Human trafficking investigations: Interrogation themes that get confessions

An astute investigator alert to the signs of human trafficking can launch a line of questioning designed to reveal the offender’s conduct May 23, 2018
Human traffickers can abduct or lure susceptible individuals for many reasons such as economic hardship, lack of social support, national disasters or political instability.

Many of these criminals are referred to as ‘recruiters’ who create a false sense of legitimacy by masking their illegal intentions in order to enlist susceptible victims. These individuals initially obtain the victim through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, labor or commercial sex acts.

Recruiters find vulnerable individuals by promising them a new life, access to medical and mental health care, and money and shelter. Often that individual is shipped to a distant location or other country. Once there, they are advised they owe money and are forced into labor or prostitution.

Human trafficking is a hidden crime, as victims rarely report their situations due to language barriers, fear of the traffickers and/or fear of law enforcement.

There are several types of trafficking:

Sex trafficking of adults
Sex trafficking of children – this is primarily online sexual exploitation
Forced labor
Bonded labor – working to pay off family debts
Domestic servitude – working in private residences
Forced child labor – forced begging, child appears to be a family member
Child inducted as a soldier
Providing a spouse – in the context of forced marriage
Extraction of organs or tissues – including for surrogacy and ovary removal
An astute investigator alert to the signs of human trafficking can launch a line of questioning based upon the following suggested themes to help reveal the offender’s oppressive conduct and lead to the rescue of victims.

Here are 10 themes investigators can use when questioning ‘recruiters’:

Blame the victim’s family for being abusive and intolerable to live with.
You didn’t kidnap the victim.
You did not use any physical force.
You were sincerely hoping the victim would eventually have a much better life.
You were doing this as a favor to the victim’s family.
You really believed the victim would be used short term and then freed.
You were suffering financially and viewed this as a short-term business opportunity.
Contrast a few times versus hundreds of times or short-time period versus long.
The ‘trafficker’ lied to you about their intent with the victim.
Blame the bureaucratic red tape in obtaining proper paperwork for obtaining legal entry.
Here are 10 themes investigators can use when questioning ‘traffickers’:

Your intent was to only make a small profit then allow the victim their freedom.
If the victim wasn’t working for you they would be working for someone else.
You provided proper lodging, food and medical attention – better than they previously had.
You didn’t overwork or abuse victim.
You provided the victim a much better life.
You knew it was wrong but saw no other option for you to maintain a basic lifestyle.
You provided hope to a hopeless individual.
The ‘recruiter’ lied to you about the victim’s age or background.
The victim voluntarily agreed to your work demands.
Suggest the victim was being paid.
Omega Restaurant was observed as having an inordinate amount of younger workers serving as dishwashers, busboys and basic food preparers. Many of these individuals were discovered living in the basement of the restaurant and not enrolled in school. Eight individuals were removed to protective custody prior to questioning the owner.

It was determined the victims were undocumented foreign nationals from two overseas families. Some of the children advised authorities they were brought to the USA to work a few months for a family friend that owns a restaurant. They were told that friend would eventually arrange U.S. citizenship for all.

When Carmen, the owner of the restaurant was interviewed, he denied knowingly harboring the eight undocumented youth. He said he assumed they were documented, and was simply doing a favor for two overseas family friends by providing safety and security for their children. He assumed the parents would be coming. The following is his interrogation utilizing some previous theme selections.

“Carmen, the results of our investigation indicates you did know those younger individuals working for you were undocumented.

“Let me clearly say that their physical condition was very good indicating that you really did take care of them. You provided them a safe place to live. We also believe you brought them to a better quality of life and probably promised to help them obtain U.S. citizenship. As you and I know, they came from an extremely volatile country where their future quality of life would be poor to nonexistent at best.

“Carmen, you didn’t force them into any unhealthy work, nor did you physically abuse them. You and I know you were simply doing a favor for their families by taking care of their young family members. You also believed that eventually they would assimilate into the United States and probably fall under a political blanket of U.S. citizenship. However, we need to resolve that you did not kidnap them, which I don’t think you did. However, that’s just my thought. Unless you tell the truth about what you did and why you did it, then nobody will know for sure. Maybe you did kidnap them and they are afraid to say for fear of their families being harmed. It’s up to you now to explain the circumstances, or people will jump to conclusions that you didn’t care about these kids.

“Carmen, here’s what’s so important. I think you were helping their families by providing a better future for their children. But what I think means nothing unless it comes from you. Was that the case or were you taking advantage of them? Were you trying to give them a chance at freedom or were you going to keep them as slaves their entire lives?

“Another concern we have is whether these eight individuals from the two overseas families are the only ones you’ve done this for or whether there are hundreds of others? If you’ve been doing this hundreds of other times, that would be pretty hard to explain and I’d probably be wasting my time talking to you. But if this was just a favor to try and help these two families, while that is not the right way to do it, it’s understandable that you made a mistake in judgement. It’s not like you were being greedy and doing this over and over again to hurt people and take advantage of them just for the money. These are the only two families, right?”

The challenge is to credibly craft an interrogation theme that appeals to the mentality of human traffickers who, in almost every instance, have already perversely rationalized their own conduct. It may seem ludicrous to suggest there was some “understandable” moral or social undertone to the trafficker’s behavior. But if that reasoning resonates with a perpetrator, then the path has been paved for disclosure of the truth, as well as preservation of the victims’ safety and human dignity.

Delores Strothers