Thursday’s editorial highlights the efforts of the local group battling human trafficking and their efforts to get a more robust law on the subject passed.
It seems a bit surreal as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War to still be talking about the trade in human lives. But 148 years after the Emancipation Proclamation the abomination continues.
In December, a 20-year-old woman in North Charleston told police she was smuggled into the state from Mexico, held against her will and forced to have sex. Others are smuggled in and forced into labor on farms or as household servants. In Myrtle Beach in 2009, police arrested Jorge Flores-Rojas, who operated a sex ring that stretched from the Carolinas up to Washington, D.C.
The Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking was formed to help put an end to such loathsome acts. The group, based in Myrtle Beach, has been working since 2008 to raise the profile of human trafficking and to increase the penalties for those convicted. In that goal, they’ve found an ally in the form of Republican Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach.
Betty Houbion of ECCAHT said that Hardwick was moved to help them after watching the movie “Taken” with his daughter. The movie chronicles the lengths to which a father played by Liam Neeson – a father who happens to be schooled in espionage and black ops – goes to save his daughter from being sold into sex slavery.
The movie is more than a bit far-fetched and exaggerated, as you would expect from Hollywood, but the part that sticks with viewers – and presumably stuck with Hardwick – is the central premise that this form of modern slavery exists, and it exists right under our noses. Houbion said one of the main problems that ECCAHT has encountered is simply convincing people that human trafficking is a problem in our area. “We don’t want to think about it. we don’t want to think that this is happening,” she said.
Nevertheless, as the group’s case files can attest to, this odious crime still exists and occurs in our state and in our county.
"We would be sticking our heads in the sand to think that it wasn’t happening inside of South Carolina," said Lt. Buddy Wilkes with the State Law Enforcement Division at a meeting on the topic in 2010. "I think that awareness and accurate instance numbers go hand in hand. It’s a Catch-22 in some ways. You have to increase awareness to get people to come forward and record accurate statistics. In some ways you have to have those statistics to convince people that it’s a problem they need to be aware of."
That need for awareness is part of the impetus behind the bill that Hardwick has sponsored in the legislature. Combating an issue such as human trafficking requires recognizing the problem and having the resources to devote to solving it. The two go hand in hand, as the resources to fight this crime won’t be made available if law enforcement agencies don’t see it as an issue, and the agencies won’t have the ability to identify traffickers if the resources aren’t made available.
Houbion’s group has put together a file of trafficking cases in the state to prime the pump, so to speak, to drive home the reality of this crime to lawmakers and law enforcement officials. The bill, which is languishing in the House Judiciary Committee, would put more teeth in the movement with the creation of a task force on human trafficking and would devote more resources to the fight, by making asset forfeiture a penalty in trafficking convictions. In effect, the group and Hardwick propose to make convicted traffickers pay, through their forfeited assets, to investigate, arrest and convict the next trafficker in human lives.
As one of the frequent contributors on The Opinion Blog noted, it can be uncomfortable to give the justice system a financial incentive to convict those arrested. But we have faith in our juries, and requiring a conviction before suspects forfeit their assets seems more than fair. This won’t be all it takes to stamp out this repellent leeching, but it is a good step toward that goal.
How to help
Think you see an instance of human trafficking? Call in tips to the national hotline at 1-888-373-7888.