Ending the Slave Trade in Our Time
I believe in the power of individuals to change the world. Social movements take root and blossom when enough individuals take personal action. When you tell yourself that there is nothing that you can do to arrest the global slave trade, you underestimate your own potential and abandon hope for those trapped in captivity.
I speak from experience. In the early 1980s I went to the country of El Salvador to visit grassroots organizations that provided food and medical aid to impoverished communities. I had no grand plan in mind beyond seeing if there was anything I could do to support their work.
At the time, a military government terrorized the civilian El Salvadoran population. The generals especially did not like groups that preached democracy and social development for the poor. Two years before I arrived, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, Oscar Romero, was shot in the heart in the middle of mass as he stood behind the altar. During his sermons, Romero had boldly addressed military atrocities against civilians.
A year later, military death squads savagely raped and murdered four U.S. religious women who worked in El Salvadoran refugee camps. In response to these murders, President Jimmy Carter induced Congress to cut off tens of millions of dollars of economic aid to the government of El Salvador. That act certainly got the attention of the generals.
Up until that moment, military death squads had acted with near impunity. They would conduct intelligence on individuals working for social change and then at night take off their uniforms and visit their homes. In the morning, neighbors would find their mangled bodies with a note attached: “This is what happens to subversives.”
During my first visit, my new El Salvadoran friends implored me to start a human-rights program that would protect them from the death squads. I had no background in this type of work. In fact, I had never been involved previously in any kind of political work or international diplomacy. A couple of years earlier, I had earned a degree in psychology from Westmont College, a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara, California.
After about nine months, the U.S. Congress restored economic and military aid to El Salvador, but the generals in El Salvador had learned a lesson: it was fine to kill El Salvadorans, but not U.S. citizens. I, too, took note of the skewed rules of international politics, and so I leveraged the value of a U.S. citizen to save an El Salvadoran life. I recruited friends and acquaintances to go to El Salvador as unarmed bodyguards, and their only shield would be a U.S. passport.
The initial plan was simple. A team of six U.S. citizens would pass a month in El Salvador on twenty-four-hour alert. One member of the team would accompany any El Salvadoran healthcare worker or pastor or literacy worker who received a threat from a death squad. Two more of my “bodyguards” would stay at the family home of the individual at risk. I assigned an additional two bodyguards to stay full-time at the threatened individual’s agency office: the death squads would at times bomb the offices of grassroots organizations that they sought to destroy. The final member of the six-person team would visit the chief of the military police of El Salvador, as well as a senior El Salvadoran government official and the U.S. ambassador. These authorities would be informed that U.S. citizens had aligned their fate with the targeted community leader.
I participated in the first team of six that went to El Salvador in 1984. We had been in the country for only a few days when the executive director for all the Baptist churches in El Salvador, Rev. Carlos Sanchez, contacted us. He held in his hand a note from one of the more notorious death squads. The message was clear: “Unless you leave the country within forty-eight hours, you and your family will be killed.”
On two previous occasions, Rev. Sanchez had received similar death threats and had taken his family out of the country for a year at a time. But now that he was responsible for over fifty Baptist churches in his country, he did not want to leave. If a high-profile church leader fled when he received a death threat, how would the parish pastor in a rural village feel? What motivation would that give a health care educator teaching peasants community medical models? So Rev. Sanchez asked if we could help him and his family stay in the country and continue their work.
We swiftly put our plan into action. A young U.S. seminary student from Las Vegas, Nevada, accompanied Rev. Sanchez around the clock. Two members of the team went to his house to stay with his wife and four children, and two others camped out at the national headquarters for the Baptist church. I took on the role of visiting the authorities, essentially warning them of a major international incident if they did not take quick action to stop the death squad. Each authority I visited denied knowing the identity of these “shadowy groups,” the death squads. I politely responded that it was in their power to stop this assassination. I relayed our commitment to stay by the side of our El Salvadoran friends.
Fortunately, the gambit paid off. Rev. Sanchez and his family survived and continued their valuable work in local communities. Over the months to follow, our project sent a new team of six U.S. citizens to El Salvador every month to play a similar role. On each occasion, the life of an El Salvadoran was protected by the presence of U.S. citizens.
