Human trafficking is an optical illusion of a crime. It exists right under society’s nose, sometimes in plain sight. Its participants might not appear obviously criminal; its victims are often unwilling or unable to cry for help. Unlocking the mystery takes the right approach, the right questions.
Cynthia L. Cordes, Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s 2014 Lawyer of the Year, knows those questions better than anybody.
“Human trafficking is an offense that lives in the shadows, kind of in the dark corners of our humanity,” she said.
In 2006, Cordes — an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Missouri less than two years out of law school — was put in charge of a task force to combat human trafficking. She faced initial skepticism from her own colleagues and the law enforcement agencies she worked with.
“They’d say, ‘We don’t have a problem with human trafficking around here,’” said Matt Whitworth, a U.S. magistrate judge in Jefferson City who was a high-ranking official with the U.S. Attorney’s Office until 2010. “Well, that’s not the case. We do.”
Cordes latched onto the tough assignment. “When she gets interested in something, she’s relentless,” Whitworth said.
Cordes’ team adopted aggressive and novel interpretations of federal anti-trafficking and racketeering laws, using them in prosecutions of customers of sex trafficking victims, parents who sell their own children and those who advertise trafficking victims online. Those tactics have created models for U.S. attorneys across the country to follow.
But her hard-nosed approach to perpetrators was coupled with a soft touch for the victims. Very often, she said, trafficking victims aren’t in a position to help law enforcement, at least not at first. Many speak little English and might come from countries where government agents cannot be trusted. Their captors play on those fears, leading them to believe that terrible things will happen if they cooperate with the authorities.
Cordes said overcoming that coercion requires a distinct approach that starts with the first encounter. Instead of arresting them and treating them as potential criminals, Cordes’ team would move the victims to a safe house, where they would be fed and clothed and allowed to recover.
“You come in guns blazing and lock them up in a cell and come back and talk to them in a few days because they’re a material witness in the case, you’ve confirmed what the trafficker has told them,” she said.
Just as important was training local law enforcement to look for the subtle signs of human trafficking during such routine encounters as traffic stops.
“If they’ve got guns and narcotics in the back seat of the car, game over — they’re caught red-handed with contraband,” she said. “If they get pulled over with three women in the back seat of the car, the crime isn’t readily apparent.”
Cordes’ pioneering work has moved human trafficking from urban myth to established fact, as recent high-profile cases demonstrate: A Lebanon, Mo., man and several cohorts convicted this year of keeping a woman as a sex slave and torturing her. An official from Taiwan convicted of forcing her housekeepers to work long hours for a pittance. A group of Uzbeki nationals convicted of running a fraudulent labor scheme involving hundreds of foreign workers.
In fact, the Human Trafficking Rescue Project is so well established that, in September — shortly after the sentencing of the last of the co-defendants in the Lebanon sex slavery case — Cordes felt comfortable enough to leave the U.S. attorney’s office.
“I felt like it was built and strong, and it would survive,” she said.
She is now a partner at Husch Blackwell in Kansas City. But while she is no longer a prosecutor, her work to combat human trafficking is far from over.
“Human trafficking is an offense that lives in the shadows, kind of in the dark corners of our humanity.”
When she joined the firm’s government compliance practice, she planned to continue providing pro bono representation to victims of human trafficking, who often face huge hurdles in putting their lives together after they are rescued.
Husch responded by creating a human trafficking clinic — “an unprecedented dedication of resources,” she said, that will provide pro bono representation to every trafficking victim in the Western District of Missouri.
“I will go the rest of my career and still be involved with human trafficking in one way or another,” she said.
Benjamin Mann, Husch Blackwell’s office managing partner for Kansas City, said the clinic will be good for the firm, good for the community and especially good for the victims.
“Part of what makes this program so attractive is we’re going to be able to help these folks establish their own kind of independent existence and living,” he said.
Mann, who helped persuade Cordes to enter private practice, said he was struck by the “entrepreneurial spirit” embodied in her human trafficking work.
“To use a sports analogy, they handed her the ball and said ‘See if you can get to the goal line,’ and that was about all the instruction they gave her,” he said. “And she not just did it, but did it with aplomb and grandiose results.”
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