At 6:45 a.m., I'm awakened in my bed at the Little Saigon Inn by a worrisome text message from a man who's already told me enough disturbing tales to keep me in nightmares for weeks.
“I'm on my way to the gym. The Mercedes is still parked outside. I should make him some coffee perhaps. The poor guy has been out there all night.”
“What?” I write back, eyeing the chair I had propped against the door the night before. This is Garden Grove, not Ho Chi Minh City. Isn't he being a little theatrical?
Possibly, but the story Aaron Cohen needs to tell has brought me from Southeast Asia to Southwest Florida and back to Los Angeles, where I've already been waiting two weeks for him to materialize. I guess when you're in a tunnel hiding out from the Burmese army, you can't worry too much about returning a journalist's phone calls.
Cohen is a “slave hunter,” a specialist in identifying and, in some cases, retrieving the unfortunate human beings who are trafficked for labor and/or sexual purposes — a remarkably prevalent and lucrative global trade. So far the job has brought him to dozens of countries like Colombia, Sudan and Cambodia, where the business of human flesh is of special concern to the U.S. State Department and other agencies or governments who subcontract his services. He is what is known in covert operations as a NOC, a special agent working under “non-official cover,” but unlike an agency man, Cohen's primary allegiance is to people, not political agendas.
What makes Cohen's story even more unusual is that he used to be known as Perry Farrell's best friend and spiritual collaborator. Their mutual passion for music and human rights led Cohen and the Jane's Addiction front man to help Bono and Bob Geldof deliver, in 1999, the 17 million signatures that persuaded G8 bankers to drop the debt of developing countries. But since embarking on his unorthodox new career, Cohen has gone places your typical e-mail petitioner and Sunday-afternoon activist have never even heard of. He has survived a shooting in Haiti and an alleged poisoning in a Westminster restaurant, along with a string of other near-death experiences, most recently in the backwaters of Myanmar, where he believes he saw evidence of a far more dangerous trade — the production and selling of enriched uranium.
So last night when he offered to let me sleep in one of his four empty bedrooms, I thought better of it. As I pulled away, Cohen pointed to a beige Mercedes parked out front. I couldn't see a driver. “They'll probably follow you,” he said, and walked inside before I had a chance to ask who “they” might be. Nevertheless, I found myself checking my rearview all the way to the Little Saigon Inn, where dreams of its advertised Wi-Fi and heated pool promised to dull the images of the enslaved preteens Cohen had been conjuring up for me all day. Both enticements were, in the words of motel management, “broken.”
I went to bed trying to grasp how Cohen went from talking mysticism and Lollapalooza with Perry Farrell to assessing global human-trafficking trends, breaking Vietnamese girls out of Cambodian brothels and being hunted down by the Burmese army. And now, this morning, another text message about the Mercedes:
“He's the night guy they have on me. I'm sure you'll have Feds flagging you today. Watch your 6. I'm starting to be concerned about all this and feel uneasy.”
I'm feeling a little edgy too, but maybe it's only the lack of sleep and a slight caffeine addiction. I splash water on my face and drive to a nearby strip mall anchored by a Taco Bell, which nearly obscures a lively Vietnamese caf√©. The patio is packed with graying, well-dressed Vietnamese men in small groups — the old guard, I think, ex-military who shipped out before the Communist takeover, 32 years ago. Professorial in tweedy pants, turtlenecks and neat sweaters, they smile and nod as I pass — not unnoticed. Few non-natives venture in here, it seems, and the only women are the ones behind the counter — just like in Vietnam.
After ordering a bowl of pho and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, I finish reading Cohen's journal entries. His uneasiness seems justified in the context of his most recent mission to Myanmar (formerly and, to the U.S., still Burma), which has been run by a series of repressive military juntas since 1962. In March, the Royal Thai Police and Council for National Security (the military government that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin in September 2006) sent Cohen there to investigate the Burmese government's alleged use of slave labor to build infrastructure in Naypyidaw, the country's sprawling new jungle capital. (In 2005, the ruling generals relocated the capital overnight from Yangon — formerly Rangoon — a move Al Jazeera said had been motivated by “superstition, megalomania and paranoia.”)
Despite more than a decade of Western sanctions against the Burmese government — the so-called “State Peace and Development Council,” which changed its name in 1997 after consulting a Washington, D.C., public-relations firm — the pariah nation stays afloat with funds primarily from India, Russia and China, countries that trade arms and cash for Myanmar's rich supply of oil and other natural resources. The latter two vetoed the U.N. Security Council's January resolution urging Myanmar to stop the persecution of political prisoners and brutal military tactics many have called “genocide.” Largely thanks to China, the SPDC's army is, after Vietnam's, the second largest in Southeast Asia — and notorious for conscription of child soldiers and using rape as a weapon against civilians.
In the few weeks since Cohen returned from Myanmar, the country has restored ties with North Korea, signed a cash deal for a Russian nuclear reactor and vowed to “crush” state opponents. One of those is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader whose party overwhelmingly won a general election in 1990 but has since been terrorized and rendered largely impotent by the state. Suu Kyi has spent more than 11 of the last 17 years under various forms of detention, and on May 29, the government extended her house arrest once again — so much for its self-styled “road map to democracy.”
Cohen had no trouble finding slaves in Myanmar and neighboring Laos, where he says kidnapped Vietnamese, Laotian and ethnic-minority boys with guns guard heroin and methamphetamine labs for the mafias that control trafficking routes. But he started hearing far more sinister rumors, as noted in his journal:
I am advised that Burmese tradition holds an ancient legend still believed to be practiced even today in the art of human sacrifice — that every time the ruler moves the capital, four people are to be sacrificed at each of the four corners of the foundation to the facility. Human sacrifice is also carried out under, above and on each side of each bridge crossing the moats corresponding to the 12 astrological signs, and the seven passages leading into the capital.
“There are 72 human sacrifices in all, preferably all foreign agents,” the vice minister says with a twinkle in his eye. “Yes, preferably foreign agents trying to infiltrate national security or threaten the business of the ruling party.” But this ruling party is using slave labor to build elaborate pagodas for the Buddhist cultural centers and people are dying.
Why is the vice minister telling me this? I am not sure if he's a double because he seems to be threatening me about my mission to free the pagoda slave labor crew. I say no to the pork and am careful not to drink or eat anything offered to me by my perceived allies. We finish the meeting and I go to eat some bok choy and eggs from a vendor down the road.