The El Salvadoran authorities eventually discovered the leadership behind our human-rights work. I was banned from entering the country, and many of our team members had trouble securing visas. Quickly shifting to Plan B, we decided to launch a fake economic development agency as a front for our human-rights group.
I still get a chuckle when I recall the phone call I made to one of my Westmont College friends, Jim Morgan, asking him to go to El Salvador and become our first agronomist. Jim had graduated with a degree in religious studies, and at the time of my call, was driving a forklift at a yogurt factory. His initial response was reasonable: “But I hardly know anything about agriculture.” I explained that it did not matter, since his primary role was to serve as a human-rights presence and he only had to pretend to be an agronomist. I made similar calls to other friends asking them to take on other roles—a nutritionist, a health care worker, and so on—in our new “economic development agency.” Every one of us was around twenty-five years old and lacked experience for the job we set out to do.
A long story could follow—we stayed in El Salvador for more than a decade, until a peace treaty ended the violent civil war—but I will cut to the chase. Not only did we continue to carry out human-rights work and rescue the lives of many El Salvadorans, we also evolved into a proficient economic development agency. Jim Morgan became one of the most highly respected agronomists in El Salvador. He initiated an experimental farm where he introduced peasants to new ways of farming on steep, poor land. Our other staff also developed excellent skills in areas for which they had no formal training. What we did have going for us was an education, a compassion for the defenseless, and the courage to stand up for what is right. We did not listen to family, friends, and politicians who told us that this international problem was too big for us, that it was beyond our means to make a difference.
So today I am convinced that every single individual can make a valuable contribution to arrest the global slave trade. If you doubt that fact, it is probably because you underestimate the power of your personal resources. Twenty years ago, all it took for a U.S. citizen to save the life of an El Salvadoran was to hold up a passport. Sometimes it is simply who you are, and not only what you can do, that can make a difference. Truly, the hardest step to take is the first one: the commitment to take action. The ensuing steps have a way of revealing themselves.
Louis Etongwe, age fifty-two, liberates slaves from the homes of wealthy families in the states of Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.
No, that’s not a news bulletin from pre–Civil War America. Louis lives in modern-day Williamsburg, Virginia, and in seven separate incidents since 1999 he has rescued teenage African girls from domestic servitude and sexual bondage. Remarkably, Louis has no training in immigration law, he has no social services organization standing behind him, and he funds his activities with the money he earns from a modest salary working for the telephone company. “I act out of principle,” Louis says without a trace of hubris. “I can’t sit by passively when predators take advantage of the defenseless.”
His odyssey toward abolition began over a Thanksgiving meal at his cousin’s home in Richmond, Virginia. His cousin was helping out a family friend by giving shelter to a teenager from Cameroon—an African country located just south of Nigeria in West Africa—who was “fleeing captivity.” The term captivity piqued Louis’s curiosity. He thought maybe the girl had run into political problems back in the country where he himself had been born. So after the meal ended, he asked the teenager directly about her troubles.
His jaw dropped as she detailed her enslavement in the home of a wealthy family in the Richmond area. Her “masters” had promised her parents in Cameroon that, in exchange for work in their home, the fourteen-year-old girl would receive an education. Moreover, they offered to send her wages back to Cameroon on a regular basis. The American couple used their own daughter’s passport—fabricated with a photo of their new recruit—to bring the girl into the United States.
Once the girl arrived in Virginia, the slaveholders forced her to work at domestic chores from dawn to dusk. She never attended school; for that matter, she could not leave the house unless accompanied by the husband or the wife. The slaveholders prohibited her from having any communication with her family back in Africa, though they assured her that they were sending them regular payments. As if that were not awful enough, the man frequently violated her sexually.
While relating her story to Louis, the girl dropped a hint that she was not the only girl from her tribe in Africa who had been trafficked to the United States. Louis seized on that reference. “What do you mean that there are ‘others that have fallen into the same trap’?” he asked.
