Obama's Slavery Czar

Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca fights human slavery for a living. He talked to The Daily Beast's Lynn Sherr about the explosion in human trafficking and the shocking black market of coerced work.

Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, a Women in the World summit speaker, fights human slavery for a living. He talked to The Daily Beast's Lynn Sherr about the explosion in human trafficking and the shocking black market of coerced work.

His title is a jawbreaker: director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. But Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca's target is, simply, slavery. “We tend to say, slavery: bad; 1865: taken care of,” he tells me, wiping his hands dismissively as if washing away the scourge. Wrong. “Whenever you have vulnerable people and greed, you have a recipe for slavery.”

CdeBaca was appointed by President Obama, and is the fourth person to hold this job since the position was created by Bill Clinton in 2000. Under Obama, human-rights activists hope efforts to curb trafficking will accelerate.

The United Nations estimates that 12.3 million individuals exist in forced labor worldwide. The State Department says as many as 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders each year, a number that’s grown with the recession. Break down the statistics and you find a 5 year old sold into prostitution in Nicaragua; kids who should be in primary school instead of baking bricks in Pakistan or mining gold in Africa; Burmese dissidents kidnapped and smuggled away to work on fishing vessels. In fact, human trafficking is the third-largest black market in the world, right behind drugs and weapons. And it’s not just out there. As many as 17,500 enslaved people are brought into the United States each year, and about 70 percent of them are women trafficked into forced sex work.

“Most human traffickers deal in hope. They pervert it, but what they’re selling is not misery. What they’re selling is a better life.”

Slavery right here? “Not just in this country, but within five miles of where we are sitting,” emphasizes the ambassador. We are sitting in CdeBaca’s unassuming office on G Street in Washington, D.C., far from the center of diplomatic power in Foggy Bottom. “State Department East,” CdeBaca jokes, rationalizing that while he’d like to be nearer his boss, Hillary Clinton, he actually prefers being just a block from her boss, President Obama. Both of them, he says, totally get it.

Ambassador CdeBaca, a New Mexican whose family settled in the New World nearly five centuries ago, traces his own abolitionist roots to one pioneering ancestor (“Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the least successful of all the conquistadors”) who was himself enslaved by Native Americans before rising to become colonial governor of Buenos Aires. There he tried to stop colonialists from kidnapping Indian women to use as concubines and men as farmhands, an enlightened notion that got him sent back to Spain in chains, according to CdeBaca. When CdeBaca told that story to Secretary Clinton, “she promised me that no matter how this works out, there’s not going to be any chains at the end of it!”

It probably wouldn't stop him. He got his start seeing “what’s really affecting my community. Whether it was farm workers, or women in brothels, the percentages continue to be overwhelmingly Latino. Sixty-plus per cent of the [trafficking] victims in the U.S. are Hispanic.” It was, he tells me, his calling—“you know, Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy,” pointing to a poster on his wall of the two civil-rights leaders. “Everything that makes a young, wanting-to-be-cool Hispanic lawyer want to go work on civil rights.”

CdeBaca made his mark as a highly decorated prosecutor in the Clinton Justice Department, investigating and prosecuting a slew of slavery cases. He plays up his current job’s bipartisan credentials. “I think in many ways we are building upon the good platform that the Bush administration left us,” he says. But he also points out that on his watch, the Department of Labor will be “a more fulsome partner. I don’t think we can say that trafficking wasn’t a priority for DoL; I think it is more that DoL wasn’t highest on the list for the Bush White House. And now we say they have to be at the table.”

The ambassador is no John Brown; he speaks softly and politely, more professor than firebrand. But his passion for the sins he has witnessed is palpable: Sixty deaf Mexicans who were “forced to the streets of New York, begging people to buy their trinkets or key chains. What people in New York didn’t know was, if they didn’t make $100 a day begging in the subways, they were going to get handcuffed to a radiator or tortured with an electric stun gun—punitive rapes.” CdeBaca prosecuted the perpetrators while at the Justice Department in 1997.

