Barbara Martinez: An Advocate for Human Trafficking Victims

Since 2009, Barbara A. Martinez has served as the chief of the Special Prosecutions Section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. She supervises federal prosecutors who handle cases involving human trafficking, child exploitation, and violent crime involving death or serious bodily injury.

Martinez is also the human trafficking coordinator for the Southern District of Florida. Since 2014, she has served on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Child Exploitation Nationwide Investigations Advisory Committee. She served as the Project Safe childhood coordinator for the Southern District of Florida from 2007 until 2019. Martinez also teaches a human trafficking seminar at the University of Miami School of Law.

Some of her notable honors and awards include: 2018 Attorney General’s Award  for the prosecution of a case involving sex trafficking of minors in Honduras; 2018 Dade County Bar Association Women of Distinction Government Award; 2016-2017 Harvard Law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow; 2015 Director’s Award for Superior Performance as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA)  for the prosecution of a sex trafficking case involving more than 50 adult victims; 2013 Women in Federal Law Enforcement’s Top Prosecutor Award; DOJ’s 2011 Outstanding Overall Partnership Coalition Group Award  for her work and contributions on cases involving domestic sex trafficking of minors; and the 2005 DOJ’s Director’s Award for Superior Performance as an AUSA  for the prosecution of a production of child pornography and sex tourism case involving more than 100 victims.

Martinez earned her law degree from the University of Texas School of Law and her B.A. in criminal justice from University of Texas at San Antonio. She joined the DOJ in 1997 as a trial attorney through the Attorney General’s Honors Program. She worked for the Fraud Section in the Criminal Division from 1997 until 2000, when she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

ACAMS Today: What inspired you to specialize in prosecuting child exploitation, human trafficking and violent crimes?

Barbara Martinez: I was always interested in prosecuting violent crime cases, but began my career as a white-collar prosecutor. I worked as a trial attorney in the Criminal Fraud Section in Washington, D.C. and spent several years in the Economic Crimes Section at the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office. As part of my training rotation at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I also spent two years in the Major Crimes Section, which is when I first handled child exploitation and human trafficking matters. Frankly, at the time, many people preferred not to work on child exploitation and human trafficking matters. Obviously, handling these types of cases is not for everyone because seeing such exploitation can certainly weigh very heavily. For me, although it is difficult to hear about victims’ suffering, I found the work incredibly rewarding. I have been inspired by so many survivors of child exploitation, human trafficking and other violent crimes. It has been an honor to meet and work with so many wonderful and resilient people. Interestingly, having a background in investigating and prosecuting fraud cases has been incredibly helpful in prosecuting these types of crimes, especially human trafficking cases. Fraud is such an integral part of any human trafficking scheme.

AT: Between your roles as chief of the Special Prosecutions Section for the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office and as a law professor, you are an important advocate for human trafficking awareness and prevention. What are some of your success stories in the field?

BM: I have been very fortunate to work with incredible multidisciplinary teams throughout the years. None of the successes that I have had would have been possible without the help of so many other wonderful people. As part of many teams, I am most proud that we have investigated and successfully prosecuted really difficult human trafficking cases. The Special Prosecutions Section in Miami, law enforcement partners, victim advocates, and certain non-governmental organizations were working together to prosecute really challenging human trafficking cases before human trafficking became so publicized. In many of these cases, the defendants had been exploiting people for years and would have continued to do so. Prosecution alone will never eradicate human trafficking. However, prosecution can stop a trafficker from continuing to exploit his or her victims and prevent the trafficker from harming others in the future.

I am also very proud that we have helped to raise awareness around human trafficking. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is part of the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force. The Task Force is led by Homeland Security Investigations with partners that include Miami-Dade Police Department, International Rescue Committee, the FBI, the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Labor and many more law enforcement entities. In addition, we have more than 300 non-law enforcement members. It is through the Task Force and with our many community partners that we have participated in hundreds of human trafficking community awareness events and trainings. Ten years ago, most people in South Florida did not know about human trafficking. Today, I am proud to say that our Task Force has significantly helped to raise awareness. There is still much more to do. Still, we live in a community that overall is much more informed about modern-day slavery, how to identify it, and how to report it. This awareness can save lives.

AT: You teach human trafficking awareness at the University of Miami School of Law. How has the curriculum changed since you first started teaching?

