Rod Keller has the latest developments for us in a situation that flared up on Friday…
On Friday, Mike Rinder revealed that the FBI was planning to take part in an event held by a Scientology front group.
The Scientology front “United for Human Rights” had announced a “Voice for the Voiceless” seminar in Clearwater, Florida at Scientology’s “spiritual mecca,” the Flag Land Base, to be presented by an FBI agent from the Tampa office speaking about combating the crime of human trafficking.
Former Scientologists deluged the FBI with phone calls and the event was canceled.
The presenter was to be FBI Special Agent Maritza Conde-Vasquez, and I spoke to her after the cancellation on the condition that I not reference the event, to which I agreed. Ms. Conde-Vasquez has appeared on the Dr. Phil show, MSNBC Undercover and local news programs and has worked to raise awareness of human trafficking issues since at least 2005, mostly in the Houston, Texas area. I asked her about the definition of human trafficking and aspects that may be used to determine if trafficking is taking place.
Q: Does the FBI consider human trafficking equivalent to slavery, and are these terms synonymous?
A: In terms of public awareness they are, but for it to be considered human trafficking by the FBI it needs to comply with federal statutes. In our awareness efforts we refer to it as modern slavery or contemporary slavery, but in the legal sense when we charge somebody with human trafficking it needs to be under the applicable federal statutes.
Q: What aspects would lead to a determination that human trafficking is taking place? Would a victim being paid no more than a subsistence wage and being prevented from leaving indicate human trafficking?
A: It’s one of the elements. Within the statutes in order to prove human trafficking is occurring you have to consider if the victims are not being paid, or are being paid very little. We do find some victims who are being paid, so there are other elements in specific cases that would make it a human trafficking case. You can’t generalize, these elements are very case-specific.
Q: Would access to communication with the outside, such as mail being read or phone calls being listened to be an aspect that indicates trafficking?
A: It could be, but again human trafficking cases are very fact specific. It could be in one case, and not in another. It all depends on the circumstances the victim is going thorough.
Q: How about food quality and quantity being used as a punishment? Would that be one of the factors?
A: It could be.
Q: How about if there is a procedure followed by captors to recover a victim if they try to leave? Would that indicate trafficking?
A: Some traffickers have procedures in place, and others do not. I can’t generalize and we need to look at all the factors that are present in a particular case.
Q: Would it surprise you to know that all of the factors I just mentioned have been alleged to have happened to them by former members of the Church of Scientology? That former members have said that they were victims of human trafficking?
A: I’m not familiar with those conditions. I thought we were going to be talking about human trafficking. I’m afraid I can’t answer your question as I’m not familiar with the conditions you are talking about. Anybody who believes they are a victim of human trafficking should report it to the FBI. Our doors are open to that sort of complaint. We will listen, and we will interview the victims and accept the case.
Q: Are you familiar with an investigation done by the Tampa office of the FBI into human trafficking by the Church of Scientology?
A: We don’t comment on our investigations whether they exist or not. That’s our policy.
Q: Former members of Scientology have reported meeting with the Tampa office of the FBI regarding allegations of human trafficking. Are you aware of that?
A: The FBI doesn’t comment on whether or not any former members came here, or whether there is an investigation or not.
If the Conde-Vasquez was aware of the Tampa office’s previous investigation of Scientology, she didn’t let on. (And we know it took place because we’ve talked to people who were interviewed for the investigation by agents out of the Tampa office.)
The canceled event was to be held at the Youth for Human Rights office in downtown Clearwater. When Scientology doesn’t have enough youth in attendance, the organization operates under the name United for Human Rights. The organization promotes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” And yet Scientology’s Sea Organization exhibits many indicators of human trafficking, the modern form of slavery.
One indicator I didn’t discuss in the interview is the concept of Debt Bondage, in which victims of human trafficking are held in their position by debts to their captors that they may never be able to pay off. The Sea Org version of debt bondage is called “Freeloader Debt” in which the Scientologist accumulates a debt for services they receive such as auditor training, security checks and the like. Also, there are numerous stories that Sea Org members are sometimes called “coins” and traded like property between different bases.
The U.S. State Department says that human trafficking occurs when a captor uses “force or physical threats, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, deception, or other coercive means to compel someone to work.” It is considered irrelevant whether the victim consents to the arrangement, such as the billion-year contract signed by members of the Sea Org.
In the U.S. the main statute under which human trafficking charges can be brought is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which establishes severe penalties for human traffickers, with no statute of limitations. Amendments to the Act allow captors to be prosecuted under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute.
— Rod Keller
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