Ambassador for Freedom

Alumnus Fights to End Human Trafficking

John Cotton Richmond has devoted his career to pursuing justice for victims of human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad.
Photo by Robert Klemm

By Edie Gross

All of the women who testified in United States v. Campbell had come to America with dreams of a better future only to be trafficked by Alex “Cowboy” Campbell, a violent sex trafficker who branded his victims so they’d never forget they belonged to him.

For several weeks in January 2012, the women, all from Eastern Europe and in their early 20s, took the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Chicago.

They shared in excruciating detail how Campbell offered them affection, housing, and help with immigration before seizing their passports and forcing them into prostitution. One by one, the women described how Campbell branded and beat them, extinguished cigarettes on their skin, videotaped them in compromising positions, and threatened to share the videos with their families back home.

John Cotton Richmond ’93 had spent the better part of a decade pursuing justice for human trafficking victims in the U.S. and abroad, so he’d heard stories like these before. The anguish in the courtroom was palpable, but as the lead federal prosecutor on the case, Richmond also felt something else: hope.

(Story continues below photos.)

“It can be an incredibly empowering experience for the victim to get to testify,” said Richmond, whose prosecution team secured multiple convictions and a life sentence for Campbell. “The trafficker has told you, ‘You don’t get to speak, no one is going to listen to you, your opinions don’t matter,’ and now the whole room calls you by your name and wants to hear what you have to say – and the trafficker has to sit there.”

As an attorney with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Richmond prosecuted crimes against humanity throughout the country, everything from police brutality to neo-Nazi violence. But it’s his relentless pursuit of human traffickers that earned him his latest post: ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons at the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) office.

Nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate in October 2018, Richmond is the country’s highest-ranking government official in charge of combating human trafficking. Under Richmond’s leadership, the TIP office helps coordinate U.S. interagency efforts at home and leads diplomatic efforts around the globe aimed at ending the enslavement of an estimated 24.9 million people.

“There’s a need for hope in this space. Human trafficking is not inevitable. It’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s a choice people are making to hurt other people,” Richmond said. “So how do we untangle those relationships, make sure our approach is victim-centered and trauma-informed, and effectively hold traffickers responsible? How can we build U.S. foreign policy around human rights and justice?”

Slavery was legally protected and culturally accepted across many civilizations until about 200 years ago, when human rights advocates, diplomats, and parliamentarians began pushing for change, Richmond said. The modern movement against human trafficking is generally traced to the year 2000, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Palermo Protocol, the first international instrument to define “trafficking in persons” and to require that states criminalize the practice and strive to protect victims. (The terms “trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” are umbrella terms used to refer to both sex trafficking and compelled labor.) That year, Congress enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, addressing the requirements of the Palermo Protocol and establishing the U.S. State Department’s TIP Office.

“We’re now in a place where every country has some law outlawing human trafficking. This moment of history we’re in is incredibly compelling,” Richmond said. “We are in a place where we have this grand consensus that human trafficking is wrong. Now we need to do something with it.”

‘Compelled’ to fight human trafficking

While the brutality of the Campbell case captured headlines, Richmond is quick to point out that not all human trafficking is characterized by beatings, brandings, or victims crossing international borders. Traffickers coerce their victims into forced labor or commercial sex by exploiting their vulnerabilities and creating a climate of fear, he said. That can include threatening their families, withholding pay, isolating them from loved ones, or facilitating addiction and withholding drugs.

While sex trafficking takes up the bulk of media attention, victims of forced labor can be found working in restaurants, at construction sites, inside people’s homes as nannies and housekeepers, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the International Labor Organization reports that traffickers exploit 77 percent of all victims in their country of residence. It’s a crime that often takes place in plain sight because victims fear asking for help, something their traffickers count on.

“It all comes down to whether you believe people have inherent value. If you get to a point where you believe that people don’t have worth, you can treat them like a commodity,” Richmond said. “To see individuals up close who are choosing trafficking and who are making an intentional choice to devalue somebody and take their most basic freedoms is stunning.”

Richmond, who grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, had little knowledge of the problem when he entered Mary Washington as a freshman in fall 1989. He originally chose to focus his studies on political science, but he kept taking geography courses because the professors were so entertaining – both in and out of the classroom. Richmond recalled a snowball fight with the late Professor Richard Palmieri around the fountain in front of Monroe Hall, an area now named Palmieri Plaza. The combination of political science and geography courses, as well as a history course with noted civil rights giant James Farmer, opened his mind to some of the challenges people faced around the world.

After graduating with degrees in political science and geography, he worked for an insurance company for two years, shepherding families through rebuilding their lives after house fires. He then headed to Wake Forest University, where he earned a law degree in 1998 before spending four years handling commercial litigation for a law firm in Roanoke.

Around that time, a friend urged him to read Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World by Gary Haugen. Haugen had been a human rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice before leading the United Nations’ investigation of the Rwandan genocide. In 1997, he founded the International Justice Mission (IJM), a faith-based organization dedicated to freeing human trafficking victims and pursuing legal recourse against their captors.

IJM, Richmond learned, was looking for an attorney willing to move to Chennai, India, and fight for the rights of forced labor victims. Richmond accepted this offer – a pivotal move for him and for his family.

