The U.S. State Department this week honored two Nicaraguan police officials for their heroic efforts to combat human trafficking. Police Lieutenant Juan Victoriano Ruíz and Public Prosecutor Javier Antonio Morazán were named Trafficking in Persons Report Heroes by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. Modern abolitionists from Cameroon, Croatia, Guyana, Iraq, Japan, the Philippines and the United Kingdom were also recognized.
After an award ceremony in Washington, D.C., the heroes flew to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a visit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where they learned about the United States’ history of overcoming institutional slavery 150 years ago. They also attended a screening of Journey to Freedom, an original documentary on historic and modern abolition, co-created by the Freedom Center and the US State Department, with support from Google.
Ruiz said of the film, “It was very moving to see that it was the police (in Cambodia) who sold the man into trafficking, to see people at a high level who were supporting human trafficking. In Nicaragua, our law does not care if you have money, if you’re a foreigner, a national—we don’t care. You will be prosecuted.”
While legal slavery ended in the U.S. with the end of its civil war, the issue of forced labor, commonly known as human trafficking, continues around the world, including in the United States. In Cincinnati, these TIP Report Heroes met with U.S. citizens working on the issue, including NGO leaders and the FBI.
In their official biographies about the heroes, the US State Department honored Nicaragua’s heroes with the following words:
“The partnership that Juan Victoriano Ruíz and Javier Antonio Morazán have forger in their efforts to combat human trafficking has been one of the most important law enforcement advances in Nicaragua.
Mr. Morazán, the Head of the Public Prosecutor’s Anti-Corruption and Anti-Organized Crime Unit, is one of the Nicaraguan government’s most knowledgeable officials on human trafficking. Since 2009, he has been personally responsible for the vast majority of convictions against traffickers, and under his leadership, the number of human trafficking prosecutions went from zero to a record high of 35 in 2012.
But Nicaragua’s progress in prosecutions is not due solely to Mr. Morazán’s work in the Public Prosecutor’s office. Without Lieutenant Ruíz and his team’s efforts to collect evidence against traffickers and shut down human trafficking rings, none of the success of Mr. Morazán’s unit would have been possible. As the head of the Nicaraguan National Police’s Anti-TIP Unit (NNP), Lieutenant Ruíz leads a small but dedicated group of officers responsible for investigating human trafficking cases throughout Nicaragua. Over the three years since Mr. Ruíz assumed leadership, the NNP has investigated an average of 24 cases a year, compared to an average of 11 cases a year over the two years before Mr. Ruíz’s unit was created.
Each of these officials is extraordinary in his own right; however, what is truly remarkable is the partnership they have formed. Their work together, and the level of coordination and trust they have developed, has been key to advancing Nicaragua’s success in the fight against human trafficking.”
For Morazán, the fight to combat human trafficking is personal. He told an audience at the Freedom Center that he grew up poor, and although he was never exploited, he sees himself in the vulnerable children he fights for every day.
“I’m available to everyone, my cell phone number is public,” he said. “I can’t stay at home in bed while a child is being exploited, or someone is screaming for freedom.”
The TIP heroes also viewed the Freedom Center’s Invisible: Slavery Today exhibit, the world’s first museum-quality display on the issue of human trafficking, which encourages others to join a modern-day network of abolitionists, fighting for freedom around the world.
Morazán closed his remarks on a hopeful note. “They have organized crime, but we have organized justice.”
Natalie Hastings is director of strategic communications for National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, which uses the history of the Underground Railroad to inspire modern abolition. She burns all of her vacation time on the beach in Las Peñitas, Nicaragua.