By the late 1990s, Cohen started making volunteer trips to Sudan, where he was among the first Westerners to document slavery and genocide by Muslim militias. (Photos courtesy Aaron Cohen)
I'm brought out of this surreal picture by the young waiter bemusedly watching me eat my noodle soup. “You use chopsticks very well, older sister,” he notes in Vietnamese, at the speed usually reserved for white people who inexplicably speak this tonal language. I'm about to tell him I've used them since I was a child, but hold back when I realize the men at the surrounding tables are hanging on our words. I wonder if any of these kindly uncles are the Vietnamese government spies I've been told mix into the crowd at these caf√©s, scribbling down tidbits they overhear while hiding behind their copies of Nguoi Viet, the exiles' daily of choice.
But the grizzled folk next to me are talking about their teenage children's cell-phone bills, which are astronomical because of this thing they call “Nhan tin.” “Texting!” one of them repeats in English, before switching back to Southern-inflected Vietnamese. “It's out of hand. Five thousand text messages a month!” The others nod, sip their coffee through straws and turn their gaze to the large-screen TV blasting CNN. The couple behind me are talking too softly for me to make out much, but I distinctly hear “ma-fia” a couple of times. I turn back to Cohen's diary:
“The beautiful French agent I meet at the casino tables downstairs loses to me in blackjack and walks away when I decline another round or a drink with her upstairs in the champagne room. I can see her coming a mile away. She is so tall and thin I know to stay away, though she does radiate something mysterious I am desirous of, but never mind that.”
“Never mind that” is what saves Cohen from descending into 007 territory. In the next scene, Ian Fleming would have had Bond in the hot tub with that beautiful French agent, just before she attempted to drown him. But Cohen is no Bond and his mission is not the stuff of Fleming — although it does sometimes sound like it:
“I labeled the blank tapes Myanmar 1, 2, 3, and 4. The real deal look like unshot virgin tapes and she steals the beautifully labeled blanks.”
Sure, it's got all the elements of an overblown spy novel. That's why Cohen has a book proposal about to make the rounds with top agent David Kuhn, and why he's had dinner with Oliver Stone, and met with Band of Brothers writer Bruce C. McKenna. But the publishing, film and TV people haven't heard Cohen's best story yet.
I pay my bill, nodding to the Vietnamese men with the newspapers, and drive a few miles to an unremarkable ranch-style house on a quiet suburban street where Cohen grew up in the 1970s. His parents are dead, and the house has been home base since Cohen, 42, left Venice to care for his ailing father in 2001. Although we've met several times, I'm still surprised by the height (6 feet 5 inches) of the figure who opens the door and leans down for a hug. Dressed in jeans and an old French army shirt, dark wavy hair flowing to his shoulders, he resembles a rumpled Oscar Wilde. The rest of his clothes are strewn across an open suitcase on the floor of an otherwise empty room. Cohen's been back from Asia less than 48 hours, and still looks jet-lagged. “I'm broken,” he says apologetically, giving me an ad hoc, distracted tour.
He is visibly distressed about two men who were lost on the mission. “Good men,” he says, “with families and their whole lives ahead of them.” He shows me a picture of a young Shan soldier with wild eyes sitting on a bed. “He just got his leg blown off by a land mine. Kao was assigned to protect me.” The Shan are the largest ethnic-minority group in Myanmar, and are essentially at war with the SPDC. Kao was part of a Shan Army unit clearing a path for Cohen's motorcycle caravan when he stepped on the mine. In the photo, Kao's eyes are, impossibly, looking in different directions. “He's going crazy from despair and the drugs,” Cohen says soberly. “I could smell the gangrene.”
There are more images, of flourishing poppy fields in Shan State, a part of northeast Myanmar where the SPDC claims to be eradicating opium poppy as part of its “war on drugs.” Although the poppy fields have historically been tended by Shans, Cohen says the SPDC controls the drug trade there from start to finish — providing the seeds, collecting the harvest, and overseeing drug production and distribution. Civilians are allowed to earn just enough to survive, as long as they keep producing opium, which is synthesized (along with methamphetamine) in nearby labs also run by the Burmese army. In the days he spent there, Cohen says, he saw virtually no people, besides soldiers. “All the fields are land-mined, to instill the people with fear and keep them in their homes when they're not working.”
According to a Human Rights Watch report, in 2006 the SPDC was the only government in the world to use antipersonnel mines on a regular basis: “In order to separate ethnic armed groups from their civilian population, the Burmese army lays land mines and other explosive devices in order to maim and kill civilians.” The army's other objective is to prevent ethnic-minority people from harvesting their crops — effectively starving them.
Except for one bed, a table and two guitars, Cohen's house has no furniture. Bob Marley is playing on a box radio in the steamy bathroom. And the back garden, although neglected, is in bloom. I spot a few familiar varieties of bamboo, a banana tree and other tropical plants. “This,” he says, smiling to reveal a silver tooth, “is where I spend most of my time — when I'm here.” Last year, that was a sum total of about 10 weeks.
Cohen strokes the side of his stubbly face, which is red with what I first take to be a rash. “Sulfur burns,” he says, showing me a swollen thumb and raised marks on the back of his hand. “That's from holding a gun while being caught in the crossfire of the Burmese and Shan State armies,” he says, still offering no further explanation.
We wander through to the front of the house and stand in the driveway. I contemplate the contrast between this tranquil suburban scene and the places Cohen has just been. His neighbors are rinsing down their RVs, watering lawns, maybe gossiping. Kids are kicking a rubber ball back and forth in the street. An older guy waves and comes over to chat with Cohen, and from their conversation, I realize he's known the man for years. Does he have any idea what Cohen does for a living?
Yeah, Cohen says once we've gone back inside, to some degree. But he doesn't usually bother his neighbors with the messy details. They also call him by a different name, one he'd prefer you didn't know. Though the family name was once a Spanish derivative of Cohen, his father — a former WWII fighter pilot — Anglicized it before flying missions from North Africa to Europe (where a Jewish surname on a list could cause problems). Shortly before giving birth, his mother dreamed the boy should be called “Aaron Cohen,” after the first high priest of Israel, Moses' older brother, the consummate peacemaker. “With Moses, he retrieved an entire nation of people — the Israelites — from slavery in Egypt,” this Cohen explains.
Which is why he believes his antislavery activism was predestined. “From the very beginning of my life, my mother was trying to impose the identity of my ancestor upon me… I was Aaron Cohen. I had to act accordingly.” Because of his severe asthma, he was virtually homeschooled by his mother, who credited an evangelical faith healer with restoring her will to live after losing both breasts to cancer. So while other kids his age were playing outside, Cohen was “unlocking the secrets of the Book of Revelation” with his mom.
