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Why Is Homeland Security Chasing Pedophiles?


Reporting From the Field


I recently had the privilege of attending a conference where one of our partner organizations, Thai law enforcement, representatives from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and staffers of U.S. Congressional members committed to fighting trafficking all participated. In the meeting, law enforcement officials briefed the Congressional staffers on their most recent counter-trafficking efforts and they shared their successes in investigating and prosecuting cases of known traffickers, with a shared determination to bringing traffickers to justice both in Thailand and in the traffickers’ home countries. The collaboration is ground-breaking, and it appears to be effective. What initially struck me, however, was how much talk was devoted to capturing and prosecuting pedophiles.

I find it very heartening that trafficking is now framed as a security threat and a threat to U.S. interests, as it is symptomatic of a system in which corruption is endemic, it contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law, and it even appears to be linked to terrorism, which explains why it falls under HSI’s purview. From the TIP Report to awareness-raising campaigns to training members of other industries (such as the transportation industry and first responders) to recognize potential victims, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State have made great strides in tackling the problem and we are very grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.

But where do pedophiles fit in the larger picture of trafficking? While clearly it is important to stop child exploitation wherever it exists, does chasing pedophiles fit more under the purview of local law enforcement or does it really hit at the heart of trafficking? Does chasing pedophiles merely pad the number of cases and have the appearance of making a contribution to ending trafficking writ large? Or are pedophiles simply the low-hanging fruit of counter-trafficking efforts?

As I am not privy to the details of these investigations, I don’t want to speculate on whether the pedophiles they have caught are also traffickers, selling children to others as well as exploiting them for their own use, let alone whether pedophile, which is a clinical diagnosis, is even the correct term for these child abusers who may or may not have been professionally diagnosed. Nor do I wish to criticize law enforcement efforts from my limited vantage point. It may be true that HSI collaborates only on cases that clearly fit the trafficking mold, while other agencies devote their resources to other kinds of child exploitation. These distinctions weren’t clearly expressed in the meeting. I merely raise the question because, as an NGO committed to preventing trafficking, I believe we have a stake in trying to find out exactly how trafficking happens, whether and how the nature of the beast is shifting, and whether law enforcement is chipping at the fringes, or striking an effective blow.

The fact that I, as someone who has been working in the field for several years, am raising these questions serves to illustrate the murky and complex nature of trafficking, which is rife with presumptions and stereotypes that don’t always match reality. Law enforcement officials might have good cause to focus on pedophiles, but the lack of clarity on this topic illustrates three reasons why trafficking is such a complicated phenomenon, and why it’s often difficult to coordinate prevention and intervention efforts. These three factors are as follows:

There is no heart of trafficking. The question of whether chasing pedophiles gets to the heart of trafficking is a loaded one–it presumes there actually is a heart of trafficking. Globally, exploitation is rampant because it is both profitable and easy to hide. It attracts anyone willing to use a child to make a buck; it’s not just the stereotypical mafia-run enterprise you see on TV. It’s also families selling their own relatives, it’s friends encouraging other friends to join them in making quick money, it’s children offering themselves as their only escape from something they consider worse, it’s mom and pop operations selling fruit in the front of their store and children in a locked room at the back. More and more now, it is going online, where it can be even easier to hide. There is no head of the serpent to cut off, no heart to strike. If it is true that individuals working alone contribute just as much as, if not more than, traditional organized crime, then perhaps law enforcement’s only hope is to catch enough criminals that it sends a message to others that, finally, exploitation is no longer worth the risk.

Communication is vital, and difficult. While law enforcement is not beholden to NGOs nor responsible for issuing regular progress reports, having better clarity about the nature of the problem would help foster inter-agency collaboration. Just as it would be much simpler if traffickers were a network with a centralized head at the top, so too would counter-trafficking efforts be more efficient and effective if those working in this space operated as a network in concert with each other. But that is not how it works at this time. Efforts are being made to move in this direction, but not nearly enough. Law enforcement efforts are, to some extent, piecemeal, and so are anti-trafficking efforts–especially where we work. There are no clear channels of communication, and the protection of privacy and personal safety means many actors must work with some degree of secrecy. This means each organization tends to work in their limited domains and tries to fight the problem where they see it. For us, the kids we see are most vulnerable to the lure of selling themselves and being encouraged (though not exactly forced) by people they trust to sell themselves. But if law enforcement sees the problem as primarily driven by pedophiles seducing and coercing children, then there is a clear disconnect between prevention and intervention efforts. We need to find ways to advance greater communication between law enforcement and the NGOs that wish to help. If law enforcement has real cause to be concerned about pedophiles as traffickers, then we need better communication so we are not just shooting in the dark, or worse, working at cross purposes.

We need systemic responses. Aside from the lack of centralized networks, another major reason we tend to work in piecemeal is that the causes of exploitation are so vast, and the willingness of governments and civil society to combat it does not match the scale of the problem. Until we can hit a striking blow to the causes of exploitation, NGO and law enforcement efforts will constantly be playing a game of catch up. Until we as a global society really investigate the tough questions about what causes demand (including psychological and emotional needs) and can provide healthier alternatives, there will always be someone there to supply. Until we can effectively deal with poverty, displacement, racism, undocumented peoples, corruption, and marginalization, we will always be putting people in places of vulnerability and stripping them of options. This is how we as a global community are complicit. If we continue to say these problems are not our problems, then we continue to contribute to the problem of trafficking.

