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Fighting the scourge of human trafficking

Deputy Elizabeth Fildes talks about human trafficking to UB law students and faculty. Photo: UB Law Links


Published April 17, 2014

“Where does the sex-trafficking business thrive? Everywhere. There is not one place that’s free from it.”
Elizabeth Fildes, program director
Human Trafficking Division, Erie County Sheriff’s Office

A veteran sheriff’s deputy recently took UB law students and faculty on a tour of human trafficking — the equivalent of modern-day slavery — during a troubling presentation that set forth some legal and practical tools for bringing traffickers to justice.

Sponsored by the Latin American Law Students Association and the Buffalo Human Rights Center, the March 31 presentation drew about two dozen people to the Cellino & Barnes Conference Center in O’Brian Hall. The featured speaker was Elizabeth Fildes, program director for the Human Trafficking Division in the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.

The crime, Fildes said, is largely one of the sexual exploitation of girls, women and boys. “Where does the sex-trafficking business thrive? Everywhere,” she said. “There is not one place that’s free from it. It’s in suburban neighborhoods, large cities, hamlets and villages, rural farmland. And many times law enforcement as well as attorneys don’t know what to look for. It is the second-largest moneymaking crime in the world. Drug trafficking is No. 1, human trafficking is No. 2, weapons are No. 3.”

And, she said, “traffickers are figuring out that it’s easier to sell people in the United States of America than it is to sell drugs. If we don’t do something about this horrific crime, I have a feeling that human trafficking will be No. 1 and that drugs will go to No. 2.”

The stories are heartbreaking, and Fildes said it’s important for police and attorneys to know the power dynamics involved: Fearful victims don’t always tell the truth. She told of one incident on Grand Island in which officers observed a traffic violation and stopped a car with two men and, in the back seat, a “frightened-looking girl” whose winter coat didn’t quite conceal the lingerie she wore underneath. The officer radioed for backup and, Fildes said, did the right thing — removed the young woman from the situation before questioning her. “If you ask a question in front of the traffickers, she’ll say nothing happened,” the deputy said. “Don’t ask one question in the vehicle. Many of these girls have already witnessed beatings, if they haven’t been beaten themselves.”

Bringing a case for human trafficking, she said, requires three elements: a “process action,” such as recruiting or moving a person from place to place; the use of force, fraud or coercion; and that these actions are for the purpose of involuntary servitude or sexual exploitation. “There has to be money or services connected to this crime in order for it to be human trafficking,” she said.

The problem isn’t limited to sexual exploitation, Fildes said. Many immigrants are smuggled into the United States by “coyotes” from Mexico or “snakehead” gangs from China, then must repay the criminals’ fee — typically $14,000 for Mexican nationals and $75,000 for Chinese. “They are forced into a situation where they must work every day to pay off the debt,” she said.

Prosecutors have some legal tools at their disposal, Fildes said, including federal trafficking-prevention laws passed in the first decade of the 21 century, and Section 230 of the New York State Penal Law, which covers patronizing a prostitute and labor trafficking. Law enforcers can also invoke state Education Law, Section 6512, which makes it a felony to practice massage therapy without a state-issued license.

But the delicate art of coaxing the truth out of frightened victims must come first. “When we talk to victims, we don’t get the real story the first time around,” Fildes said. “I wear jeans and sometimes a sweatshirt with characters on it, and I use a low voice because I have to come to their level. I’ve got to work with everyday people, kids, and if I dress up they’re not going to be able to deal with me. I have to work with them where they’re at in order to start building rapport. At times it’s five or six months before I start to get truthful answers.

“The worst of the worst kind of crime is the kind where you take a person’s voice away from them, their freedom, and the simple choices that we take for granted. We want to give them a voice and we want to assist them through the process. But this takes a lot of work and this work is not easy. It’s very time-consuming, difficult work, and it’s very emotional.”