LAST MONTH, a federal judge in Harlingen, Texas, sentenced Juan Carlos Soto, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, to 23 years in prison. That is the longest allowed under the sentencing guidelines. Any lesser sentence would have been incomprehensible.
With his two brothers and five other men, Soto ran an alien smuggling and transportation operation out of Edinburg. Soto's practice was to smuggle aliens across the Rio Grande, keep them for a short while in safe houses in Edinburg and then move them to points north.
Last year, Soto enhanced his criminality by becoming a slaveowner: He told women (from El Salvador and Honduras) that they couldn't leave his safe houses until they had "worked off" the debt they owed for being smuggled into the United States. Soto meant no such thing. During the day, the women worked as domestics for no pay. When night fell, the raping began.
When two women tried to contact a neighbor for help, Soto and his men took them to an irrigation ditch where they were stripped, beaten and raped. Ordered by Soto to kill the women, his workers instead dropped them off on the outskirts of Edinburg.
Here, the story finally gets better: The women found a stranger who made a call, a local detective investigated, federal agents joined in, cases were brought - and the Sotos and their accomplices were convicted and sentenced. Today, the women are being assisted under federal law.
WHAT SOTO AND HIS GANG DID isn't a singular story. "Trafficking in persons" is a transnational crime in which mostly poor individuals who are unemployed and lack access to social safety nets are lured by the prospect of a better life elsewhere, only to find themselves bought, sold, transported and held, often at gunpoint, for labor and sex exploitation. The government estimates that between 800,000 and 900,000 people are trafficked each year across international borders, with between 18,000 and 20,000 trafficked annually into the United States. Most victims of trafficking are women and children.
In recent weeks, the accuracy of the latter set of numbers has been challenged as too high. But whatever the actual number might be, no one disputes that trafficking into the United States - indeed, it is occurring in almost every state - is a huge problem that the federal government must address. Fortunately, it is doing that in two ways.
First, the State Department is using all of its diplomatic muscle to prevent the victimization of people in the first place. Second, the Justice Department is aggressively enforcing relevant law. Over the last three years, the department has opened 210 trafficking investigations, charged 111 traffickers and convicted or obtained guilty pleas from 77 defendants, 59 of whom were found guilty of sex trafficking in particular.
Never has the Justice Department had numbers higher than those over a comparable period. There are two reasons for that. First, in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, Congress created crimes and enhanced penalties for existing crimes, including forced labor and sex trafficking of children. The additional law means the department has more jurisdiction. So it has more to investigate and perhaps to charge. The second reason is the Justice Department's commitment to going after the Sotos of this world. "There is no greater priority in the civil rights division," says Alexander Acosta, its chief.
The department is finding out that, to the untrained eye, trafficking can appear to be something else. The Soto matter is a case in point.
THE U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE first saw it as only a smuggling matter, unaware of its potential as a trafficking case. An attorney from department headquarters with experience in trafficking cases went to South Texas, reviewed the evidence and saw that trafficking charges should be brought. Across the country, the department is working with community groups (often faith-based) and local law enforcement officials to ensure that they know what trafficking is and the federal laws it transgresses. Mr. Acosta firmly says there will be "a substantial curtailing" of the trafficking into our country. That's a goal politicians left and right, and of both parties, ought to applaud. Human trafficking is a violation of our criminal law and a grievous affront to human dignity.