He grew up torn between her religious expectations and his father's military ones. At the U.S. Air Force Academy, Cohen excelled in water polo and got ready to follow in his father's footsteps. But when he grew to 6 feet 4 inches by age 20, he was advised to switch to military intelligence — no fighter pilot that tall could eject from a plane. Cohen took the news as a sign his military career was over. Despite his father's vow to disown him, he says, he transferred to Pepperdine to play water polo. It was 1985. On the weekends, he'd drive downtown to an underground club called Scream, where bands like Cathouse and the Cult played.
“People were out of their minds on drugs, eating mushrooms and shooting heroin right in front of me,” Cohen says. “I'd never seen anything like that before. One night, this band called Jane's Addiction came onstage. That's when I first saw Perry Farrell sing. He walked onstage wearing a corset and pantyhose and hypnotized the audience with his dancing. Then he stripped out of his costume, and at the break in the song, he emerged naked, with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. All the girls began to go crazy. Perry began to sing. He took a few steps and he walked right off the stage and onto the crowd like he was walking on the water… People were screaming and crying as if they were witnessing something forbidden. It was straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I had the sense that burning sulfur would rain down and destroy us all.”
Two years later, Cohen was playing professional water polo in Argentina, surrounded by drugs and stunning women. “Temptation was everywhere,” but Cohen says he chose the “straight and narrow,” working out and remaining faithful to his college girlfriend — whom he planned to marry. Whenever he was home, Cohen would check out the scene at Scream, where he was on a nodding basis with Perry Farrell and his entourage.
One night, he got a call from Farrell's manager, Ted Gardner, who had seen a story in the Pepperdine student paper about a fiction award Cohen had won. Gardner introduced Cohen to Farrell, who was looking for a writer for an upcoming film project, and the two hit it off — seeing in each other, says Cohen, a kindred soul. At that point, Jane's Addiction's first album, Nothing's Shocking, had already brought the band international fame, and all of a sudden, Cohen found himself hired to brainstorm and contribute to the film, which would eventually become Gift, Farrell's semiautobiographical love-and-drug story.
Cohen spent half his time in Latin America, playing water polo, and the other months in L.A., working for Farrell. For the band's second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, Cohen traveled to the Amazon to learn about Santer√≠a and Candombl√© magical rituals: “I'd go into villages and document what I saw. Sometimes animals were sacrificed. I saw people drink blood. There was a lure to the dark side — it unsettled me. I would hear the voice of my mother: 'You are Aaron Cohen, you don't belong here.' “
But after his girlfriend left him for another man, Cohen decided that Farrell's tribe was the only place he did belong. He moved into an apartment down the block from the Jane's Addiction compound in Venice and was promoted to executive director of an enterprise that already included Lollapalooza, Porno for Pyros and the ENIT Festival. Cohen's job involved everything from answering phones to dreaming up lyrics. “Some mornings, Perry and I would swim and surf and talk about mysticism and magic,” he says. “At night, we'd get high and work on ideas, music and art.”
Soon Farrell was introducing Cohen as his best friend. “There I was,” Cohen says, “this tall, lanky kid from Orange County living the rock-star life.” He was partying with Kurt Cobain, Slash, Flea, Thom Yorke, Jello Biafra — but the drugs quickly started to take their toll. Farrell was strung out too, and dreamed up Lollapalooza as a farewell tour for his band.
Around that time, Cohen got a call from his estranged father, asking him to put their differences aside and come home. His mother's cancer had come back, and she was dying. Aaron returned to her side, enrolled in a master's program at nearby Vanguard University, a Christian-based school, and began studying Hebrew and the Bible — again. Trying to go “from a rock-star life to a monastic one” was not easy, particularly because he was by that time addicted to heroin.
Nonetheless, that year he managed to finish a thesis on the Jubilee, what he now calls the “life raft” that offered a larger purpose for his life. Jubilee was a biblical festival during which the wealthy freed their slaves and forgave debt, and it gave Cohen the idea that he might be able to launch a contemporary musical version. While reading the Torah, he also stumbled upon the story of Aaron and the golden calf, which he had read before without catching what he now saw as a personal allegory: “By running away with the Jane's Addiction circus, I'd gone away to worship the golden calf. Now, it was time to find my way back.”
Cohen stops suddenly. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
American school kids are taught that slavery was wiped out with the Confederacy in 1865. But today it is a mounting international menace — the dark side, many believe, of globalization and the Internet explosion. Not to be confused with smuggling (which is always transnational and includes those who consent to the process), human trafficking implies the use of force, fraud or coercion and often involves ongoing exploitation. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, it is tied with the illegal-arms industry as the second largest illegal business in the world, after drug dealing.
It's also the fastest-growing. Recent estimates put the number of slaves at 30 million worldwide. There may be as many as 800,000 new victims trafficked across international borders each year, though no one really knows how many there are, since so many of them are unseen. The State Department figures at least 16,000 people a year are brought into the U.S. for forced labor or commercial sex. Human commerce can boast as much as an 800 percent profit margin. Unlike drugs or arms, human beings can be sold or swapped innumerable times — and easily hidden.
One of the most prominent local instances of that unfortunate fact came to light last summer in Irvine, after an anonymous tip led authorities to a young Egyptian girl who was occasionally seen taking out the garbage but who never rode the school bus. It was later revealed that the girl's upper-middle-class captors had been “renting” the 11-year-old from her indigent parents in Egypt for $30 a month. For almost two years, the child lived in the garage on a urine-stained mattress — cooking, cleaning, and taking abuse from the couple and their five children — before she was rescued from what was to be a 10-year term. The case became Orange County's first federal prosecution of a human-trafficking case, but wouldn't be its last.
At a vegetarian place near his house, over a salad with veggie bacon, Cohen picks up his second iced latte and resumes his narrative. After his mother died, he got off drugs and reconnected with Farrell, presenting the Jubilee to him as a sort of Lollapalooza of the ancient world. Farrell was receptive, and the two began once more to collaborate, this time on the idea of using music to save the planet.
“To get the campaign rolling, Perry opened his Rolodex and called his musician friends — David Bowie, Bob Geldof and Bono among them,” he says. Cohen moved back to Venice, this time next door to Farrell. They surfed, read Jubilee passages from the Bible and deciphered their meaning in the Zohar (part of the Kabbalah).
In his new role at Farrell's Jubilee Foundation, Cohen developed a network of musicians and fans dedicated to humanitarianism. He ran strategy for several charity campaigns before working on Bono's Drop the Debt, which led to hundreds of billions in relinquished debt for developing countries. “Perry and Bob Geldof were the unsung heroes of that campaign,” says Cohen.
At the same time, the civil war in Sudan had turned uglier. Cohen saw a PBS program documenting the slavery there and knew his access to rock stars put him in a unique position to do something. He contacted human-rights activist John Eibner, who, under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International, had already bought the freedom of thousands of slaves. Cohen told Eibner that if he could come along on a retrieval, he would form a Jubilee-inspired music festival to raise money for slave liberations.
