Infamous mob boss Al Capone was finally nabbed and jailed on tax evasion charges — not for the number of homicides, conspiracies, and other more serious crimes that he was wanted for at the time. Today, law enforcement agents who fight human trafficking are taking a tip from their forefathers who caught Capone and looking at creative ways to arrest slippery human traffickers. And one of the best tools for that job is finding and identifying money laundering, a crime which often occurs in conjunction with human trafficking.
Money laundering is exactly what it sounds like — cleaning up dirty money. It’s the name for the series of steps criminals take to make ill-gotten gains look legitimate. The term has often been applied to the profits of drug trafficking, but as the trafficking of humans grows in both scope and profitability, money laundering associated with the sale of people is growing as well. Traffickers need to turn the income they earn trafficking, like selling women in a brothel or exploiting the labor of farm workers, into cash they can legally spend and account for. So they use bank transfers, accounting tricks, bribes to public officials, and other tools to hide the source of their income. The good news is, all that laundry leaves quite a paper (or in these days, electronic) trail behind for law enforcement to follow.
For example, police brought down a trafficking ring of at least 21 people based in Austin, who were smuggling and then trafficking women from Central America into the United States. Law enforcement was able to charge 19 of the men involved (three are fugitives) with smuggling and forced labor, and they also used financial documents and information to charge them with money laundering. Having that information gave officers a reason to keep the traffickers off the street while they learned more about the forced labor and other rights violations involved in the case.
But money laundering isn’t the only common bedfellow of trafficking. Often, human trafficking cases involve conspiracy, violations of cross-border or interstate transportation rules, or immigration violations. Cases involving minors may have age of consent issues or violations against soliciting or contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Knowing the crimes which can co-occur with human trafficking can help law enforcement better identify victims and keep the traffickers off the streets. On the other hand, when human trafficking cases are tried as other crimes, it gives us an imperfect picture of the scope of trafficking out there. That’s one of the reasons estimates of human trafficking victims and the actual number of cases are so disparate. Like all tools, money laundering charges can be helpful, but only when used correctly.
Still, if the cops arrested Al Capone for not paying his income tax, then they should be able to find some traffickers who haven’t washed their cash quite thoroughly enough.
Photo credit: Rev Dan Catt