Author Archives: John Vanek

About John Vanek

I am a sergeant with the San Jose (CA) Police Department. I manage the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force. The Task Force is comprised of various Federal and local law enforcement agencies committed to identifying and rescuing victims of human trafficking. We partner with the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking to provide assistance to trafficking victims. Since 2006 the Task Force and Coalition have trained over 4,000 individuals dedicated to combating modern-day slavery.

Who Can Become a Victim of Human Trafficking?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


If anyone can become a trafficker, anyone can become a victim. The corollary to “human trafficking is limited only by the imagination and coercive power of the trafficker” is that becoming a victim only entails having a need the trafficker appears to fulfill and the inability (real or perceived) to overcome the force, fraud, or coercion applied.

In trafficking cases involving debt-bondage, for example, the victim is repaying a debt through their labor. Often the victim has received something of value from the trafficker. Perhaps the trafficker paid off a small debt or paid the transportation costs for the victim to travel to the place where the work will be performed, with the understanding that this debt will be repaid to the trafficker. The victim feels he owes a debt, and that may be true. But if the debt collector applies force, fraud, or coercion to keep the victim from leaving, then the debt collector becomes a human trafficker, and the debtor a victim of human trafficking.

This example illustrates why Free the Slaves co-founder and author, Kevin Bales, states the easiest way to exploit a person is to offer them a job.[i] People desperate for employment and without other options make good targets for traffickers.

While trafficking victims are often viewed by the public as relatively uneducated, timid, and perhaps unable to care for themselves, the opposite may be true; many victims of trafficking (both globally and domestically) have been empowered through education or by their families to seek a better life than the one available at home. In the course of this pursuit, these individuals can become vulnerable to exploitation.

Wouldn’t it be easier if trafficking victims had a certain appearance or fit a specific demographic? Of course it would, but that simply isn’t the case. No demographic is without risk. Young children, women, men, older adults, those mentally or physically impaired, those with little or no formal education, college students, those in the LGBTQ community—anyone can be victimized. Understanding this fact is critical for those involved in the response to trafficking or with the potential to have contact with trafficking victims.

However, the demographic patterns of verified victims indicate some populations tend to be more vulnerable to being enslaved than others. For example, we know that runaway children are at risk. Police officers who come into contact with runaways should be aware of this risk and inquire whether they have been exploited. Medical providers in regions where agricultural work is prevalent should be aware of whether trafficking occurs and if so, be mindful when coming into contact with farm workers seeking medical assistance. California law mandates police officers to attempt to identify victims of human trafficking when having contact with persons who have been deprived of their liberty, are suspected of engaging in prostitution, or are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. These examples suggest how awareness of these trends can help abolitionists apply a level of multi-faceted critical thinking to their response efforts.

It is worth restating. Anyone can be a trafficker, and anyone can become a victim. Freeing ourselves from stereotypes will help us identify all types of victims exploited through all forms of trafficking.

[i] Ted Talks (Producer). (2010, March 29). Kevin Bales: How to combat modern slavery [Video file]. Available at:

Is Human Trafficking the Most Profitable Type of Crime?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


No. Depending on the method used to analyze different global criminal activities, money laundering (which helps facilitate many different types of crime) generates the highest profits. In terms of specific transnational crime types, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the annual value of drug trafficking at $320 billion.[i]

In their 2014 report, Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, the ILO estimates the worldwide profits from all forms of forced labor (commercial sex and labor and services) are over $150 billion per year.[ii]

As explained in the previous question the ILO estimates 68% of trafficking victims worldwide are exploited via forced labor, while only 22% are victims of forced sexual exploitation. But the profits from these forms of trafficking are reversed: Nearly two-thirds of global profits ($99 billion) come from sex exploitation while $51 billion result from all other forms of forced labor.

In any case, estimating revenue and profit from illicit activities is very difficult. However, somewhere along the way this comparison became part of the conversation (and possibly, part of the justification) in the response to human trafficking.