“Then it dawned on me that I had to have the money to pay for a mission in the middle of a civil war,” he says before explaining how he and his father repaired their relationship as his mother was dying. On her deathbed, she made her husband vow to help Aaron pursue his Jubilee dream. Cohen Sr. became his first patron, handing his son a ticket and money to buy human freedom.
And so, in the late 1990s, Cohen started making volunteer trips to Sudan, where he was among the first Westerners to document slavery and genocide by Muslim militias in the North against Southern animists and Christians. The video evidence he turned over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee through Senators Paul Wellstone and Sam Brownback in 1999 exposed the financial connections between the Sudanese slave trade and what was then a fledgling organization led by an obscure Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
From then on, Cohen has been on al Qaeda's radar. After he first criticized Sudan's Islamic regime, he got hundreds of eerie death threats — phoned in to his private numbers and sent to a personal e-mail address. One e-mail highlighted his name on a death list put out by an extremist publication linked to al Qaeda.
In October 2001, an inflammatory story on theNew York Post's Page Six labeling Cohen “Perry Farrell's spiritual guru marked for death” led to the abrupt end of his 12-year career as a music-industry insider.
When the article appeared, Cohen had just helped to launch the Jubilee Music Festival, headlined by a reunited Hole, Foo Fighters and Jane's Addiction. He flew to New York to attend an opening-night benefit with Bono, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and David Bowie. But post-9/11 New York couldn't handle a story like Cohen's. When he showed up backstage, he was suddenly informed he was out of a job.
“Everyone looked at me like I was a ghost,” he says. “The road manager pulled me aside and said, 'Look, you can't be here. Everybody's afraid that if you're here, a bomb's gonna go off.' “
Cohen is sanguine about the chaotic effect the piece had on his life at the time. He now views it as the catalyst that turned him into a full-blown human-rights activist. It's taken behind-the-scenes players like him and emerging evidence of slave trading inside our own borders to snap politicians into action. In 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the most comprehensive antislavery legislation since the Emancipation Proclamation — which makes human trafficking a federal crime. Since then, 150 other countries have followed suit with their own laws. And American lawmakers and enforcers have gone on the offensive, forming multidisciplinary task forces in 42 U.S. cities. They allocated $28.5 million for domestic anti-trafficking programs in 2006.
The word got out about Cohen's efforts in Sudan, and in 2003 he was subcontracted by the State Department on his first official assignment, training Nicaraguan police and helping them develop trafficking-prevention programs for schools. That was his day job. The evenings were devoted to fieldwork — assessing the way sex trafficking worked in Managua.
Cohen watched clean-cut government vice agents try to infiltrate brothels with mixed results. Recognizing that his American party-boy image could give them unique access, the Nicaraguan agents asked Cohen to take part in a retrieval — and found that his approach helped recover more than the usual number of underage victims. That success led to subsequent assessments for the U.S. government's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which documents efforts by foreign governments to combat human trafficking and, via a tiered rating system, calls to task countries not doing enough. In the last four years, the TIP assignment has taken Cohen to five continents.
When Cohen first started raiding brothels, or “night-frighting,” in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, there was no protocol. “Since we had essentially just determined that this thing [human trafficking] existed,” he says, “…I had no mentors.” So he developed his own system: He would go into a brothel and find a girl with whom he shared a genuine connection — someone he liked and who liked him back. “Then I'd play it like the lonely guy,” he continues. “I would say, 'I don't want to have sex, I just want someone to spend time with and talk to me and maybe we can go shopping tomorrow.' ” Cohen would build the girl's trust, tipping the mamasan, the bartender, the bodyguards — all night long. “I became their favorite party guy,” he says. “I'd continue building a relationship with the one girl I was closest to for a day or two…”
And then he'd confess how much her situation broke his heart. She'd begin to think this tall American was the one who might save her. And she would inevitably reveal the whereabouts of other prostitutes, often underage trafficking victims.
Cohen thinks one key to his success is his long hair and sometimes-scruffy beard — hardly the typical federal-agent look. “The State Department officials were so straight you could see them coming a mile away,” he says. “I look like somebody who could be a druggie or a rock-star kind of person… and from Dave Navarro and Perry Farrell I learned party skills that would translate into me finding more underage victims than the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents, State Department and police combined.”
“Now,” says Cohen, “once I find out there are underage victims there, it's a new game. Because in a friendly country, jurisdiction's easy — you call the police, you say, 'We know where the girls are,' you show them… then we surround the building and bring everybody out…” But the countries with the worst human trafficking, he says, are those where he's forced to operate without jurisdiction. “Like Vietnam, where low- and midlevel police corruption have resulted in systems of enslavement.”
Cohen says he is no longer welcome in Vietnam, which has been coming down hard on dissidents ever since it earned a long-coveted WTO membership in January. Last week, Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet arrived in America — the first visit to the U.S. by a Vietnamese president since the end of the Vietnam War — to wide protests by Vietnamese-Americans and a welcome at the White House, where President Bush pressed Triet to improve human rights. The Vietnamese leader, whose visit also included Orange County, said he and Bush “agreed to disagree.” That's not good news for those trying to stop human trafficking in Vietnam, where, says Cohen, “if you retrieve a girl, you risk her life and yours.”
Things did not go exactly as planned in Myanmar. “Here is where the world's best poppy is grown,” says Cohen, unfolding a map and touching northeastern Myanmar's Shan State. Roughly the size of Cambodia, it borders Thailand and China and, like the territories that are home to other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, such as Karen, Chin and Kachin, has been under the rigid thumb of the ruling SPDC for decades.
During 120 years of British colonialism, hill-state people (who had been ruled separately by their own kings for centuries) were allowed to remain largely autonomous, a freedom they enjoyed even after Burmese independence came in 1947. But since 1962, they have been given the option to assimilate — under arbitrary, often bloody military rule — or fight. The Shans and other groups that have refused to sign cease-fire agreements with the SPDC maintain their own armies and are considered rebels, and are therefore subjected to a sort of scorched-earth policy.
Lush, mountainous Shan State also happens to contain the bulk of the country's best natural resources — gold, silver, copper, rubies, lead and uranium. Its fertile soil also makes it ideal for growing poppy, as well as rice and tea. Cohen says that since the war in Afghanistan shifted much of the world's heroin production back to the Golden Triangle, as much as one-third of the global supply is coming from Shan State. More and more regional mafias have been taking advantage of that.
“Drugs are harvested in Shan State, produced in mobile labs [along with meth], and brought down either by sea or along the eastern side of the Salween Delta to Pattani, Thailand — where terrorism is beginning to threaten the tourism industry,” Cohen says. “These triangles you see on the map are the places where Thai police have been cracking down on traffickers.”