He also saw ethnic Korean women (actually Chinese citizens) brought to Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, in a guest-worker program, thinking they were going to be waitresses. “Instead, they were put into a brothel servicing visiting Korean businessmen.” Legislation to stop that and garment sweatshops, he points out, “is what [lobbyist] Jack Abramoff was bribing everybody to try to prevent.”

Ironically, and cruelly, it is the very nature of some of the victims—what CdeBaca calls a combination of “hope and spunkiness”—that sometimes seals their fate. “Someone told me once, ‘Oh, these human traffickers, they deal in misery,’” he recalls. “Actually, most human traffickers deal in hope. They pervert it, but what they’re selling is not misery. What they’re selling is a better life. And they’re selling a better life to the people who are most willing to grab for that better life, because they are go-getters.”

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What motivates CdeBaca is getting the victims back to that state.

“I’ve seen their potential, and once we break the power of the trafficker, I think that’s the thing that drives me. It’s not seeing them when they’re handcuffed to the radiator or when they’re suffering and bleeding. It’s seeing them five years later, when they’re working with other victims. When they’re opening their own little businesses. It’s seeing the person who’s terrified and afraid of their own shadow, totally dependent upon the agent or the nonprofit lawyer who’s helping; you see her a few years later, and you’re like, wow!”

Getting there is an immense challenge. CdeBaca points out that “blood diamonds” aren’t the only products steeped in blood. He plucks at the cream-colored shirt covering his substantial chest. “I don’t know if Nordstrom’s finds out whether this cotton came from children in Uzbekistan who are being enslaved out in the fields every fall. And it’s not just cotton: It could be fish, shrimp, iron that’s being smelted in western Brazil.” The Labor Department has released a list of 122 items produced by forced or child labor in 58 countries—from peanuts in Bolivia to jade in Burma; from electronics in China to tobacco in Kazakhstan. Some of the countries are strategic partners. How to crack down on trafficking while maintaining diplomacy?

“We let our rankings do the talking,” CdeBaca says, referring to the annual report his office puts out grading countries by their compliance with anti-slavery standards. This year’s report, the ninth, named 17 countries as the planet’s worst offenders—so-called Tier 3 nations—including North Korea, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. But, “Even in Tier 3 countries, we’re starting to see some progress.,” he points out. “Malaysia has started some training; Chad finally ratified the U.N. protocols. Saudi Arabia passed a trafficking law. Now we’d like to see it implemented.”

So will the report—and his office—actually make a difference? “I think it will over time,” he says. “A phenomenal job of fighting trafficking still means that there’s trafficking. Having the best homicide detectives in your city doesn’t mean there’s not going to be murders. The fight against trafficking means that you try to keep it from happening, but also you’ve got cutting-edge tools to address it when it does. And to treat the victims the way they should be, but also to investigate and prosecute cases.”

I ask him what will constitute success. “Seeing a lot more cases,” he says. “When we get more cases it looks as if the trafficking problem is getting worse. What that actually means is, we’re actually responding to it better.”

I mention that he has not said we will wipe out slavery.

“I don’t think that I could say that we’re going to wipe out rape, kidnapping, or murder,” he counters. “What I can say is that, just like with kidnapping, rape, and murder, we can make it so it is on the margins of society. So that anyone who dares to do this is not going to operate with impunity; they need to know that we’re going to find them and we’re going to prosecute them. I think that at the end of the day what stops this is not government enforcement efforts, it’s the cultural shift where people start saying, that woman’s not just a prostitute, she’s somebody’s daughter. That shirt is not just something to be worn, it’s something that I need to know how it was made and who made it. In other words, that notion of getting everyone involved in the cultural change. At that point, I think we end modern slavery.”

Get Involved: The New York Anti-Trafficking Coalition lobbies for passage of federal legislation based on New York state’s groundbreaking anti-trafficking law. GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services) works with girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. The U.K.-based Helen Bamber Foundation provides medical, psychological, and legal aid to survivors of human trafficking and torture.

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.