Richmond’s wife is Linda Hahn Richmond ’91, who majored in psychology at Mary Washington and later earned a graduate degree from U.Va. She knew she’d signed up for a life of adventure when Richmond whisked her away from their June 1993 wedding at the Fredericksburg Country Club in a hot-air balloon.

She had read Haugen’s book, too, and she was confident her husband could use his legal skills to help India’s most vulnerable. But the couple had a 10-month-old, and Linda was pregnant with their second child.

“People thought we were crazy,” she recalled of their decision to move to southern India. “We were both so compelled to go. That is the only way I can describe it.”

John Richmond heard discouraging words from friends about his lack of experience in the field. But, he realized, “What we need are people who will go act, who will step into square one and start – go in and get their hands dirty.”

That is exactly what he did. For three years, Richmond directed IJM’s office in Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal, helping local law enforcement agencies take down human traffickers and free forced laborers from rice mills, rock quarries, brick kilns, and plantations. In one instance, a nanny confided in Linda Richmond that she was desperate to return to her native Philippines but was being forced to move to the Persian Gulf with her employer, who had taken her passport. With help from the Richmonds and an IJM case worker, the woman was rescued 48 hours later while picking up the laundry outside her employer’s home.

‘He’s just made to do that job’

In 2006, the family returned to the United States, where Richmond joined the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and became a founding member of its Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit – the same unit that took down Campbell in 2012.

Prosecuting a human trafficking case is uniquely difficult, said attorney Victor Boutros, Richmond’s former colleague at the DOJ. Unlike a drug or gun case where the core evidence may be a stash of heroin or weapons, a human trafficking case often has at its center someone who is traumatized and wary of law enforcement. Their stories may change and evolve over time, and a prosecutor has to be patient when it comes to building a rapport with victims and finding hard evidence that corroborates their stories, Boutros said.

“Your core evidence is a human being. If you’ve got no rapport and trust with that person, it’s not going to go well,” Boutros said. “To have an impact, you need very specialized skills. And John has excelled as much as anyone I have ever met at mastering those skills and the strategies needed for that.”

The key, Richmond said, is joining the investigation from the start, rather than waiting for law enforcement to wrap up its work and hand it to the prosecution team. It can take months or even years to develop trusting relationships with survivors of human trafficking, but that kind of commitment is necessary, he said.

“What happens to them when they are labor trafficked or sex trafficked happens deep inside of them. It’s incredibly personal when your freedom is taken from you,” he said. “So you have to be with victims where they are, go slow, listen, and let them share at their own pace.”

While at DOJ, Richmond helped develop a pilot project with six of the country’s 94 federal judicial districts, creating specialized anti-trafficking units in each district, training them in the strategies that worked best, and then pairing those staffs with prosecutors in the national office so they could work cases together. Within two years, according to Boutros, those six districts had convicted more human traffickers than the other 88 combined.

Richmond and Boutros began to wonder if they could replicate that model in developing countries, where the majority of human trafficking victims lived. So in 2016, they left the DOJ to found the Human Trafficking Institute, which partners with other countries to train law enforcement officers and attorneys in how best to enforce anti-trafficking laws, rescue victims, and prosecute traffickers.

Remembering that human traffickers are economically motivated is essential to solving the problem, Richmond said. Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, with traffickers netting $150 billion in profits in 2014 according to the UN’s International Labour Organization. Like many criminals, traffickers only halt their activity when the risks – for instance, life in prison, loss of family, and forfeiture of property – outweigh the rewards.

“We don’t have to get all the traffickers,” Boutros said. “You get a critical mass and you see a big deterrent impact.”

Over the years, Richmond picked up the nickname “every trafficker’s worst nightmare.” While true, Boutros said, it’s ironic given how genuinely warm and personable Richmond is, even when he’s interviewing traffickers.

“He is every trafficker’s worst nightmare – and also incredibly winsome, and he’s got a great sense of humor,” Boutros said. “He’s got a unique constellation of gifts that don’t often come together. He’s just made to do that job.”

Linda Richmond figures that’s how her husband’s name ended up on a short list of possible nominees for the ambassadorship. It wasn’t a job he was necessarily looking for, but one for which he’s clearly well-suited, she said, even if it means he’s away from home much of the time.

When he’s lucky enough to be home, Richmond is good about setting his work aside and being fully present with his family. He enjoys taking the children fishing and watching Nationals baseball games with all of them. Linda said he recently took up fly fishing, declaring, “I don’t care if I never catch anything – I just need to stand in the wilderness for a while.”

Richmond’s downtimes are few and far between. In addition to partnering with other federal agencies, NGOs, and foreign governments to raise awareness about human trafficking and develop strategies for disrupting the practice, the TIP office is responsible each year for producing the Trafficking in Persons Report, an extensive look at the anti-trafficking efforts undertaken by more than 180 governments around the world. Each country receives a tier ranking based on how well it’s addressing the issue, and a low tier ranking can result in restrictions on foreign assistance.

While the problem remains huge, it is solvable. There are so many reasons for hope, Richmond said. “Now is the time to take what they call those ‘parchment protections of the law’ and extend them down to the people the laws were intended to protect. We’re at this incredibly hopeful moment. Can we push the door of freedom wide open? I think we can.”

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