He describes the historic path of poppy seeds and traders along the silk route — from Afghanistan across the Himalayas to Myanmar. As in Afghanistan, the drug behemoth fuels a not-so-hidden trade in arms and humans, all of which Cohen says are exploited by mafias with links to terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.
“The Thai interrogation of Hambali [the 'Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia'] proved that there is a clear link between Afghan freedom fighters and Southeast Asian terror groups via the heroin trade out of Myanmar,” Cohen continues excitedly. “So that's how I ended up in the Golden Triangle. General Pichai Chinasotti [consulting general to the ruling Thai government] asked if I'd be interested in checking out some rumors they'd heard.” He was.
Donning black military fatigues and helmet, Cohen went on “the wildest ride of my life” — a winding, midnight motorcycle trek across a porous section of the 1,500-mile mountainous border Thailand shares with Myanmar. Traveling with military escorts, the Shan intelligence minister and two other men — a two-star Thai police general and a special-ops commando known as “The Scorpion” — Cohen felt “there were literally eyes everywhere.” Somewhere along the way, his Shan driver became separated from the Thais. Three hours later, he says, they found themselves in a war zone.
“On one side of the ridge the Burmese army was firing, and on the other the Shan State army was firing back,” he says. Cohen rapidly understood that he had been brought in to document something more complicated than slave labor. He was being used, in fact, but there was little he could do about it.
“That is something I had not considered,” reads his journal. ” 'I never signed up for this,' I tell the overweight intelligence minister when we arrive at base camp… but since I am in their hands anyhow, I don't see what choice I have.”
Later that day, Cohen was taken to see the area's uranium mines — where the Shans told him soil samples had been extracted by the Russians as well as A.Q. Khan, the well-known Pakistani nuclear-weapons-scientist-turned-dealer: “These mounds are everywhere, where samples were being unearthed by other partners as well, including the Iranians and the North Koreans… I am the only Westerner [to see this],” Cohen wrote.
The intelligence minister then handed Cohen documentation of Khan's entries into Myanmar and told him that the SPDC was selling Shan uranium to the Iranians, who were processing it into material for nuclear weapons. The route from Myanmar, the minister showed him, led straight through China to Natanz, Iran. “I'm no expert on weapons-grade uranium,” Cohen admits. “But they wanted me to leave with samples of what I saw.” Restating his human-rights mission, Cohen refused to discuss transport of the nuclear material. (“It's a death wish to have that kind of stuff on you,” he says.) But he agreed to put a stack of evidence, including photographs of the Burmese and Iranian facilities, in the right hands when he returned to Thailand and the U.S.
A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, confessed in 2004 to having been the mastermind behind a clandestine network of nuclear-arms proliferation that stretched from Pakistan through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. His network sold blueprints for centrifuges to enrich uranium as well as illicit uranium centrifuges and uranium hexafluoride — the gas that can be transformed into enriched uranium for nuclear bombs.
Khan is already known to have provided complete centrifuge systems to Libya, Iran and North Korea. He was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and sentenced to house arrest after declaring on television that Musharraf's government had not played a role in his schemes. Western governments have been denied access to Khan, but the British think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies recently published a report indicating that Khan's network is very much alive, even without its decapitated head.
Eerily, the Pakistan-Myanmar link is backed up by a 2002 Wall Street Journal article detailing Myanmar's nuclear ambitions: “The program drew scrutiny recently after two Pakistani nuclear scientists, with long experience at two of their country's most secret nuclear installations, showed up in Myanmar after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Asian and European intelligence officials say Suleiman Asad and Muhammed Ali Mukhtar left Pakistan for Myanmar when the U.S grew interested in interrogating them about their alleged links to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who Washington believes wants to develop a nuclear weapon.”
Burmese exile magazines, blogs and Web sites are rife with alleged wicked SPDC plots. But one question pops up over and over: Is there a link between Myanmar, which mines and refines uranium ore, and Iran, which requires uranium for its own nuclear projects? And, specifically, is Burmese yellowcake finding its way to uranium centrifuges in Natanz, Iran?
Cohen's testimony suggests that the answer may be yes. From the mining sites, he was taken to meet several Shan men who said they worked as drivers for the SPDC at clandestine nuclear processing facilities near Taungdwingyi, Chauk and Lanwya. These men swore to Cohen that the SPDC was overseeing the production of yellowcake there and in several other locations, then transporting it on North Korean and Iranian ships as well as over land through China and Afghanistan, via a courier network, to the (then secret) underground Iranian plant in Natanz. They handed Cohen the coordinates for the facilities, saying that as ethnic Shans they could no longer do this work for a regime that was systematically attempting to wipe out their people. They had thrown their support behind the Shan State Army, they said, and wished him luck.
A few weeks later, Cohen hand-delivered that information to a source at the Pentagon. The following day (April 19), the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was running more than 1,300 centrifuges at its underground plant in Natanz (latest estimates put it closer to 3,000). Iran's plan to install 50,000 centrifuges there to enrich uranium made headlines, with the BBC running satellite photographs of the facility. But no major media outlet noted the Myanmar connection, and the story was soon buried in the subsequent frenzy over the Virginia Tech massacre.
The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has recently expressed concern over its own “deteriorating” understanding of Iran's supposedly peaceful nuclear enrichment activities. Add to that last month's (May 15) news that Russia, which has given technical nuclear training to hundreds of Myanmar nationals since at least 2001, is setting up a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar. With Russo-American relations at a virtual freezing point, a State Department official could only say he had “no idea” why Russia would make such a move.
A passage from George Tenet's new autobiography mentions a pattern the CIA has been tracking that may apply: “In the new world of proliferation, nation states have been replaced by shadowy networks like Khan's, capable of selling turnkey nuclear weapons programs to the highest bidders… with Khan's assistance, small, backward countries could shave years off the time it takes to make nuclear weapons.”
Which could mean that secretive, backward Myanmar is closer than we think to developing one. Junta watchers know better than to trust the claims of the oxymoronically named State Peace and Development Council, particularly when it comes to the “peaceful” nuclear weapons it seeks.
“After the drama of visiting the uranium mines, the poppy fields and slavery evidence seem rather ordinary,” reads Cohen's journal. “But I've traveled perilously close to the edge of the Burmese army. I can see the Special Forces just on the other ridge looking at me through the binoculars on the thermo viewer and know my time has come. The shots are ringing out. I'm leaving on the dirt bike traveling up and down the jungle passes again for a few hours of holding onto the back handles for dear life…”
Cohen's entourage finally came upon a clearing and a large cave opening, which they descended before crawling into a system of Shan army tunnels, where Cohen began to realize “[the fact] that the Burmese were mining the uranium had terrible confirmation. There are those who will come shooting or seducing now that I have seen for myself and uploaded the evidence.”
