All week people have been sending me a news story whose source is a press release from the Spanish National Police claiming another triumph in the crusade against sex trafficking. In the years I lived in Spain such stories of breaking up gangster networks were published continuously – so often that I wondered why police didn’t soften the claim. The implication was, and is, that endless police actions are necessary against an infinite number of organised trafficking rings. The possibility that police are not actually breaking up rings but rather taking down a few organisers and lots of undocumented migrants is not mentioned. The theory and practice of policing of this social problem is crude and ineffective, like sticking a finger in a leaky dam.
The Policía Nacional, in charge of keeping smuggled migrants and smuggled drugs out of Spain, issue press releases to advertise successful operations. The investigation in question led to picking up both undocumented migrants and people moving them around the country, finding them jobs and making money off them – whether you call them traffickers, entrepreneurs, fixers or pimps. The fixing they do is standard in migration settings and can be done abusively or in a normal, businesslike way, whether the migrants work selling sex or doing some other job and whether they are men, women or transgender. As the police acknowledged, many of the migrants admitted they knew what sort of work they would be doing in Spain.
Of course it’s crap when migrants have been misled about the conditions they’ll have for living and working and feel trapped. The press release referred to the squalid flats some migrants were living in. Look at the police video and judge for yourself how demonic it looks. The narrator says migrants had to give 50% of their earnings to the people in charge plus pay for food and lodging. It’s a bad deal but it isn’t slavery and it is not unusual amongst undocumented migrants. The debt mentioned, €4 000, is also not a high amount for a trip from Brazil, where most of the migrants were said to come.
This Spanish press release relates how police captured members of a network dealing with (and in) men rather than women. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t such networks before, or that smuggling rings are all gender-specific, or that things are really getting bad when men begin to be treated like women.
It also doesn’t mean something specially demonic is going on because drugs are mentioned -the Policía Nacional are also charged with stopping drug trafficking, remember, so they mention any they find. The presence of viagra makes the scenario sound more titillating and sex-slavey, but I think one can understand that drug in the same way one can understand alcohol, hash and cocaine in these settings – substances some people use to feel better or more capable of performing or enduring unpleasantness or having fun. Without knowing how many of the migrants complained that these drugs were forced on them or that they were not allowed to sleep, we might refrain from getting all het up.
Police interrogations of migrants picked up in raids tend towards fruitlessness and dodgy information. Undocumented people want to avoid being deported at all cost. The police want to find traffickers above all. The atmosphere is conducive to telling a certain kind of story of ignorance and victimisation: interrogations are not moments for the detained to strongly assert agency about buying false documents, selling sex or taking drugs.
This ring-bust might be a significant one, there’s no way to know. The proliferation of the limited, exciting-sounding information from a single press release into all the major media, treating it as Big Terrible Urgent news is about the Internet – not journalism, or not what we used to think of as journalism. An egregious example comes from Diario Vasco: Prostitutos forzosos 24 horas a base de viagra (prostitutes forced 24 hours with viagra), followed by the typical thoughtless cliché Venían con la promesa de ser bailarines o ejercer la prostitución de alto ‘standing’, pero vivían hacinados y explotados.
So, could this be a particularly bad trafficking story? Maybe, but I doubt it. Does it deserve all the hullaballoo it’s getting? Definitely not.