“Several of us from our region were brought here,” she replied.
“Do you know their names and where they went?” Louis asked.
“Certainly, I can provide you with names and locations,” she said softly. “I cannot feel totally free while they stay in captivity. You must help them.”
At that moment, Louis knew he had been called to a noble cause. He had no choice—he had always stood up for the defenseless. As a young boy in grammar school in Cameroon, he never allowed the playground bullies to take advantage of the weakest kids. “Even when the fight was none of my business,” Louis recalls, “I would step in and defend a kid before he got pummeled.”
Now, hearing the testimony of this frightened adolescent, a familiar wave of responsibility welled up inside of him. When his cousin confessed that he could not offer refuge to the girl for more than a few days, Louis and his wife agreed to take her into their own home. The following day Louis called an FBI hotline to report an incident of international abduction and forced labor. As strange as it felt to say, he told the FBI that he was harboring an escaped slave in his home.
Never Waste a Perfect Opportunity
The FBI was slow responding to the report Louis had made about finding slavery in Richmond, he felt, so he tried engaging the INS and the local police. They showed polite interest, too, but no one made his houseguest’s case a priority, nor would they pursue his leads on other girls from Cameroon who might be enslaved.
“I realized that if I didn’t take action, no one else would,” Louis says. So he dialed the home phone number of a New Jersey family on the list of names that his houseguest had provided. In hopes that the enslaved girl might be in the house alone, he called in the middle of the day. The scheme worked—a seventeen-year-old Cameroon girl picked up the phone and confirmed that she had spent three years in captivity subject to the same abuses as the first victim that Louis had met. The girl on the phone confessed that she had resigned herself to a lifetime of slavery, and so this call out of the blue felt like a miracle.
When Louis asked the whereabouts of her home village in Cameroon, he was mildly surprised that she named a place only two miles from his own childhood home. The real shocker came when he inquired about her family background. She blurted out the name of his first cousin—he had known this girl’s mother for most of his life. The daughter had been a toddler when Louis had emigrated to the United States. And here they were, making a first contact in a foreign land at the worst of times.
Then again, perhaps their paths had crossed at the best of times. The girl now had no doubts that a miracle was unfolding. Before she had left Cameroon, her mother had urged her to contact Mr. Louis Etongwe if she ran into trouble in America. She had lost his phone number, but here was Louis on the phone offering to rescue her. “Please, Mr. Etongwe,” she pleaded, “free me from this prison! I fear for my life!”
Louis subscribes to the theory that a perfect opportunity should never be wasted; the window may never open again. “The masters of the house have left you at home alone,” he noted, “so we must seize this chance to get you out.”
They hatched an impromptu escape plan. The girl explained that she was tending three young children and did not feel right simply abandoning them without a caretaker. The mother arrived home promptly at 4:00 each afternoon, and the girl could see her car approaching up a long driveway. As soon as her car entered the driveway, the girl could sneak out the back door and run to a side street. Louis has a brother-in-law who lives in New Jersey, and he would call in a favor—the brother-in-law would be waiting in the side street with the car running. He would take the girl back to his home, and there they would wait for Louis, who would be driving up to New Jersey that evening after he got off work in Virginia.
The plan came off without a hitch, and the girl was rescued. On the long trip back to Virginia, she filled Louis in on the details of her captivity. She had not had contact with her family for three years. On one occasion, she had caught a glimpse of a letter from Cameroon with her mother’s handwriting on the envelope, but the letter had disappeared. She assumed that other letters had been confiscated as well.
By 2002, Louis had rescued two additional girls from domestic slavery. So now four young girls lived with him and his exceedingly generous wife. But try as he might, Louis had trouble lighting a fire under the justice system to offer the girls protection. Investigation into a trafficking crime generally moves at a snail’s pace, even in cases like these where the testimonies of the victims are solid. As commonly happens, the slaveholders claimed that the girls’ parents back in Cameroon had consented to an employment contract, and they had signed documents to prove it. Neither local nor federal law enforcement agents were likely to send an investigator over to Africa to unravel the truth.