As they entered the tunnels, he watched the Shan intelligence minister bow to the presiding cave monk, who immediately asked Cohen if he could bring them arms. Still thinking he was there to document slave labor and possibly offer aid in the form of food and medicine, according to his diary, Cohen responded:
” 'No! Your eminence, I am looking to fund human rights only. Umm, excuse me… I have come all this way to receive the evidence about human rights abuses, sir, and now you are asking me again for arms I will not deliver. May I remind you that you are a Buddhist monk, your eminence…'
” 'It's a simple twist of fate,' [the monk] says to me. 'The best way to help the people is to protect them from those human rights abuses with guns, my friend.' “
After 36 hours in the tunnel, Cohen's handlers took him back out to the surface, where they continued to bombard him with evidence against the SPDC, filling his pack with maps, photographs, tapes and stories confirming for Cohen that “anything I could do would never be good enough to help them.”
Cohen's mental burden had become too much to bear, as described in this last passage from his journal: “After another morning of interviewing soldiers, officials, and former slaves, I realized that I must tell their story to someone or break down completely. I had been invited into this to bring the truth forward, but I felt like burning all these bridges I crossed. I had already decided that I did not know where to go now. For in my rash ignorance it seemed that uncertainty now about the fate of the likes of Kao was worse than the optimistic and enlightening promises that I could actually do something to be useful, to feel up to knowing what to do.”
“I don't want to get all conspiracy theory on you,” says Tommy Calvert Jr., “but the Department of Defense came out years ago saying that Osama bin Laden was moving weapons and people around. I had buddies in the Navy SEALs who were stopping ships in the Persian Gulf, and they've seen it,” he says. “Slavery provides the fastest revenue for organized crime. And when the rumors and facts start to jibe, someone has to tell the truth and start making progress in global security.”
Calvert is a 26-year-old wunderkind who first went to Sudan in 2002 with the American Anti-Slavery Group. But his involvement there, like Cohen's, began in the late '90s — “long before George Clooney and other folks were out there.” After an unsuccessful run for Congress in his native Texas, Calvert became an outreach specialist for Orange County's Human Trafficking Task Force in January. For a while, he says, he was the “highest-ranking black person” on this issue.
In the thousands of nail salons, acupuncture offices and massage parlors that clog the commercial strips of Southern California, Calvert sees the faces of both forced labor and sexual slavery on a daily basis. “I feel the presence of the traffickers and their evil,” he says. At first, “It surprised the hell out of me that we were fighting that battle here.”
Calvert's colleague, task-force law-enforcement liaison Dottie Laster, is grateful that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has finally given police the tools they need to start going after the perpetrators. But her unit received federal funding only last year. It partners with a nonprofit called Community Service Programs to assist victims and run interference between the law and social-service agencies.
Even with a grant and the TVPA on their side, getting a human-trafficking conviction isn't simple. That's why Laster calls Cohen's international perspective on the issue “invaluable” to her office. “He's dealing with the source [of trafficking], and here I am at the destination,” she says by phone from her Santa Ana office. “We make a good team.”
“Human trafficking” has been on the lips of politicians as well as celebrities for the last couple of years, but none of them can agree on what to call the thing. In late-March testimony before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Grace Chung Becker outlined “legal options to stop human trafficking,” which she defined as “a form of modern-day slavery that touches virtually every community in America.”The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, who has long detailed its horrors from Cambodia to India, recently scolded world leaders for doing little to prevent what he calls the “big emerging human-rights issue for the 21st century.”
No matter what we choose to name it, Michele Clark thinks we ought to spend more time thinking of creative ways to deal with what she sees as “human trade.” Clark comes at the issue from the policy side, as the second-in-command of the human-trafficking office at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, the world's largest regional security organization). She first met Cohen on the 2003 training mission to Managua, and grew to admire him during subsequent trips they made together, like the one to Ecuador, which needed to address its sex-trafficking problem in order to avoid U.S. sanctions. While Clark and other diplomats were asleep in the hotel, Cohen would be out night-frighting — collecting evidence he'd return with at dawn and pass on over morning coffee. If his methods freaked her out at first, Cohen's results were effective. “He's unique,” says Clark by phone from Vienna. “His [field] work greatly contributed to the strength of the report we wrote because it was able to show situations from the victim's point of view. He sees the big picture.”
Clark, who currently advises the OSCE's 56 member states — such as the former Soviet Republic of Georgia — on implementing actions to prevent slavery, plans to return to advocacy work in the U.S. “Much of the focus [in terms of this issue] is on prevention, protection, assistance and prosecution,” she says. Which sounds fine unless you consider what it leaves out: where the demand is coming from. “Most resources are spent combating trafficking in source countries,” she says. “But what about the countries that drive the business? The West is where you find those rich enough to pay for those kinds of services.”
Orange County is one of those places. On May 16, Cohen rode along with the Westminster Police Department and the O.C. Human Trafficking Task Force on a successful raid of two acupuncture/chiropractic clinics the cops suspected were brothels. “After a month of surveillance,” says Cohen, “Westminster P.D. could tell these women were not just prostitutes doing their jobs. They were never left alone. Every morning, an SUV transported them from the home where they were being held to one of the other locations, where they were forced to have sex with customers.” At the end of the day, the nine Asian women were picked up and ushered into the SUV with that day's laundry — sheets and towels they were expected to wash in time for work the following morning.
While assessing the larger human-trafficking situation in O.C. for a Garden Grove‚Äìbased NGO called U.S. International Mission, Cohen made undercover visits to both locations for a shoulder massage in the weeks leading up to the raid. He noted the telltale signs of a sex room — lube, baby oil and lots of Kleenex — “not something you usually find in a medical office,” says Dottie Laster. After an undercover officer received a sexual solicitation, police were able to obtain a search warrant. Believing they were observing something bigger than a straightforward pimping-and-pandering case, Westminster P.D. notified ICE, the largest investigative branch of the Department of Homeland Security, which sent its agents out to gather evidence.
The raid began with teams of seven staking out all three locations in a residential neighborhood. As soon as the ICE agents came in with the warrant, the boss sneaked out and fled in his white Nissan. The cops were ready, and Cohen rode along in a classic chase scene he calls “right out of a movie.” They managed to force the Vietnamese suspect into a dead-end street, where he tried to pass himself off as a customer before being arrested.
