Louise Shelley


On her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective

Cover Interview of April 10, 2011

A close-up

Pages 112-138 are on the business of human trafficking.

Organized crime, like all businesses is focused on making a profit, ensuring supply, and meeting demand.  What sets an organized crime business apart is that violence and corruption are innate to its business operations. Human trafficking is very much part of organized crime because the criminals who traffic people rely on coercion, deception, corruption, and brute force at every stage of the business.  Human trafficking businesses worldwide share these common features.  Yet analyses of international business and trade reveal that there are great variations in the business practices of entrepreneurs in different regions of the world.

These economic comparisons are very relevant to this analysis of human trafficking.  The illicit trade in humans mirrors the legitimate economy.  Chinese human traffickers treat their business as a form of trade and a means of generating capital for economic development. Groups from the Soviet successor states treat the trade in women as an exploitable natural resource, such as oil, gas, and timber that is sold without regard to the future.  American pimps who trade in women consume almost all their profits and engage in conspicuous consumption.

Distinctive regional differences in trafficking are not a contemporary phenomenon.  In the past, there was no single model of slavery.  Slavery was different in the American colonies, Brazil, and the Horn of Africa.  Just as the trade in humans was shaped in the past by cultural, geographic, and economic forces, today’s human trafficking is also shaped by these forces as well as historical traditions.

Some groups specialize in human trafficking whereas others commit diverse crimes simultaneously.  Some make more use of corruption and technology, others exploit the absence of effective state controls in their home country.  Still other traffickers use underground banking or commodities to launder their money.  These distinctions are essential in understanding the business operations of human trafficking groups in different regions of the world.

Understanding the nature of the organization is not an intellectual construct.  It is essential if there is to be success in combating human trafficking.  As the great anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone explained, he was able to combat La Cosa Nostra in Sicily only when he profoundly understood its nature.

Unfortunately, Falcone’s understanding of the mafia is not very helpful to the counter-trafficking effort because the mafia has made its money primarily in other areas of criminal activity.  Yet his insight that one must understand the tradition, cultures, and norms of a criminal group in order to effectively fight them should be at the core of any rational policies to counter the business of human trafficking.