But does it matter to the slave whether they are a victim of the second or third most profitable type of crime in the world? The discussion of money and trafficking has its place and will be examined later. But a victim of trafficking doesn’t care how profitable global slavery is; they care only about their freedom.

[i] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Transnational organized crime: Let’s put them out of business. Available at

[ii] International Labour Organization. (2014). Profits and poverty: The economics of forced labour. Available at–en/index.htm

How Do We Define & Determine the Use of Force, Fraud, or Coercion.

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

When examining any incident to determine whether it could be considered human trafficking, we must look for force, fraud, or coercion. Only one of these elements needs to be present, not all three. When examining an incident to determine whether a person should be considered a victim of trafficking, we must establish how force, fraud, or coercion was used to obtain the commercial sex act or labor or service from the victim.

When looking for force, fraud, or coercion, we must look at it from the victim’s perspective, or state of mind. The degree of force needed to make one person do something they don’t want to do may be far greater, or far less, for any given individual. As a result, determining the type of force, fraud, or coercion—and the extent, or degree, to which it was used—in the case of a trafficking victim is especially difficult. Investigators and prosecutors seeking proof of force, fraud, or coercion must examine the evidence in detail and will often find, for example, that fraud is difficult to distinguish from coercion. Because even professionals debate among themselves what constitutes force, fraud, or coercion, illustrating each element in more detail can be helpful.

Force is the use, or potential use, of physical power or violence. Physically assaulting or threatening to assault a victim in order to force them to perform an act of labor or commercial sex is the most common example of force. A trafficker need not actually assault the victim; simply threatening to assault the victim can constitute force. Also, violence threatened against another person can be considered force—even if the trafficker does not have the ability to actually commit the violence—so long as the victim reasonably believes they do. For example, a trafficker may threaten to harm a victim’s family if the victim does not comply with the trafficker’s demands. Even if the victim’s family is located in another state or country and the trafficker has no realistic way to carry out the threat, if the victim reasonably believes the threat is real, this threat can be regarded as force (or coercion, as we will learn).

Force can also be seen as constraint if, for example, a victim is locked in a sweat shop and forced to sew clothing. But constraint does not always mean being locked in a room; a victim who is not allowed to eat if they do not perform or complete their labor is constrained from eating; often, victims of street-level commercial sex trafficking are not allowed by their pimp or trafficker to eat until they have performed a certain number of “tricks” (i.e., performed sex acts with a purchaser).

In legal terms, fraud commonly refers to misrepresenting facts through words or conduct, or by concealing or omitting facts that should have been disclosed with the intention to deceive another person. Perhaps the most common method of recruiting a slave is simply offering them a job. If a trafficker offers a job they know does not, in fact, exist, or if they lie about the working conditions and salary of a job, they are using fraud to obtain the victim’s labor or services. Let’s say a trafficker offers a woman a job working as a domestic servant in another country and offers to pay the transportation costs, which the woman will repay through her earnings. The trafficker promises the victim a certain salary and work conditions. However, when the victim arrives she finds she is forced to work more hours or for less pay than originally promised. The victim may feel compelled to continue to work simply because she does not have the money to return home or because she is hopeful conditions will improve. If it can be shown that the trafficker never intended to pay the victim as offered, this could constitute fraud.

Fraud can also lead to the use of force. Suppose the trafficker in the above scenario offers the same woman the same job, but the trafficker knows, in reality, no such job exists and when the woman arrives she will be forced to work in a brothel to “repay” the transportation costs. When the woman refuses to work in the brothel, violence is used (or threatened) to force the woman to work. Fraud was used to get the woman to voluntarily travel from her home to the country in which the commercial-sex exploitation occurs, and force was used to compel her to do work she did not want to do.

