Nearly 350 victims of modern-day slavery have been rescued as part of a coordinated police raid across 13 countries in the Americas.
The anti-trafficking raids were conducted by The International Criminal Police Organization, also known as Interpol. In a statement on Monday, April 30, the organization said over 500 police officers were involved.
“Operations like this show the power of INTERPOL providing a platform for the 13 participating countries, but what sits behind these numbers is the human story,” Interpol Executive Director of Police Services Tim Morris said in a statement. “Whether it is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter, there is an intensely personal story that is usually—unfortunately—accompanied by a lot of suffering,” Morris added.
Officers also arrested 22 people and seized computer equipment, mobile phones, travel documents, and cash.
The raids follow remarks President Donald Trump made last month that human trafficking has reached record levels. He said that it’s “worse than it’s ever been in the history of the world.”
The victims, comprising men, women, and children, were found working in nightclubs, farms, mines, factories, and open-air markets. Some worked in extremely cramped conditions. Traffickers often target desperate and vulnerable members of society with the promise of a better life.
“What traffickers don’t advertise are the working conditions their victims will be subject to once their final destination is reached,” Cem Kolcu, coordinator of Interpol’s Trafficking in Human Beings unit, said in a statement. “During this operation, we identified women being forced to work out of spaces no bigger than coffins, for example.”
In one case, young women in Guyana were discovered working as prostitutes next to remote gold mines where escape was all but impossible. These isolated locations also make it difficult for police to conduct raids, as perpetrators often have enough time to act and move the victims beforehand.
Another case in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines highlights how traffickers maintain control and power by confiscating travel documents from victims. The Asian “employees” at one factory had their passports taken away and had never received any wages. They relied on their handlers for everything including housing, transport, food, and the most basic necessities, according to Interpol.
“I was concerned when I read about the conditions of how off-the-grid those people were,” Denise Brennan, professor at Georgetown University, told NBC News. “Those conditions can lead to employers exploiting with impunity with no one watching. It can be both a technique to abuse and intimidate.”
Victims were freed in Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Curacao, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Venezuela.
The operation was the culmination of a two-and-a-half year project funded by Canada.