Cohen says the police confiscated Singaporean passports, Ecstasy pills and guns, including a stolen Glock 9. All but one of the women, who speaks Chinese, are Vietnamese — and most appear to be licensed acupuncturists and massage therapists who were recruited in Singapore and brought to the U.S. under the pretense they would be given legitimate work. Although to the casual observer it might appear to be just typical cop-show fodder, for Cohen the foreign passports, involvement of federal ICE agents, and presence of drugs and guns point to something much darker than a run-of-the-mill prostitution ring.
“With 10 beautiful girls, you can make a million dollars cash in a year,” he says. “And guess what? You can intimidate their families enough so that they will never testify.” Cohen also points to the fact that the women seemed to have been denied contact with the outside world as an indicator of their helplessness. “They were not allowed to leave the house, even for shampoo.”
In a discussion I had with him a few weeks before the raid, Westminster P.D. Lieutenant Derek Marsh said that although he and his colleagues have long suspected that Orange County is a point of destination for international traffickers with connections to criminal networks, “We don't have the resources at the local level to pursue them.” Marsh was not authorized to comment on the latest case, which he said would be prosecuted under the “more robust” federal trafficking law.
Cohen suggests that intelligence agencies are “failing to acknowledge the centuries-old link” between gangs, arms, drugs and human trafficking. For him, the presence of all four of those at the Westminster bust “means that mafias with access to weapons of mass destruction have access to L.A.”
He believes, in other words, that the same Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai triads who enslave women work with the thugs moving heroin from its source in Myanmar's Golden Triangle down the Salween and Mekong rivers to southern Thailand and eventually Los Angeles. That scenario has been floated in intelligence circles before. But Cohen takes it a step further by saying those Southeast Asian gangs are also being “branded” by violent terrorist organizations linked to al Qaeda, such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, whose stated goal is to create a caliphate (Islamic state under sharia law) that would encompass Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines. J.I.'s former operational leader, Hambali, has been in U.S. custody at Guant√°namo since 2003, when he was captured in Thailand. Hambali is widely believed to be the brains behind the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200. Early this month, Indonesian police arrested J.I.'s military commander, and on June 15 announced they were also holding Zarkasi — the network's supreme leader, who had replaced Hambali.
“The terror machine is on,” Cohen says gloomily. “When you look at the expansion of terrorist operations in Southeast Asia, it's really easy to see that the connection is heroin.”
Firsthand experience notwithstanding, Cohen says he owes the mafia-branding theory partly to the work of Steven Emerson (who directs the think tank Investigative Project on Terrorism and has been criticized by some for his “anti-Muslim stance”). Emerson has sounded more than one false alarm, but he can take credit for telling the Senate Judiciary Committee back in 1998 that the “followers of Osama bin Laden” posed a significant threat to U.S. security.
In his latest book, Jihad Incorporated, Emerson argues that despite the warning of 9/11, “The American public and the West at large seem to have settled into a dangerous complacency, still unaware of the nature of the diffuse threat that faces our society and our way of life.” He goes on to demonstrate the extent to which he believes Islamic radicalism has pervaded our cities, charities and governments.
So even though Vietnamese gangsters bringing girls, guns and drugs into Little Saigon may not overtly share the jihadist ideology of terrorist militias, Cohen thinks they are all too willing to do their benefactors' bidding, for the right price. That worries him. It should also, he says, scare the hell out of the rest of us.
A few days after our meeting in Orange County, I'm expecting Cohen for lunch on the Hollywood hilltop I've been calling home for a couple of weeks, but as the appointed hour approaches, he calls, sounding agitated. “There's a lot of pressure on me today,” he says cryptically, and then, almost as an afterthought, adds, “I have Prince Surkhanpha here with me, and he's willing to give you a phone interview. This is your five-minute warning.” Then Cohen hangs up.
Sao Surkhanpha is the son of Myanmar's first president, whose family was exiled in the early '60s after the violent military coup. He's also the royal heir to the throne of Shan State. After being sheltered by the Thai royal family, to whom the Shans are ethnically and linguistically related, Surkhanpha graduated from a U.K. university and has since made his living in Alberta, Canada, as a geological consultant for oil companies. Frustrated by the international community's failure to act against the SPDC and motivated by what he calls the desire to rescue Shan State's 8 million people from “death and destruction” at the hands of the Burmese army, the prince and other exiled Shans formed an interim government just over two years ago. In declaring Shan State's independence, they cited the 1947 Constitution of Burma, which granted the ethnic-minority states the right to secede.
The politics at work here are more worthy of a book than a paragraph. But Surkhanpha claims to have a mandate, a war cabinet and an army of 20,000 to 30,000 men loyal to him. Just before he is scheduled to call, I reach for the Shan State Gazette, the interim government's official publication (funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute), which informs me that the prince “enjoys the outdoors, painting, photography, classical music and the occasional game of chess.” I know all this about the elder statesman. What I don't understand is what he is suddenly doing in Los Angeles with Aaron Cohen.
When the phone rings, the wind is blowing so hard it's actually shaking the windows, and I struggle to hear His 69-year-old Royal Highness. Three decades in Canada haven't rounded the vowels of his flawless Queen's English. Cohen tells me the prince is touring Commonwealth countries to drum up support for the interim Shan government. Royals stick together, I think, and Cohen says that Surkhanpha will soon hold a private audience with Prince Charles. I ask the Shan prince why he's come here.
“Well, you know about the opium that flourishes in the Shan State to the benefit and patronage of the Burmese generals,” he says eloquently. I can almost hear his handlers breathing down his neck. “And we are pledged to eradicate it, not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of people here in Los Angeles, people in New York, London, Paris and wherever these drugs go. And so, yes, we are looking for help from the outside world, but we are not only asking for help. We are also giving something which is very much worthwhile.”
I ask if he is seeking international assistance in stopping the drug flow from the Golden Triangle. “More than that,” he responds, “we don't like our Shan uranium being used for purposes of war.” The prince goes on to back up what Cohen has seen: “Yes, it's being done by the Burmese regime to curry favor with the Iranians and the Pakistanis and the North Koreans,” he says. “Of course, unfortunately these powers are also being egged on, dare I say, by the People's Republic of China.”
He's not the first to accuse China of power politics, but now there's a commotion on the other end. The prince is getting advice from his consultant, an ex-military man from the West who asks to remain anonymous. Surkhanpha changes the subject, to human-rights violations, indisputable territory when it comes to the SPDC.
“We have evidence of mass graves,” he says sadly. “We have had farmers whose bodies were floating down the Salween with their hands tied behind their back, shot in the back of the head. And then there's the link between the opium trade, international terrorism and the slave trade.”
