TCU researchers collect information to help shed light on a dark side of society
by Caroline Collier
At least 2.5 million people are victims of human trafficking, and their exploitation nets criminals about $30 billion each year, reports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. But these numbers are just estimates — guesses really.
Human trafficking exists in a shadowy underworld. Criminal antagonists do not always have clear identities. Law enforcement agencies and academic experts know little about how the sprawling networks conduct operations.
“There is an assumption that organized crime is engaged in human trafficking,” said Vanessa Bouché, assistant professor of political science. But, she said, the thought is only speculation.
When the National Institute of Justice requested proposals to explore the intersectionality between different types of crimes, Bouché and Michael Bachmann, associate professor of criminal justice, submitted a project proposal to investigate the matter.
The professors wanted to create a more comprehensive understanding of the links between organized crime – from cartels to street gangs – and all forms of human trafficking, including sex slavery and forced labor.
Their idea was formed in 2012 during a 10-day trip to Israel when the professors were academic fellows for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. They found common interest – albeit from different perspectives – in the various ways millions of people become ensnared in modern-day slavery.
Bouché and Bachmann received a $300,000, two-year federal grant. Their project is the first large-scale study of its kind. The professors are creating a database comprised of hundreds of variables of federally prosecuted cases involving human trafficking and organized crime as well as interviewing convicted criminals who were involved in both types of crimes.
At the project’s end, Bouché and Bachmann plan to have established clear connections between gangs, cartels and human-trafficking markets. They hope their work leads to more protection for victims and improves case-building efforts for prosecutors. The professors anticipate that with more effective recommendations for prosecutors to use, human traffickers will receive “the maximum penalty that is due to them for the actual activity that they were engaged in,” Bouché said.
The professors’ interdisciplinary project capitalizes on Bouché’s knowledge of human labor and sex trade, and Bachmann’s expertise in crime data collection and analysis.
Bouché understands the pitfalls prosecutors face trying to get a handle on these criminal cases with defendants who are selling and exploiting human slaves.
Bachmann worked with his wife, Brittany, on a 2008 assessment of human trafficking in North Texas. They were surprised by the lack of overall awareness about the problem, even among key participants such as judges and police departments.
Since that 2008 study, Michael Bachmann has been interested in how the organizational pieces of the trade in people fit together. The professor has been incorporating data mapping and computer analysis in hopes of uncovering patterns as well as introducing predictions of how and where human trafficking happens.
In the grant project, Brittany Bachmann will conduct interviews with a sample of convicted organized traffickers to find information that could help protect victims and catch and punish other traffickers. The former probation officer has extensive experience with drawing hard-to-get information from criminals.
“This is filling a niche that hasn’t been looked at before,” said Brittany Bachmann, who is the project’s research associate.
Michael Bachmann oversees the collection of data and formation of the database. He is working with L. Donnell Payne, associate professor of computer science, and a handful of undergraduate computer science students. They are using hundreds of contextual variables of cases prosecuted for both organized crime and human trafficking.
When the project is completed, the database will become an open-access, free public website for people to analyze the available content and input new information.
At present, “no such database exists on the national level,” Michael Bachmann said. By allowing anyone to update the criminal cases, he said, it will keep the database relevant and establish “the national standard, the go-to and the one source” of information pertaining to the two crimes. Because the case data is still being assembled, conclusions about the link between the two worlds are still nebulous, but “it’s definitely there,” he said.
Uncovering the organizational secrets of human trafficking networks requires a strategic approach. While most criminals conduct their illegal operations without penalty, the U.S. justice system snags some of them.
While the Trafficking Victims Protection Act became law in 2000, federal prosecutors still are getting comfortable with how to apply it in their criminal cases. However, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act, which is used in organized crime prosecutions, has been around since 1970.
To organize a larger slice of scattered cases involving organized crime and human trafficking, Bouché and the Bachmanns decided to collect racketeering convictions and work backward to search for criminal cases that also contain elements of trafficking in people. They are collaborating with Laura Lederer, a D.C.-based legal scholar, and her anti-trafficking non-profit group Global Centurion to identify federal convictions that include both factors.
Lederer and some Georgetown law students are searching national databases to collect applicable criminal cases – several hundred thus far. In a centralized spreadsheet, they are listing hundreds of variables, such as location, prosecution strategy and size of the criminal organization.
TCU computer science students are using the work of Lederer and the law students to build the easy-to-use database. Michael Bachmann said the work already has attracted attention from county-level district attorneys’ offices to the United Nations.
“We will provide analysis features of the database on the website so that when users browse through that website they can run some basic descriptive or correlations right on the site,” the professor said. “So hopefully more eyes on the data can extract more information.”
In another aspect of the project, the researchers will select at least 20 cases for more in-depth qualitative examination to uncover insight not readily apparent from a mountain of raw data.
To get an overview of the links between the two crimes, the professors are seeking different levels of organized criminals, from mom-and-pop operations to street gangs and international cartels. They also want to learn more about human trafficking from sex markets to forced labor.
If they can accurately paint a big picture, Bouché thinks, they can better comprehend how the moving parts fit into a well-oiled whole.
Regardless of the scope of involvement, the researchers plan to talk to some of the felons. “We are basically going to figure out what federal prison these folks are in, and we are going to interview them,” she said.
Although academic researchers rarely are granted access to federal penitentiaries, Bouché and the two Bachmanns say they plan to persist until they get green lights.
Brittany Bachmann is planning on conducting 20- to 30-minute interviews that include relating to the subjects in a businesslike manner. She will ask about “employees” rather than “victims,” she said. “I’m very careful to use words that are respectful to them … because they’re not going to talk to me if I talk down to them.”
Brittany Bachman, who is working on a doctorate in counseling at TCU, plans to use a technique known as motivational interviewing to “help them visualize an offending-free future,” she said. “As a probation officer, we were trained in how to elicit information and how to help the offenders learn to think about what they want to be different in their futures.”
In hearing the reasons people enter into human trafficking, the researchers hope to discover techniques to divert those pathways into crime. They also want to decrease the recidivism rates among convicted traffickers, Bouché said. “We can approach it in a restorative justice framework and provide them the counseling and the services, the education and the job training skills that they need to get out and reintegrate in a healthy way back into society.”
Examining human trafficking through the lens of criminal syndicates has inspired a new, and more humanistic, perspective about people who participate in these illegal activities. The question is,” Bouché said, “do we believe that human beings are capable of change?”
In restorative justice, criminals must communicate and take responsibility for the harm they have caused others. As the field emerges, victims are finding release from their suffering, even in forgiving the unspeakable crimes committed against them. If they can move on from an awful experience a transformed person, then the idea is that the perpetrator can as well.
In this research area, Bouché discovered her attitudes about human trafficking have changed. In the past, she saw the people who participate in these criminal situations as evil. But now, she said, the roles are morphing into more complex manifestations of human motivation.
“It’s kind of a paradigm shift in a way,” she said. “Weird and hard, but it’s imperative. … The shift is viewing all humans as equal, no matter your moral deprivation.”