DENVER // Most Americans believe slavery ended when it was abolished by the 13th amendment in 1865. But law enforcement agencies across the United States are increasingly battling criminal gangs who have brought the scourge back to life. "It is one of those things that people don't want to believe is happening in this day and age," said Sgt Bruce Carr, a police spokesman in Houston. "It is a hidden problem, but it is happening."
The vast majority of slaves today are illegal immigrants, most of whom are smuggled into the United States and forced to work for the people who brought them here. Another vulnerable group, police and aid workers say, are homeless children and runaways, who get forced into the sex trade and fraudulent door-to-door sales schemes. "It is especially hard to combat because of the nature of the beast," said Sgt Edwin Chapuseaux of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance of Harris County, in southern Texas. "Most of the time it is taking place right under everybody's noses, but it is not obvious and the victims are afraid to contact law enforcement."
In its 2008 annual report on human trafficking, the US state department estimated that tens of thousands of people are trafficked into the United States annually. But the authorities admit they have no idea how many actually become enslaved once they arrive. "We are just touching the outside edge of what we think is happening here," said Sgt John Bandemer, who runs the human trafficking task force of the St Paul Police Department in Minnesota.
Compiling police and media reports over a four-year period, the Washington DC-based group Free the Slaves identified 10,000 people who had been trafficked into the United States and then forced to work off their debts. "But that was just the people who got out," said Kevin Bales, the group's president. "And we know that the clear-up rate on this kind of crime is just minuscule - only about one per cent."
Even if they can escape, the vast majority of people trafficked into the United States rarely report the problem, fearing they will then face deportation under the country's stiff immigration laws. Most of those who find themselves in conditions of slavery are women forced into prostitution or bar work. The authorities say they come from a wide range of countries - from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South East Asia.
The problem has become so severe in recent years that Congress has strengthened penalties for human traffickers and created a special visa for individuals rescued from slavery. Federal agents and local police now work together on anti-trafficking task forces in 42 US cities where the problem is considered most serious. Houston is considered a regional hub for human trafficking, but even there, authorities have been surprised to discover the sheer size of human smuggling operations.
Last April, for example, Texas courts convicted eight people from El Salvador for bringing hundreds of Central American women into the United States illegally and then forcing them to work in five bars and restaurants they owned in Houston to pay off their "transport debts". The women lived in apartments and even kept mobile phones. However, the ringleader, Maximino "El Chimino" Mondragon, had collected detailed information on their families back home. He threatened to kill them if the women ever tried to escape.
"They did not appear to be enslaved, but there were mental chains that tied them," Sgt Chapuseaux said. "When you have that climate of fear you don't need to beat them or use force." Local and federal agents eventually rescued about 120 people enslaved by the Chimino gang. Although Mondragon himself awaits sentencing, his accomplices have received stiff jail sentences, and were forced to repay their victims almost US$1.7 million (Dh6m) in compensation for their work.
Authorities also report rising numbers of teenage girls, most of them from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, being smuggled into the country to work as household help. Men trafficked to the United States who end up in conditions of forced labour are usually Latin Americans forced to work on farms or sweatshops. In addition, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that as many as 10 per cent of the 1.7 US-born children who run away or get thrown out of their homes every year end up in forced labour, usually the sex trade.
"A lot of situations are very exploitative," said Mandy Shotts of the Denver-based outreach group Prax(us). "Victims get moved from state to state, they are poorly fed and paid little." But authorities admit they have had limited success in breaking up the crime rings controlling runaway children, and struggle to reach those affected. "We are utterly swamped with work," Sgt Chapuseaux said. "Unfortunately, slavery is alive and well in the United States today."