If and when Shan State achieves independence from Myanmar, the prince tells me before hanging up, he doesn't intend to retain the title “His Royal Highness” or reclaim any throne. Regardless, he and his followers appear to have a long slog ahead. Other Shan political parties, such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy — which won the most Shan seats in the country's most recent elections (1990) and whose leaders are now in jail — have yet to grant Surkhanpha their support. But under the SPDC's atmosphere of fear and repression, this could be just their way of staying alive. What the prince seems to have recognized is that human-rights abuses alone are not enough to nail the SPDC in the eyes of the international community. But cry “terror,” and you may have an audience.
Tommy Calvert, who helped write Congress' Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which further sanctioned the SPDC for human-rights and other abuses over four years ago, sees the logic in cash-poor Burmese dictators befriending cash-rich terror networks: “They have a mutual enemy in the U.S.,” he says. And after witnessing the SPDC's atrocities firsthand, he has no doubt they are capable of more far-reaching violence. “The [Burmese] military would go into villages and raid for what I termed at the time 'human minesweeper slaves' to lead them through the minefields. These slaves would be mounted with equipment so heavy that they could hardly stand — many were beaten and told to continue moving. If they were maimed and could not continue, the military would leave them to die. I don't know how to remind people of how dangerous it is to leave people like that in power other than to remind them of history. We used to not think Hitler or the Taliban would become anything powerful or dangerous. But when the alliances of those who seek to oppress and suppress freedom are made against those who seek to preserve and promote it, we often find a problem that seemed harmless erupting into a global war.”
After a month in Aaron Cohen's mind-boggling world, I'm relieved to be leaving it, even if it means returning to Florida, where my father is dying. My plane is boarding just as the phone rings, so I'm only half-listening as the familiar placid voice comes on the line. “So last night I met with Laura Bickford…” The name means nothing to me. “Yeah?” I say, waiting for more names to drop. “She's the producer making the film about Che Guevara, and so Benicio del Toro, who's gonna play Che, and Pablo Guevara, Che's nephew, were there.” He wants me to congratulate him, I guess, but somehow I don't feel up to it. What, I ask, is his connection to Guevara?
He tells me the producers want firsthand advice on the life of jungle revolutionaries. Cohen has met more than a few of those on his travels. And I try to indulge him in this conversation for a moment, but my thoughts are elsewhere. I have to hang up, I say. My plane is going back to the real world.
Aaron Cohen, peacemaker and would-be high priest, has surfed with Perry Farrell, had lunch with the Dalai Lama, and probably helped save thousands of lives between his night-frighting and testimony on behalf of enslaved people everywhere. Does he really need Hollywood's approval? Then I remember something the O.C. Task Force's Dottie Laster said that puts things in perspective: “There's a certain shock value to this issue. Some people want to be there for the fun part — the celebrity events or whatever. And don't get me wrong, those are important. But Aaron does this out of genuine concern for the victims. He grieves for the ones left behind… Here's someone who could be leading a much more profitable existence, but he's there 24/7.”
True, Cohen's altruism radiates from every pore. But as L.A. disappears from view, I begin thinking that none of our motivations are untainted by self-interest. There's something about slavery — its sheer awfulness and our desire to eradicate it, single-handedly even — that gives anyone who comes close to it some delusion of grandeur.
I think back to a conversation I had on that Hollywood hilltop with Lisa Miller, who made a documentary on the subject for a Cambodian audience and is working on another. “Trying to understand human trafficking is like being sucked into a black hole,” she told me. During her six years in Phnom Penh, Miller got close to all kinds of people involved in sex trafficking — from “nice girls” sold into slavery by their parents right up to the corrupt government officials and well-meaning NGO officers trying to “do something” about it in the face of competing political agendas. All of them, she says, were paralyzed by the issue's complexities, but “Aaron understands the problem, so he's not freaked out by it.” Miller is still processing the issues her film project has brought up for her. “There's something so powerful about trying to bring light into the dark places,” she said. “But we're all trying to heal ourselves at the same time. So when you take it on, it can take you down.”
Settling into my grimy airplane seat, I flip once more to Cohen's diary and reread a passage he wrote just before the Myanmar mission. It makes more sense now:
Searchers after horror like myself try to be in prayer on Channel 1. Channel 2 is stay alive. Three is filled with the beauty seducing me off path, or untying me from scruples… to take them away as a “pretty woman” from all of this, and payloads of grief, living out their short lives as sex slaves, but I am no Hollywood actor. The haunted go-go bars, massage parlors, and red light nightmares are where I am on Channel 4. But the true epicenter in the terrible reality of my own self-realization is my own loss of feelings. There is no Channel 5; I go numb… I don't wait in vain for some fantasy idea that sees me receiving the simple and beautiful blessings of life and family. Expect nothing, after all — how can I have a family? … This is my job; I am a slave hunter. In many ways now, I too am enslaved to the poor. I get a lot of hero this and hero that talk, but more and more I am drifting away somewhere else…
After a few days, I call Cohen. I'm hoping to hear him say he's been sleeping in or going to the beach, but he starts talking about an international academy to school police and special operatives in human trafficking networks — a longtime dream he's hoping to set up in Bangkok. Then there's the “Pandora's box” he may have opened by taking part in the Westminster raid. His normal schedule involves traveling on the missions, then coming home for a few days to recuperate before the next one. Now, he's involved on a local level. “If I continue on this path,” he says, “I will not be able to base myself here anymore.”
The women rescued from the Westminster brothel are in a safe house while federal agents conduct follow-up interviews, he tells me. So far the suspect has been charged only with harboring an illegal alien, but the shell-shocked women are likely candidates for T-visas, which grant human-trafficking victims who assist in investigations the right to stay here for three years before applying for a green card.
In the meantime, Cohen has arranged manicures and massages for the women. “I told them I'd take them to the beach today, but they wanted to go to a swimming pool instead,” he laughs, sounding genuinely happy. But when I ask how he's doing, he stops, as though he hadn't considered that. “I carry a load of grief in my heart,” he starts. “There are so many faces in my mind…”
One of those faces belongs to Kao, the Shan soldier who lost his leg. “Ah, yeah, we're trying to get him a prosthetic limb from the Global Angels charity through Paul McCartney,” he says. “I haven't stopped thinking about him.”
I tell Cohen that maybe he should take a break, get away somewhere low-key, like Thailand, or, okay, not Thailand, how about Canada? There aren't that many people enslaved in Canada, are there? He laughs. I'm sure he's probably fun to hang out with once you get off this topic. If you can get off this topic.
He tells me that he's just a suitcase-packing away from being ready to leave. But he's not likely to go to a beach somewhere and just lie there, oblivious. Those faces, those voices of Aaron Cohen's — you don't just switch them off.
“I'll be on the move again soon,” he promises.
Toll-free number to report human trafficking: 1-888-373-7888.
This is the first in a occasional series of articles on human trafficking.