New Internationalist

Meet the traffickers

Issue 404

What kind of person would sell another? You might be surprised. Victor Malarek reports.

In a dusty farm village 80 miles north of Phnom Penh – the capital of Cambodia – two women sit cross-legged on a floor inside a ramshackle hut. They are transacting an important business deal and haggle for about 10 minutes before settling on the amount – 2,000,000 riels, about $500.

A moment later, one of the women yells out: ‘Srey!’

It’s her daughter – the youngest of six children, a beaming, brown-eyed 11-year-old. Srey scurries into the hut and in a matter-of-fact tone her mother tells her that she will be accompanying her ‘auntie’ to the city for a short while. She is to do as she is told and she will be home in a few months.

lorena ros / panos pictures
Mrs Osonegue of Benin City has several girls ‘working’ for her in Italy. lorena ros / panos pictures

Srey is scared. She instantly distrusts the hard-eyed, made-up lady called ‘auntie’. But she obeys her mother and leaves with just the clothes on her back and her favourite rag doll.

Srey is about to enter a seedy brothel in downtown Phnom Penh – and there is not a thing she can do about it. She has no protector and no rescuer. Three days later, her face caked with mascara and ruby red lipstick, her body clad in a purple silk sarong, her virginity is sold to a portly Japanese businessman for $500. He got to use her for five days during which time he brutalized the terrified child. For the next two weeks, Srey’s body was sold for $10 a customer to American, British and German paedophiles – sex tourists who care only about what their money can buy.

Then, as if someone flipped a switch, Srey’s value plummeted. She was now used goods and only worth $2 a customer, mostly Cambodians and Thais. Three months later, her body racked with gonorrhea and HIV, she was sent home to die.

In a world where young women and girls are sold by the tens of thousands daily, Srey’s tragic story reveals a side of trafficking that most people can never fathom – the sale of a child by her mother into the sex trade.

‘No problem’

Most people tend to think – or want to believe – that traffickers are all thick-necked, beady-eyed thugs, members of organized crime gangs like the Albanian or Russian mob, the Italian mafia, the Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads or the Hell’s Angels. But the trafficking ocean is teeming with small-time bottom-feeders who know they can make a lot of cash selling desperate, unsuspecting young women and girls to pimps and brothel owners around the globe. Luring just one person can net a trafficker anywhere from $250 to $5,000.

Traffickers use every ruse imaginable. Some even hold job fairs at high schools and universities offering exciting opportunities as nannies, maids and waitresses in foreign cities. They dispatch slick talking headhunters into towns and villages. And sadly some of the traffickers are themselves trafficked women who’ve been told that if they can bring in two or three fresh bodies, they will be set free.

In a spacious apartment furnished with black leather sofas and state-of-the art electronics, Ludwig Fainberg – aka: Tarzan – brags about the ease with which he was able to get young women from Russia into any Western nation. A one-time member of a notorious Russian organized crime gang in New York City, Fainberg said that he could supply women from Russia, Ukraine and Romania. ‘No problem. The price is $10,000, a girl’s landed. It’s simple. It’s easy to get access to the girls. It’s a phone call. I know brokers in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev. I can call Moscow tomorrow and show you how easy it is. I can get 10 to 15 girls shipped to me in a week.’

Traffickers rely on threats, intimidation and beatings to control their victims. But in the case of the thousands of girls trafficked from Nigeria to work highways and truck stops in Italy, Greece and Spain, they count on something more sinister to keep them in check – juju or voodoo.

Before leaving Benin City to ‘make good money braiding hair for tourists on the beaches of Italy’, 16-year-old Sarah was required by her trafficker, a family friend, to visit an ohen, a priest of the indigenous religion. ‘I was made to swear an oath never to say anything. The priest took some of my hair and finger nails and warned if I broke my promise, I would go mad and would suffer greatly in my next lives.’

When she arrived in Naples, Sarah was told by her Nigerian madam that she was to work as a prostitute. Two months later, she was picked up by the Italian police. Her biggest fear remains the curse of the juju taking hold of her mind and body.

