

IMPORTANT-It is not trapped by tradition it is TRAPPED BY POVERTY!!!!! - Shree

Answer: Yes, absolutely. Poverty breeds desperation and in this case, extreme poverty meant these people had no alternative but to send the women to work in the sex trade so they could earn money to feed their families. It’s vital to provide the people of these villages with an alternative form of income, so groups like PlanIndia and Gram Niyojan Kendra are providing them with vocational training programs and working to link them up with government-run employment schemes. The challenge is to provide an income that matches the hefty earnings the women get from prostitution. For instance, a sex worker can earn as much as $2,000 a month. While it’s hard to find a job that pays as much, anti-trafficking groups say their focus is convincing the people here to find a job that gives them dignity and a way out of this dark tradition.

 

August 12th, 2011
03:44 PM ET

The vice unit catches their man

In our Freedom Project Undercover series, you've seen the fight against human traffickers through the eyes of the investigators.

In the fifth and final installment of our trip to Orange County, California, we see that the police try give the prostitutes a new start and do their best to lock up the pimps who are forcing these women in to selling themselves.

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