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AMERICAN MORNING

Interview With Peter Landesman

Aired January 23, 2004 - 08:15   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Some human rights organizations say sex trafficking has reached epidemic proportions worldwide. At the United Nations last September, President Bush called it a global scourge alongside AIDS.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Each year an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold or forced across the world's borders. Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls and others as young as five who fall victim to the sex trade.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Legislation has been passed to prevent government tolerance of the sex trade business overseas, but sex trafficking hasn't always been considered an American problem, until now. The cover story in the "New York Times" magazine this Sunday details the scope of the problem in our own backyards.

It was written by Peter Landesman, who spent months documenting sex trafficking here in the U.S.

And he joins us from Los Angeles this morning.

Peter, good morning.

Thanks for being with us.

PETER LANDESMAN, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Good morning.

O'BRIEN: I have to say, this report is so utterly disturbing. People, I think, sometimes confuse prostitution and sex slavery...

LANDESMAN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: ... and they are not one and the same at all.

LANDESMAN: No, the differentiation is crucial here. Prostitutes, who certainly operate in a gray zone of coercion, they do make money, they do make some sort of living, if you can call it that. The women and toddlers and girls and teenagers that I was writing about and reported on are literally in chains, figuratively and literally. If they try to escape, they're killed. Their families in their countries or in their villages or origin are often beaten or killed if they try to escape. These are people with no choice whatsoever and they don't earn a dime.

O'BRIEN: Where do these victims come from and how young are they?

LANDESMAN: The victims are as young as four. I met an American born victim, actually, who was abducted at four years old and sucked into a sex trafficking network in the United States for 10 years. Most of the victims in this country come from Eastern Europe, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and also from Mexico, and also from Asia. But Mexico is the main conduit into this country. So you see mostly Europeans being trafficked into Mexico City, joining a flood of Mexicans north over the border into the U.S.

O'BRIEN: It's obviously an industry that's supported by men, primarily, who want to have sex with teenagers and children. Who are these perpetrators?

LANDESMAN: Well, there are different subcultures when it comes to sexual appetites. You know, pedophilia, S&M pedophilia, that's its own culture. But the mainstream prostitution base, you know, they're -- I mean not literally, they're you and me. I mean they are the average American. The average American who engages in prostitution does not usually realize that the woman who is underneath him may very well not be a voluntary prostate, but actually a slave.

O'BRIEN: Yes, but in some cases...

LANDESMAN: And...

O'BRIEN: ... they're 10 years old. So obviously, even if they are a voluntary prostitute, which is a whole other issue, they're children.

LANDESMAN: Yes. You know, under aged people in this industry is a no brainer. There's no question whatsoever.

O'BRIEN: You talk about in your article these stash houses.

LANDESMAN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: The places that you list, I have to say, Plainfield, New Jersey; Corona, Queens; San Diego, California; Westwood, California. The neighborhoods right around us where these people are being held. What's being done legally, if anything, to investigate and protect these victims?

LANDESMAN: Very little right now. The Bush administration has been focused overseas with this issue, not realizing and probably not even aware that this problem is just as bad in its own backyard. The federal government is just getting off the ground in terms of being able to identify this problem and identify victims. But right now it's really at its nascent level.

And let me throw you one more address that I couldn't get into the story for legal reasons. But try the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the East 80s, a brownstone nine blocks from where my parents live, actually.

O'BRIEN: You mentioned the Bush administration.

LANDESMAN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Legislation has been passed and we heard the clip at the beginning of our interview where President Bush talked about how seriously he thinks -- he takes this problem.

LANDESMAN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Do any of this legislation that's been passed, one, you know, provides for economic sanctions against countries that have a very poor record when it comes to the sex trade; others that make it a crime to go overseas for sex tourism. Do they have any impact whatsoever in alleviating this problem and stopping this problem?

LANDESMAN: Legislation frequently does not come with any teeth, and I think this is an example of that. The only way to stop this trade is to target the mechanisms of movement, these vicious, brutal, barbaric trafficking networks that operate from Moldova and Mexico into this, into the United States. The only way to stop this, really, is to identify and target those mechanisms, those networks in those countries and to go after them ruthlessly.

The problem is that's not our jurisdiction. They're out of our reach. And it's really up to the governments of origin and those governments I just named are rife with corruption. The government is often complicit in the industry. Certainly local law enforcement in those countries are often on the take and on the payroll of these trafficking organizations.

O'BRIEN: Peter Landesman. The article is the cover story, which we have right here, "Sex Slaves On Main Street," in the "New York Times" magazine this weekend.

Thanks, Peter.

Thanks for talking with us about it.

LANDESMAN: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: It is such a disturbing article, I tell you. It certainly is a must read for absolutely everybody.

Thanks for talking with us.

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