During the last three years, officers with the Calgary Police Service’s vice unit have been working undercover to rescue children being sold for sex. The backdrop is not a street corner late at night — the new “kiddie stroll” is online and always open for business.
It began in 2007 when the parents of a missing teenage girl in British Columbia contacted police after somehow finding out that their daughter was being sold for sex hundreds of kilometres away on Craigslist’s Calgary website. Fortunately, the girl was rescued by police and returned safely home.
“Operation Carmel” was launched by Calgary police to determine if the case was merely an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Over a two-year period, police made more than 30 arrests for criminal activity advertised through Craigslist and rescued three more under-age girls being sold for sex acts. Traffickers, some of them known gang associates, used the website to sell victims brought in from Vancouver and as far away as Winnipeg.
“Operation Street Fighter” was a second undercover investigation launched by Calgary police. It found “strong indications” of human trafficking involving Asian organized crime controlling women in the sex trade. Confidential informants told police again and again that Craigslist was “the medium of choice” for these criminals.
At the same time, the Peel Regional Police vice unit in Ontario was laying charges against Imani Nakpangi, a violent criminal whose victims include a 14-year-old girl with fetal alcohol syndrome who was a ward of the province. Nakpangi earned more than $400,000 by selling her and a homeless teenager, both advertised on Craigslist.
In addition to multiple cases in Calgary and the Greater Toronto Area, sex traffickers in B.C. have relied on Craigslist as a fast, efficient and free way to market their victims. In March 2009, police in the B.C. Lower Mainland discovered an entire network of “micro-brothels” — condos and apartments — being used to sell trafficked women from China for sex, again advertised through Craigslist. The North Vancouver RCMP detachment even sent out a public warning in July 2009 about a ring of drug and sex traffickers who were advertising sex with under-age local girls on Craigslist and “using violence or the threat of violence to control the girls.”
Not surprisingly, the recent RCMP “threat assessment” on human trafficking highlighted this Internetfacilitated sexual exploitation as a primary cause for concern. Craigslist has become an integral part of the technology of trafficking and needs to be stopped.
Craigslist’s lawyers recently testified before a U.S. Congressional hearing that there has been “dramatic growth” in the number of erotic services advertisements in major Canadian cities — Toronto saw a 100 per cent increase between March 2008 to March 2009. At the same time, major U.S. cities saw a decrease of 90 per cent due to measures implemented by Craigslist in the U.S., but not in Canada.
Last month, Craigslist shut down its erotic/adult services sections completely across the U.S., but to date has refused to do so in our country. The company and its executives continue to knowingly allow the website to be used by traffickers here.
Craigslist is in a class of its own, called the “Walmart of child sex trafficking” in a recent CNN report. No other website rivals its notoriety and reach. It is simply not true that shutting its erotic/adult services sections will result in complete displacement of the crime to other websites. Even if it does result in some displacement, police should pursue those sites as well. Since the johns still need to be reached for traffickers to profit, the problem never really goes completely underground.
Instead of shutting down their erotic/adult services section in Canada, all that Craigslist says is they are involved in “an ongoing dialogue” with the RCMP. While this dialogue continues, child and adult trafficking victims are being sold through Craigslist’s Canadian websites. Would the RCMP be in a “dialogue” for over a year and a half if Craigslist had a “drugs” section that offered cocaine and heroin for sale, complete with photos? The site would be shut down immediately and Craigslist would be charged with aiding and abetting drug trafficking. Why are children entitled to less immediate action?
Where are our political leaders and police chiefs on this issue? In the United States, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was a key champion for change to crack down on Craigslist. Our country needs someone to stand up to Craigslist and demand they end the open flesh market that includes selling our country’s daughters, enabling traffickers to profit lucratively.
If Craigslist is unwilling to immediately end the criminal assistance that its website is providing to traffickers, then charges should be laid under the Criminal Code against the company, its founder Craig Newmark, and CEO Jim Buckmaster for aiding and abetting human trafficking and the prostitution of minors.
Benjamin Perrin is the author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, and a member of the C2C Journal editorial board.