Unless we deal with the systems that perpetuate exploitation, making it so easy and lucrative, we’ll be stuck chasing individual traffickers and pedophiles. Until then, that may be the best and the most we can ask of law enforcement.



Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Blog Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.

Meet the Woman Behind Counter-Trafficking in Chiang Mai

Boom Bean -12 copy

One of the leading figures in the counter-trafficking movement in Northern Thailand, Boom Bean is the founder and Director of The HUG Project (and its offshoot, the ACT Center), which is a multidisciplinary team involved in the protection of victims and investigation of cases of abused and sexually exploited children. She collaborates with Police Lt. Col. Apichart Hattasin of the northern Thai division of the Royal Thai Police, who is devoted to investigating, arresting, and prosecuting traffickers and other perpetrators of violence against children. To date, the HUG Project/ACT Center has been involved in the rescue of approximately 40-60 children per year who have been sexually abused, trafficked, or otherwise exploited, and many other cases are currently under investigation. Boom Bean also helps train staff, volunteers, and members of other counter-trafficking organizations on raising awareness and on how to work with children who have been victims of abuse. She was nominated for the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in January 2014, and she has been one of TEDx Chiang Mai’s speakers on human trafficking in Northern Thailand. We’re thrilled to speak with her about the phenomenal work she’s doing.


Khun Boom, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us about your experience and perspective. Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to where you are now?

I grew up with a single mother and never knew my father. I had grown up knowing about sexual abuse from someone very close to me and I was never sure how to respond to it, so I remained silent. At university, I studied English Literature and, as part of the major, I read various books based on true stories of children being abused. I enjoyed working with children, so I initially chose a career in teaching language (Thai and English) to children and university students. Many of these students would often come to me and tell me their stories of abuse.

In 2011, I began researching, reading, attending trainings, and doing volunteer work on the abuse of children. It was during this time that I became aware of the issue of human trafficking. I felt called to be more involved in counter human trafficking efforts, so I decided to start a non-profit organization focusing on counter human trafficking. A few months later, the HUG Project was founded, HUG being the northern Thai word for love.

When I first started the HUG Project, it was with the intention of creating prevention mechanisms for children and staff through trainings and awareness activities. Throughout the trainings, I regularly heard children and adults share stories of abuse. Consequently, my team started to focus more on the protection and intervention side of human trafficking — the investigation and prosecution of traffickers and or perpetrators. Much of the investigation was done myself, with support from my team. At the beginning of 2013, the police on the team arrested a foreign pedophile who had been preying on street children. Following the arrest, Police Lt. Col. Apichart Hattasin and the HUG Project officially founded The Big Brother Project. Our goal was to protect, empower and restore children who have been exploited and abused, or who are at risk. The Big Brother Project (in collaboration with the ACT Center) works with children who may not be eligible for other programs due to the complexity of their specific issues.

Boom Bean -12 copyPhoto credit: US Embassy Chiang Mai

What are two or three of the biggest challenges you face?

One big challenge is putting a good case together to make sure that justice is served for victims. In Thailand, victims are the key witnesses, so you need very strong evidence, which can be difficult to collect, and you need victims who are willing and able to cooperate throughout the process.

The restoration time for victims of human trafficking and child abuse is also very challenging. They have been through an extremely traumatic experience, and may not understand that they are victims, and sometimes resist the process. It takes a lot of time, energy, patience, and dedication.

If you could change one thing to help end trafficking in Thailand, what do you think would be most effective?

I would like to see the educational system (schools) start reporting children who skip school, and I want to see authorities work together to prevent children from dropping out of school. Many of the victims that we work with dropped out of school at an early age. We need to come up with better and much more effective strategies and mechanisms to prevent children from dropping out of school and to keep them within the education system.

Please tell us about a case that stayed with you, affected you, or changed you in some way. What happened and how did it change you?

Every case will take something out of you. My very first case involved a young girl who dropped out of school in her early teens when her father’s life and money became consumed with alcohol. She began to go out late at night and started serving drinks and dancing at bars. Then a friend of hers told her she could make a lot more money selling her body for sex. She was connected with a “friend” who promised a certain salary if she worked for him, but as often happens, traffickers’ promises were not all they seemed to be. She earned far less than promised, but she had seen what could happen to her if she tried to leave, so leaving was not an option. It was at this point that I met her. The volunteers on our team opened our home to her and enrolled her in school.

This was the first time in her life that she encountered structure and boundaries, and she did not care for it. However, each time she ran away, we convinced her to come back. Each time she relapsed, we showed grace and forgiveness. She is now in school and doing well (and is one of SOLD’s scholarship students), and she is back at home with her father who now has a stable job. In the meantime, we continue our efforts to bring her traffickers to justice. But she still has a life-long road towards restoration. She has begun a life of healing, not only from the physical abuse, but she also seeks the kind of healing that can only be given by the grace of God.

This experience taught me that we can’t really change people, but we can motivate them to change themselves.

What are you most proud of?

I am always happy and proud to see children that I work with grow to become healthy, independent individuals, and to see them serve others!

If there were one thing you could tell foreigners before they come visit Thailand or before they try to get involved in supporting the anti-trafficking movement, what would you want them to know?

My encouragement would be that there is no single best method in fighting this crime. We must work together. What works in their home country may not work in Thailand. I want to encourage people to support the local people to help fight this crime in a way that is effective and sustainable.


**Note: The ACT Center is a recently launched pilot initiative to triangulate efforts between various governments (including the U.S.), NGOs, and local police officials to counter trafficking in the region. To find out more, read this article in Chiang Mai City Life Magazine.