Traffickers also defraud victims by telling them the salary they will earn will be paid to family members, yet the earnings are never sent to the family. The trafficker is obtaining labor from the victim who works willingly, believing their family is receiving the money. In this scenario, the trafficker will have to monitor any communication between the victim and their family so the ruse will not be discovered. Despite the fact that the labor in this case is provided willingly and the victim is not constrained or threatened with force, this situation meets the definition of human trafficking.

Coercion can be a more difficult element to understand. Luckily the term is defined in the United States Code, Title 22, Chapter 78, § 7102.[i]

The term “coercion” means—

  1. threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person;
  2. any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or
  3. the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

The definition speaks to “threats of serious harm” or a “pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm.” Coercion does not require an actual act of violence; coercion is used to control a victim’s state of mind, or their perceptions, and gain compliance through fear. It is also important to understand that the threatened harm can be against “any person” and not necessarily against the victim. A trafficker may threaten to harm a victim’s family member, and if the victim complies with the trafficker based upon the fear his family member may be harmed, that equals coercion.

This example also illustrates how the terms “force” and “coercion” can both be used to describe the same activity, in this case threats of physical violence made by the trafficker. This overlap can lead to confusion, but the exact legal definition of these terms is most important to prosecutors and should not interfere with our general definition of human trafficking.

Section C of the definition of coercion refers to “the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.” A common example of this form of coercion occurs when a foreign national victim either arrives in the United States without legal documentation or enters the United States on a valid short-term visa but then overstays the visa’s time frame (i.e., they do not leave the United States before their visa expires), and their traffickers threaten to turn them over to law enforcement or immigration authorities. The trafficker might tell the victim she will be imprisoned for being in the United States illegally. If the victim continues to perform the commercial sex acts, labor, or services, as demanded by the trafficker because of her fear of being imprisoned, she is being coerced. The supreme irony of this scenario is that the TVPA created victim protections to stop exactly this type of coercion! (These protections will be discussed in Chapter 4.)

In truth, most incidents of human trafficking involve some degree of two or even all three elements of force, fraud, or coercion. And though the TVPA does not require force, fraud, or coercion in incidents where the victim is under age 18 and involved in commercial sex, any force, fraud, or coercion used should be investigated and documented by investigators. (After receiving proper training it should be easy for investigators to articulate these criminal elements.) Mastering these terms is especially important for investigators and prosecutors since many laws have greater prison sentences for traffickers who use force, fraud, or coercion. For instance, under California law, a trafficker who exploits a minor through a commercial sex act—and whose use of force, fraud, coercion, fear, duress, or other means are not shown in court—can be sentenced to 5, 8, or 12 years in prison. However, if the investigator can articulate how force, fraud, and/or coercion were used to compel the victim, the trafficker can receive a sentence ranging from 15 years to life!

These are just some common examples of how modern slaves are compelled by their traffickers to perform sex acts or labor. Every instance of trafficking must be closely examined on its own merits. Sometimes, when a trafficking incident is suspected, the most difficult part of the process is simply identifying the form and degree of force, fraud, or coercion involved.

[i] Trafficking Victims Protection, U.S. Code Chapter 78, § 7102. (2000). Available from Cornell University Law School:

How is Human Trafficking Defined?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines human trafficking as the following.

  1. Sex Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and
  2. Labor Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Several important elements of this definition need to be clearly understood. The most obvious is that there are two different categories of human trafficking, with distinct specifications. Note that both include the words “force, fraud, or coercion,” which are addressed in detail later. However, there is a key distinction between these definitions. When the type of trafficking is commercial sex and the “person induced to perform such act”—the victim—is under the age of 18, no force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown. Yet, in the specification for labor trafficking, force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown regardless of the age of the victim.

The first category in the definition of human trafficking addresses “commercial sex acts,” not sex acts in general. A commercial sex act is defined in the TVPA as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” So to be considered human trafficking, the incident must include a commercial element; something of value must be given or received. This requirement distinguishes human trafficking from, for example, rape or other forms of sexual assault where no commercial element exists. Value is often represented by money but can be satisfied by anything of recognizable value.

