February 15, 2019

One man’s mission to end modern slavery

Aaron Cohen resists the label “slave hunter.” It smacks of Civil War-era racism, the name used for people who tracked down runaway slaves and returned them to their owners. They were the bad guys in a very dark time, as Cohen wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Slave Hunter: One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking.”

Although he is, after all, hunting down and identifying, in the best sense, today’s victims of human trafficking — the modern version of slavery, Cohen prefers the term “human trafficking investigator.”

Cohen, a Los Angeles native with a dude-esque Southern California surfer dialect, has been a full-time investigator since 2000, identifying victims of human trafficking — often, young girls in the global sex trade — and gathering the evidence and money required to free them.

A remarkable thing about Cohen’s 13-year career is that he’s done much of it solo — sort of. In each country, Cohen assembles a veteran security team to protect and assist him. His job would be impossible without significant support, both logistically and financially. But he does not work through any one organization. He is, for legal reasons, an independent consultant for the many human rights organizations with which he works. 

And he does a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he will publish books like “Slave Hunter” and will be highlighted in an MSNBC documentary series about human trafficking. He is also well-known for his close personal and business relationship with Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell. His 6-foot-5 frame and long hair also make him hard to miss. 

On the other hand, Cohen maintains a low profile, wary of the many traffickers and corrupt government officials around the world whose wallets are made thinner every time he helps free a slave. 

When I met with Cohen for lunch recently, there were a few preconditions that had to be met — no photos, no discussion of where he’s staying or where he’ll be next, and not even a mention of where we met. 

In 2004, in a raid of four brothels in Siem Reap, a Cambodian resort town, Cohen and his Cambodian security team found about 30 Vietnamese children being held as sex slaves. In order to prevent a firefight and hold off organized crime syndicates from punishing the girls’ families, Cohen and his team “redeemed” the slaves for $500 per head. It was not a lot, considering that each one earns the bosses about $100,000 per year in the sex trade. 

It was dangerous, and afterward, when Cohen’s team of Cambodian soldiers began literally jumping out of the van in which they were riding, he understood — crooked Cambodian authorities had a bounty on his head, and his security team did not want to get caught in the crossfire.

Cohen high-tailed it out of Siem Reap to the Phnom Penh airport and hopped a flight to Bangkok.

When discussing more recent experiences, he didn’t revel in the details of his operations. And he shied away from discussing any of his recent stings in the United States. 

He wanted, rather, to discuss Judaism, the Torah, Passover, and why he meditates and prays immediately before his operations, most of which begin with a simple interview of a trafficking victim. Cohen poses as a customer who wants the girl’s services, meets her at a hotel and simply speaks to her, gains her trust, and, usually after a few meetings, gets her and others on the record, providing evidence that the authorities demand. He sets up cameras to videotape as many of these encounters as he can.

Before many of these hotel meetings, Cohen prays, hoping to bring divine energy into his operation — hopefully to achieve what is really an exodus of sorts, albeit a small one.

“I never would have gotten involved in the anti-slavery movement if it hadn’t been for the Torah,” Cohen said. “The Divine saw a group of slaves, went down and said, ‘The least of these people, I’m going to use to proclaim My name.’

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. There’s a responsibility that comes with that.”