for National Geographic Channel
The four teenage girls from Mexico were lured to the United States with promises of work and a better life. But instead of living the American dream, they lived a nightmare: Confined to a brothel in Plainfield, New Jersey, the four were beaten and forced to work as prostitutes.
The girls' captivity ranged from 7 to 15 months. It ended in February 2002, when local police raided the brothel.
In May a federal court in New Jersey convicted the five men and women responsible for the girls' imprisonment. Their crime: human trafficking.
The presiding judge sentenced the five to between 3 and a half to 17 and a half years in prison. More important, according to some experts, the criminals were ordered to pay U.S. $135,240 in restitution to their victims.
"It is very important to have the assets of these traffickers confiscated and used to compensate the victims," Ann Jordan said. Jordan directs the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons for Global Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights advocacy group.
"A lot of traffickers will put up with prison if they know they will have several million dollars waiting for them when they get out," Jordan said. "Confiscating their assets is what really targets them."
Human trafficking is defined in legal terms as the recruitment, transport, or sale of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor.
The UN estimates that one to four million women and children worldwide are forced into prostitution and other forms of exploitation each year. Domestic service, agriculture, and factory work are other prime areas where trafficking is concentrated.
Nearly every country in the world serves as a country of origin, destination, or transit for labor exploitation. Yet in most places, dealing drugs carries stiffer penalties than human trafficking.
In the U.S. that reality is starting to change, thanks to a law known as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act passed by Congress in December 2000.
Prior to the law's passage, "the U.S. was still using slavery statutes from the 1800s to deal with forced labor," Jean Bruggeman said. Bruggeman is a program manager for Boat People S.O.S., a Falls Church, Virginia-based nonprofit that works on refugee rights. "It was not legally possible to make traffickers pay restitution to their victims," she added.
The law mandates that victims be paid the gross income of the value of their labor during the length of their captivity.
Experts say the restitution provision does more than punish criminals.
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