For now, there are three important reasons to understand these basic definitions. First, when discussing human trafficking, we must all have a mutual understanding of the definition. Second, when potential victims of human trafficking are identified, these definitions set the criteria used to classify them as victims of trafficking, which then allows them access to specialized benefits and reliefs available to trafficking victims by law. Finally, this definition is the standard by which individual state laws are measured, with most states using similar language in their statutory definition of human trafficking.

Two other points to clarify: The TVPA uses the term “severe forms of trafficking in persons,” implying there are forms of trafficking less than “severe.” This language causes confusion, but any case of human trafficking involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion is considered “severe.” Also keep in mind that this definition is not a criminal statute used to prosecute traffickers. Both federal and state statutes exist which address more specific elements of the crime of human trafficking and their associated monetary and penal penalties.

In short, human trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain commercial sex acts or other labor or services—with the exception that when the type of trafficking is commercial sex, and the victim is under 18, no force, fraud, or coercion need be shown.

Two Important Human Trafficking Grant Opportunities

This is important if you have an interest in obtaining federal funding for a Human Trafficking Task Force, or for serving victims of trafficking. The two grants listed below are the largest grant programs in the country. This year they have been released earlier than usual! That means the deadline for submissions are earlier – late February!!

The Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking grant is the “task force” grant; it funds a local law enforcement agency and a local victim services provider for a total of $1.5 million for three years. You must have MOUs with the USAO, and either the FBI or HSI. Submission Due: Feb 27th

The Comprehensive Services to Victims of All Forms of Human Trafficking funds a service provider up to $750,000 for three years. Submission Due: Feb 21st

Please excuse a little self-promotion: Since 2012 I have been a peer-reviewer on the Enhanced Collaborative Model grant (that means I’m scoring them). One of the most common errors (and, consequently, loss of points) is due to the writer’s lack of understanding of many general issues within human trafficking, particularly on the issue of statistics. If you, or your grant writer, needs to enhance your knowledge of trafficking, I recommend you read my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery. The Kindle version is 50% off during January. It will help you write a much better submission.

So if you want to get federal funding (or continue your funding if you are already a part of either of these programs), get to work! Time is very short this year!

Best wishes for successful submissions!


Backpage Shutters Adult Ads Section: What Happens Next?

Backpage shuts down adult ad section, citing government pressure and unlawful censorship campaign.

Of course this story is making news today, especially within the anti-trafficking community. But is also raises the debate – among many passionate people within the community – on the real value of this action. (If you read the article you will see a quote from the founder of Children of the Night who considers this a loss of a valuable investigative tool – just one argument among many.)

If we want to know what will really result from this shutdown, we need only look at what happened after Craigslist shuttered their Adult Services section in 2010.

First, Backpage (just like Craigslist) shut down these ads ONLY in the United States, so the impact on trafficking (and the loss of revenue) is domestic, not global.

Next; someone, somewhere, at this very moment is desperately building a platform to replace the void from Backpage’s departure – just as Backpage filled the void when Craigslist exited. Both Federal and local law enforcement officials (who actually work HT cases) will tell you that both Craigslist and Backpage were typically very helpful to law enforcement, quickly responding to subpoenas and other requests for help. Yes, this is a little like playing with the devil, but a cooperative devil, at least.

There are several other online platforms buyers of sex can access, many of which are private and require membership to access (My Redbook was among the most infamous until they were indicted). Pushing the advertising further underground can create operational and financial challenges for many law enforcement agencies. When these companies operate off-shore, they can thumb their noses at law enforcement, which may be powerless to act against them.

Looking back to 2010, there is scant evidence that shutting down Craigslist’s Adult Services section had any real impact. We will have to wait and see what the real impact will be here.

My point is not to defend Backpage, Craigslist, or any other advertiser; it is to point out the complexity in these issues (and tactics) within the anti-trafficking community.