Louis therefore bought a plane ticket and a video camera and headed over to Cameroon on his own. He visited the families of each girl now living in his home and filmed their testimonies detailing how the traffickers had promised an education and a well-paying job for their daughters. None of the families had heard directly from their daughters from the moment they arrived in the United States, and their “employers” had not sent any money.
Louis particularly relished a visit to his home village. When he arrived, his cousin was in mourning, dressed completely in black. “Dear cousin,” she spoke tearfully to him upon his arrival, “I wish it were with joy that I could mark your visit from America. But I have received sad news that my daughter went missing in your new homeland and is presumed dead.”
His news that her daughter was alive and safely sharing his own home became a cause for great celebration. He then played for them a video message from the girl to her family and friends. There was not a dry eye in the village.
Passing a Test
After gathering crime evidence in Cameroon, Louis faced tribulations of his own back in the United States. The slaveholders had discovered who had facilitated the escape of “their property,” and they began making threatening phone calls to his home. Louis received angry phone calls as well from other Cameroon foreign nationals living in the United States who believed that his activities had tainted the reputation of their entire community. “Why don’t you just leave good enough alone,” they told him bitterly. “You know as well as I do that these girls were as poor as dirt back home; they are much better off here.”
Meanwhile, Louis’s wife had tired of the constant drama that the rescued slaves had brought to their lives, not to mention the mounting costs of meals, medical care, and legal aid. On one of the many long trips that Louis made to the INS district office, his car broke down and he did not have the money to fix it. Louis’s wife wanted it all to end—and soon.
His troubles reached an apex in mid-2002 when he came home from work and saw several police cars parked in his driveway. The police had been tipped off that Louis was harboring illegal aliens and running a brothel out of his home. The “tips” had come from the slaveholders, who wrote slanderous letters to local social ser vice agencies and the police. The police now threatened to throw Louis and the girls into jail.
Fortunately, Louis had kept meticulous documentation of his work on behalf of the girls. He also had kept the business cards of those immigration attorneys and law enforcement agents who had invited him to call any time he might need help. That moment had arrived, and he passed the cards on to the police. Once the police called his references, they received confirmation that Louis was “one of the good guys.”
Following the raid on his home, the local newspaper published a feature story on Louis’s activities and lauded his sacrifice to liberate enslaved teens. Neighbors stopped by to congratulate him and sheepishly acknowledge that they had been asked to monitor his activities. “Now we understand why so many investigators were coming to our homes and asking about you,” they told him.
Almost as if he had passed his test, everything started to fall into place following the police raid on his home. The attorney general’s office arrested the slaveholders and brought them to trial. Once juries had watched Louis’s videotape of the parents and heard the testimonies of the girls, they convicted the perpetrators of abduction and sexual assault. The girls obtained residency in the United States, found boyfriends and jobs, and maintain regular contact with their families in Cameroon.
For his part, Louis has rescued three additional girls enslaved in domestic labor and is working covertly on a few other unresolved cases. He is reticent to talk about his work, mostly because he wants to deflect attention from himself. He desires no greater reward than what he has already gained. “I’ve never felt so much strength and passion in my life as I have liberating these girls,” he explains. “I feel like I tapped into a gold mine of meaning for my own life.”
Asked from where he draws his strength, Louis points to his grandparents. When he was a young boy, his village had the good fortune to land one of the first schoolhouses in all of Cameroon. Families from distant regions hoped against hope that their children might attend the school, but they did not know how they could manage the logistics. Louis’s grandparents offered to take in as many as a dozen kids at a time so that they could attend school. Walking into his grandparent’s home felt like entering a dormitory.
“But they did not treat it like a sacrifice,” Louis recalls. “To help someone in need felt like a gift.” Louis ponders that comment for a moment, then adds, “I think my grandparents would be very proud of what I am doing today.”
Indeed, the Etongwe legacy has crossed an ocean but has lost none of its power to move mountains.
This story is from ‘Not for Sale’ by David Batstone, HarperSanFrancisco
Copyright © 2006 HarperCollins Publishers, All rights reserved