International Challenges, Local Solutions: Cook County Combats Human Trafficking

Hundreds of girls are kidnapped. Often they endure intense pain and humiliation as they are branded like animals. The abuse only gets worse. They are soon sent out into the street to become child prostitutes. On the rare occasion that local authorities do find out about this modern-day slavery, it is almost always the child prostitute who gets arrested. The pimps and Johns rarely face any consequences.

If these horrors sound like something that could only happen in some far away land, sadly you are very wrong.

I recently attended a conference entitled, “The Dark Side of Global Trade: Human Trafficking from the World to Chicago.” The event part of Georgetown’s John Carroll weekend brought together alumni from my masters’ in Foreign Service (MSFS) program (as well as other interested alums) to discuss what Cook County is doing to address human-trafficking in Chicago.

It began with an introduction on the global trade by former Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, Dr. Mark Lagon. He explained that human trafficking takes many forms globally:  prostitution disadvantaged castes and bonded laborers in India, domestic servitude, and even child soldiers in the Congo. The general definition is that these are people are who are treated as subhuman and exploited.

Worldwide there are an estimated 27 million victims! While 2/3 of these trafficked individuals are in South and Southeast Asia, this is truly a global problem. In response most countries have signed the Palermo Protocol which committed these states to the elimination of all forms of trafficking.

However, “the problem is implementation,” Dr. Lagon explained. Local politics and national priorities don’t always match up. Even when they do, implementation requires a thousand local officials to adjust laws and even attitudes.  Enter, Anita Alvarez, then newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney.

Ms. Alvarez immediately encountered a major problem. As other illegal activities such as drug trafficking began to become more challenging due to law enforcement, Chicago gangs were increasingly turning human trafficking. Amazingly, this was far less risky. In general, the gangs would kidnap young women and traffic them to Chicago for prostitution. Hundreds of girls were forced to the Windy City from across the Midwest (human trafficking is often not international). Yet, the police were of no help to the children since statutes at the time called for the prostitute’s arrest. “Children would be charged with child prostitution and end up back in the arms of the pimp,” Alvarez explained.

Prostitution Often Begins Before Adulthood

So here first effort was to change these unjust laws. The office successfully lobbied the Illinois legislator to rewrite the Illinois Safe Children’s Act. The act revisions pushed Cook County into the right direction:

Firstly, no longer would juvenile prostitution be a crime. Ms. Alvarez has since set up a special court to address the social services of prostitutes.

Secondly, it gave law enforcement the ability to wiretap suspected pimps.

Finally, it raised fines for John and allowed them at times to impound their vehicles.

But this was only a start to anti-trafficking efforts. Using a federal grant, a Human Trafficking Taskforce was made that combined the efforts of multiple agencies. It includes both local and federal ones.

Using the revised law and combined resources, Cook County conducted an operation which has so far led to the arrest of 59 traffickers.

Nevertheless, when one audience member asked about labor trafficking, Ms. Alvarez admitted, “still a lot of work needs to be done.” There have been no non-prostitution labor trafficking arrests. Chatting with others after the lecture, it started to become clear. Though I know of no surveys on the subject, most audience member believed that general labor trafficking was of non-regular migrants (or as more commonly known, illegal immigrants). Therein lies one of the biggest challenges of any international policy implementation – changing attitudes. Ending one form of human trafficking, child prostitution faced a receptive public. For very good reason, civil society, law enforcement and politicians are all committed to ending this prostitution. And as a result, Chicago has become a leader in these laudable efforts.

Sadly helping other labor trafficking victims that might be here illegally stirs up controversy.  Until attitudes change, and this type of trafficking faces more pressure, full compliance with the Palermo Protocol is a long ways off.

To learn more about ending prostitution in Illinois please visit End Demand at


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