Respectable individuals

In the hustle and bustle of Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea port, scores of boyfriends or ‘pretty boys’ are on the hunt, combing the discothèques for naïve young women. With guile and charm the ‘pretty boy’ sweeps his quarry off her feet and invites her for a weekend outside the country – to Istanbul to meet his family. Within moments of her arrival, she is sold to a brothel owner.

This boyfriend approach has also been adapted by traffickers using mail-order bride agencies to ensnare victims. With countless women clinging to the fairy-tale dream of a blossoming romance and a better life in the West, the pickings are ridiculously easy.

Luan Plakici, a 26-year-old political asylum seeker from Kosovo and former interpreter for a number of London law firms specializing in immigration, quickly spotted the cash flow from trafficking. Soon after securing British citizenship, he headed for Moldova where he romanced a 16-year-old, married her and brought her back to Britain. While still on honeymoon he put her to work, servicing half a dozen clients. In the first year of their marriage, he forced his teenage bride to have two abortions, putting her back to work the day after the procedure. Plakici was eventually arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison on seven counts of trafficking.

Rescued women and girls tell story after story of trusted people with respectable positions who have used their influence to con the unsuspecting. In one instance, a doctor who graduated from medical school in Ukraine decided to leave her native land for the greener pastures of Essex, England, to practise medicine. But the money Dr Oksana Ryniekska thought she’d make wasn’t rolling in. So she devised a plan. The 26-year-old doctor became a trafficker. Instead of setting up a clinic, she set up a brothel over a dry-cleaning shop and trafficked in nine young women from her homeland. Ryniekska told her victims she would get them visas so they could learn English. But the only English they learned was the sexual terminology required to understand and service their steady stream of ‘johns’. In just eight months, before being busted in an undercover sting, the doctor raked in more than $210,000. She was found guilty of trafficking, sentenced to three months in prison and then deported.

Keeping the peace

Throughout the trafficking maze, victims routinely come up against people who should be on their side – the police. But in countries like Greece and Israel, police have become directly involved in trafficking themselves. Apart from making a lot of extra cash, the complicit cops get rewarded by the brothel owners with free sex with the young girls.

In war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina, United Nations soldiers from a host of nations were brought in to bring peace and order. With the arrival of tens of thousands of peacekeepers from the US, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Russia – the majority testosterone laden young men – the local criminal network kicked into overdrive. They turned to traffickers who began to import thousands of teenage girls from nearby Romania, Moldova and Ukraine.

‘I can call Moscow tomorrow and show you how easy it is. I can get 10 to 15 girls shipped to me in a week’

The UN also brought in hundreds of police officers from a variety of nations as members of the International Police Task Force (IPTF). One of those was David Lamb, a former police officer from Philadelphia. While questioning a group of young Romanian women rescued in a brothel raid, he learned that several Romanian cops working with the IPTF were directly involved in the recruitment, trafficking, smuggling and sale of these women to local brothels. Lamb blew the whistle but instead of getting co-operation from top UN officials, he had his life threatened and his investigation killed. Lamb didn’t give up. Instead, he sent an email to the IPTF command identifying five UN police officers ‘linked to allegations of involvement in women trafficking’. He also pointed out that whenever investigations uncovered UN involvement, support from UN headquarters coincidently dried up. But that wasn’t all.

‘During investigations by my office into UN personnel involvement in women trafficking, my investigators and I experienced an astonishing cover-up attempt that seemed to extend to the highest levels of the UN headquarters,’ Lamb wrote. Soon after, Lamb was sent packing and his investigation was bogged down in a sea of UN red tape.

Traffickers, and those who collude with them, really do come in all shapes, sizes and guises.

Victor Malarek is the author of The Natashas – The New Global Sex Trade, Vision 2004.

lorena ros / panos pictures
Traffickers using voodoo to extract ‘oath of loyalty’. lorena ros / panos pictures

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