Fighting Chicago’s ‘Traffick’ problem

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Fighting Chicago’s ‘Traffick’ problem


July 25, 2009

Last Sunday evening in the Peace Garden outside Old St. Pat’s Church in Chicago’s West Loop, the weather was perfect.

And the topic at hand anything but.

Standing there on the grassy patch of tranquility adjacent to the 159-year-old cathedral – the only church to survive the Great Chicago Fire – were dozens of people, including many journalists, all in attendance for a vigil in honor of detained American reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

Taken into custody on St. Patrick’s Day near the China-North Korea border while reporting for Current TV on the issue of human trafficking, Lee and Ling were tried and sentenced last month to 12 years of “reform through labor” in a North Korean prison.

News outlets reported on Monday that the U.S. and North Korea have begun “delicate negotiations” regarding the future of Lee and Ling. And one day earlier, it was the hope of those at Old St. Pat’s – including Euna Lee’s husband, with whom she has a 4-year-old daughter – that their future remains bright.

“We appeal for amnesty for Euna and Laura,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said while delivering the opening prayer at the vigil. “That they might be returned to their families, that they be sustained and that their hopes be lifted … Faith will prevail.”

For the victims of the issue of human trafficking – the modern-day form of slavery that exploits vulnerable women, men and children in conditions of sexual and labor servitude that Lee and Ling were investigating – hope, sustenance and faith often are in woefully short supply.

The Chicago-based organization Traffick Free, however, is working to change that. And not only abroad, but right here at home in the Windy City, as well.

“That’s the biggest thing that people are surprised about,” said Nicole Culverson, the public relations lead for Traffick Free. “They all think human trafficking only happens in Third World countries, and not in the United States. Or, in Chicago, in particular.”

On Tuesday evening, as part of its ongoing efforts to raise awareness about the issue, Traffick Free held an outdoor screening of the 2007 film “Trade” at a patio on the Near North Side.

Based on a true story, the movie tells the compelling tale of a 13-year-old Mexico City girl whose abduction by sex traffickers sparks a frantic mission across the U.S. border by her 17-year-old brother to save her.

Depicted in the film are many of the ways that traffickers use the tools of fraud, deception, threats and force to transport people against their will for the purpose of performing commercial sex or labor acts.

The movie also shined light on the fact that human trafficking – on par with illegal weapons transactions as the world’s second largest criminal industry behind drug dealing, according to Traffick Free – is not just a global issue, but a local one, as well.

Last year, the U.S. State Department estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually. Traffick Free reports that as much as $250,000 can be made from one trafficked woman in the U.S. and that, globally, slave traders in 2007 made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks.


In large part because O’Hare Airport is considered a key transit location for traffickers to transport victims and disperse them to other cities and states, the New York Times in 2003 labeled Chicago as a national hub for human trafficking. In 2005, the FBI also designated Chicago as one of 13 locations of “High Intensity Child Prostitution.”

Traffickers also have been known funnel greater numbers of women into Chicago for sexual exploitation when the city is filled with large numbers of spectators or tourists.

The 2016 Olympics, no doubt would be one such occasion. And with Chicago vying for the 2016 bid, a petition was passed around during Tuesday night’s film screening urging the International Olympic Committee to issue a public service announcement regarding human trafficking.

Closer to home, Culverson said Chicago-area residents can do a number of things to raise awareness about human trafficking, both locally and beyond.

“As a consumer, they can make sure that things they purchase are made without trade labor,” she said. “And they can educate themselves and others on the issue by holding movie screenings at home and talking to people at businesses, churches and schools to make everyone aware of human trafficking.

“We just want to get people talking. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

For more information on human trafficking and ways to get involved in raising awareness, visit

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