And You Thought U.S. Slavery Ended in 1865...

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While America's top two organized crime rackets — guns and drugs — are getting a lot of media play these days, the underworld's third biggest moneymaker has somehow been left out of the spotlight. Neither politicians nor the media paid much attention in November to a federal report showing that trafficking of foreign-born female slaves into the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, and the fact that this report was brought to light in a story in Saturday's New York Times has women's groups asking why nobody seemed to notice it before. After all, remember all the hubbub over the American Medical Association report that Ritalin use among two-year-olds was on the rise? Is that really more egregious than the finding that nine-year-old Thai girls are being sold en masse to work in sweatshops in L.A.'s garment district, or that the Russian mob runs a growing racket that promises young Latvian women jobs in Chicago, and then abducts them and forces them into prostitution?

The report concludes that the federal government does too little to pressure other countries into stemming the supply side, while U.S. law enforcement isn't doing its part to discourage the domestic market. Specifically, it asserts that U.S. attorneys don't want to bother pursuing these complex international cases and that federal laws don't punish traffickers strongly enough to discourage the practice. The report was assembled by State Department analyst Amy Richard as a special research project commissioned by the CIA. It found that some 50,000 female slaves are funneled into the U.S. annually, with a recent increase due in large part to normalization of relations with the countries of the former Soviet Union. "The CIA's kind of looking at this report as coming from an outsider, since it wasn't from a staff analyst," notes TIME CIA correspondent Massimo Calabresi. "Nobody in the agency's quite sure what to do about it, but it certainly seems that no action is coming down the pike."

While the issue may have some hope of catching steam at the federal level, it doesn't seem likely to take its place alongside school vouchers and trigger locks as major campaign issues. Both Janet Reno and Madeleine Albright have mentioned it as a growing crisis in recent weeks, but neither looks poised to make it one of their top issues. The Times story quotes one anonymous government official who seemed to sum up the feds' attitude toward the issue: "We have hundreds and hundreds of government analysts looking at drugs, arms, economic issues, but hardly anyone on this."