I addressed this issue in my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery. (See the special offer notice below.)  I’ll end here quoting the final paragraph from my answer to the question: What was the impact of shutting down the Craigslist Adult Services section?

“Not all anti-trafficking initiatives actually reduce human trafficking, or are they always intended to. Analyzing the potential consequences and looking for unforeseen consequences are both critical steps when exploring potential anti-trafficking actions. Some efforts raise public awareness; other improve the response of law enforcement or service providers. And some efforts arise from the simple moral ground that requires us to act if we oppose slavery. But, however worthy these aspirations, they do not guarantee our efforts will always have a tangible outcome.”

**January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. To help educate others about modern slavery, during January the Kindle version of The Essential Abolitionist is 50% off on Amazon. **

New Data on Youth in the Sex Trade, Everyone Should Read

Two of the most commonly promoted “facts” about the human trafficking of children within the United States tell us “100,000-300,000 children are at risk of sex trafficking every year in the United States” and, “the average age of entry into the sex trade is between 12-14 years of age.” Both of these estimates are, in fact, based upon outdated and fuzzy research. Even the authors of the report from which the “100,000-300,000” estimate is based have stated their findings should not be promoted. Yet these myths (and others) persist at an alarming rate.

But a new report (supported in part by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) gives us fresh information on this topic. And based upon this research effort, the two trafficking myths of at-risk youth and age of entry into the sex trade are seriously challenged.

Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, is the result of interviewing 949 individuals (respondents), age 13-24, in six regions across the United States: Atlantic City, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, and the San Francisco Bay Area (including Oakland and the South Bay/San Jose area). Researchers focused on the exchanging of sex for money, food, housing, drugs, or other goods. While looking for data on youth involvement in the sex trade, the researchers rightly understood that the issue of youth involvement doesn’t end when the youth turns 18, which is why the interviews included subjects up to age 24. The researchers also factored in arrest data, and examined the intersection of youth with law enforcement and service provision agencies.

As the report relates to the two myths mentioned above, the research found that 77% of those interviewed first exchanged sex for goods under age 18; the average age being 15.8 years.

But the most striking finding suggests that the number of children engaged in the sex trade is 10,506 — far less than the “100,000-300,000” estimate promoted as fact for so long. The researchers acknowledge that this number is not precise: the number could be as low as 4,457 or as high as 20,994.

The researchers were focused on the dynamics of youth involved in the trading of sex for money or goods, not solely those being exploited by a pimp or trafficker. Using a liberal definition of pimp, the researchers believe their data more likely over-estimates the prevalence of pimps. While it is striking that only 15% of respondents reported having a pimp, the researchers make clear the line separating force, fraud, and coercion from complete consensual involvement is hazy: “The population is often involved in complex social relationships that, for a vast majority, does not involve direct coercion, control, or force–but often involves others who find themselves in broadly analogous positions in the underground economy.” (Executive Summary, p. xv)

So what does this mean for those of us involved in the response to trafficking? Do we reduce our efforts because–potentially–far fewer youth are at risk than previously believed? Of course not! We will not rest as long as anyone, anywhere, is at risk of exploitation or enslavement. While all research includes the caveat that the data is only a sampling and that more research is needed, we should take this data to heart as we develop and implement strategies and programs to reduce all forms of trafficking and aid all types of victims.

We should also bury outdated and baseless “facts” that misrepresent the work we do, and often preys on the emotions of donors and others from whom we seek support. This report should be studied by all involved in the response to trafficking.


Note: The two myths described above are among many promoted by well-meaning groups and organizations within the anti-trafficking community. As a result, in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery, I devote an entire chapter to myths and misconceptions. As an abolitionist community, we need to share with others the best information we have, or explain why we don’t have better information. Using bad data reflects upon our community as a whole. When quoting or promoting data or estimates please make sure your information is reliable and based upon sound research.