Human trafficking affects millions of people around the world, including in Milwaukee. And federal law views human trafficking as a contemporary form of slavery, says U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger, of the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
“It’s a horrific crime particularly because it involves the exploitation of another human being’s liberty and inflicts lasting damage to its victims,” he explains.
Human trafficking has two forms: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
The crime is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion to get someone to perform labor or services or to get an adult to exchange sex for money. If a minor is exchanging sex for money, the crime is considered trafficking even without the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
Krueger’s office investigates and prosecutes human trafficking offenses — and he's taking time to educate the public.
At a Rotary Club of Milwaukee event on Tuesday, Krueger said both sex and labor trafficking are hard to detect and under-reported. He says that’s in part because traffickers control their victims by instilling a mix of fear and loyalty.
Krueger says there are a lot of misconceptions about the crime – including that it requires moving a victim from one place to another:
“We are selling a human being’s labor or services or sex acts and it does not necessarily require transportation," he says.
Krueger mentions another misconception: that victims are people who’ve come to the U.S. from other countries. He says that's more likely in cases of labor trafficking because it’s easier to exploit people if they don’t have legal immigration status. But he notes that anyone with a vulnerability can be trafficked.
Another misconception is that trafficking is only occurring in other countries, larger cities, or near the U.S.-Mexico border, Krueger says.
“It’s also occurring right here in Milwaukee, throughout the state, [in] suburban and rural areas," he says.
Krueger also addressed Milwaukee’s reputation as a hub for human trafficking. He says the label isn't necessarily accurate if talking about the places with the most trafficking. But he adds that Milwaukee has been home to crime families that have passed on the means and culture of sex trafficking from one generation to another.
And Krueger says a book written by a Milwaukee sex trafficker contributes to Milwaukee’s reputation for the crime. The book includes the sex trafficker's methods of recruiting, grooming and trafficking victims.
"He somehow was able to get published, and has become notorious among traffickers around the country, which has helped raise Milwaukee’s profile among traffickers. It’s horrific,” Krueger says.
Krueger doesn’t want to overstate the problem. But he also doesn’t want to downplay it: “It absolutely exists in our backyards,” he says.
Krueger suggests training sessions be held for the public — in places like schools and workplaces — so people know how to recognize the signs of trafficking.
He also wants the public to learn not to treat the victims as though they’re the guilty ones. He says the victims have been taken advantage of, and they deserve access to services, like substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and housing. Having a safe place to live is important, Krueger explains, so victims don’t feel they have to return to the trafficker.
“We recently had a case in which victims were recovered from their trafficker, and the shortage of housing for women in Milwaukee was a real problem. We had to put the women up in hotels as a short-term solution," he says.