If we rely only on preconceived notions of what human trafficking looks like we may fail to see it

BM: The class discusses many more different types of human trafficking schemes than we did years ago. Sadly, as the years have passed, varied forms of human trafficking have been documented. For example, cases involving the victimization of drug addicts and aspiring models. The truth is that human trafficking is a complex crime that is difficult to identify. If we rely only on preconceived notions of what human trafficking looks like we may fail to see it. Furthermore, successful investigations and prosecutions require us to utilize a victim-centered approach. For law students, it is important that they learn the elements of the crime and, more importantly, core principles that will help them to identify human trafficking no matter what the scheme is. We spend a lot of time in class going through scenarios so that students can really apply some of the concepts that they learn.

AT: What is the most powerful tool anti-financial crime professionals have in the fight against human trafficking?

BM: Much of what professionals in the financial industry already do to detect fraud and suspicious activity can be incredible tools to combat human trafficking. The key is making sure that the anti-financial crime professionals understand human trafficking and share the relevant information with law enforcement. Partnerships between the financial industry, law enforcement, and non-governmental organizations are vital to learning about anti-money laundering typologies and supply chains pertinent to human trafficking, which can increase the reporting of human trafficking. Professionals in the financial industry are sometimes understandably unsure about what constitutes human trafficking. Thus, they report only high-dollar activity despite identifying other indicators of human trafficking. Law enforcement officers reviewing suspicious activity reports for human trafficking are not focused solely on high-dollar amounts to determine whether they will further investigate. Instead, they are looking for patterns and connections to known trafficking. Raising awareness in the financial industry and cultivating these partnerships so that everyone stays current on new trends can help to better identify human trafficking and provide crucial financial evidence.

AT: In addition to going after human traffickers, what are other ways anti-financial crime professionals can help victims?

BM: Many financial institutions (FIs) have already created working groups that collaborate with law enforcement and other FIs to learn more about human trafficking, develop better tools to identify trafficking and to train others in the financial industry. Participating in these working groups can be very helpful. In addition, every federal district in the country has a human trafficking task force. In South Florida, professionals in the financial industry can become members of the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force by visiting www.sfhumantraffickingtaskforce.org and submitting a membership application. The Task Force has quarterly meetings and routinely posts opportunities for folks to volunteer for anti-trafficking events and to donate clothing and toiletries for victims. Task Force members can also serve on different committees.

Of course, outside of their work protocols for reporting financial information, anyone who suspects human trafficking is occurring should report it by calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888, texting “BeFree” (233733) or live chatting at www.HumanTraffickingHotline.org/chat. The toll-free phone, SMS text lines and online chat function are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Help is available in English, Spanish, Creole or in more than 200 additional languages. The National Hotline is not managed by law enforcement, immigration or an investigative agency. Correspondence with the National Hotline is confidential and you may request assistance or report a tip anonymously. To learn more about the National Resource Hotline visit www.humantraffickinghotline.org.

AT: What is one aspect of human trafficking you wish had more awareness among both anti-financial crime professionals and the general public?

BM: Labor trafficking. Sex trafficking gets much more attention than labor trafficking. Yet, labor trafficking is just as prevalent and important. Generally, labor trafficking is more difficult to identify, investigate and prosecute than sex trafficking. It is much more hidden and commingled with seemingly law-abiding employers. Detection of labor trafficking also often requires investigators to learn about specific labor industries. Moreover, labor trafficking can involve dozens of victims so investigating and prosecuting it often requires more resources. We absolutely need all the interest, partnerships and public awareness that we can get to better identify, successfully prosecute and prevent labor trafficking.

AT: How have you been observing National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month?

BM: We all have been very busy with anti-trafficking events this month, especially because the Super Bowl is in Miami this year. I have participated in more than a dozen training sessions, panel discussions and public awareness campaigns. I have also been working very closely with our team of prosecutors and law enforcement officers to prepare for the Super Bowl. Human trafficking occurs year-round. However, concerts and sporting events can raise the demand for prostitution and labor, which may increase human trafficking.

AT: When you are not fighting crime, what do you like to do in your spare time?

BM: These days I love to cook, travel and spend time with my husband and our black lab, Charlie. She has a lot of energy and keeps us active!

Interviewed by: ACAMS Today staff, ACAMS, Miami, FL, USA, editor@acams.org

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