Victor Boutros was in graduate school when he felt his soul divide.
Harry Potter fans will be relieved to know he was not making horcruxes. Rather, he heard a harrowing human trafficking story about a 12-year-old Indian girl that changed the trajectory of his life.
Although he was studying at Oxford at the time, the story haunted him so much that he left his graduate program early to attend law school at the University of Chicago and pursue a legal career combatting human trafficking.
“When you’re in this divided soul experience, where there’s a part of you experiencing this incredible sense of moral urgency, there’s this other part of you that is experiencing this powerful sense of overwhelm and peril, paralysis and the sense of powerlessness,” Boutros said. “What I really wanted in that moment was tangible hope — not just for this 12-year-old, but that [human trafficking] could actually be decimated at scale … and have not just one or two victims protected, but millions of victims.”
More than two decades later, Boutros is pursuing that quest as chief executive officer of the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2016.
On Tuesday afternoon, Boutros will inform the legal community about the latest human trafficking laws, legal nuances and trends in human trafficking schemes at the Arts District Mansion during a two-hour panel discussion. The other panelists are T-Mobile senior corporate counsel Alan Dorantes, Greenberg Traurig shareholder Elizabeth Hadley and HTI senior legal counsel Lindsay Lane. Other sponsors include the Association of Corporate Counsel’s DFW chapter, SMU’s Dedman School of Law and the Texas Lawbook Foundation.
(Register here to attend in-person or virtually at 3 p.m.)
Before starting HTI, Boutros, a Dallas native, spent eight years in Washington as a federal prosecutor in the civil rights division. At the time, the Department of Justice was starting its first human trafficking prosecution unit, which he was part of. He also investigated and tried criminal police abuse cases and religiously or racially motivated criminal cases.
A few developments at the DOJ, in Boutros’ career and worldwide led to the birth of HTI.
During his tenure as a prosecutor, the DOJ launched a pilot program in six districts to try to increase the federal response to trafficking. After two years, the prosecutors pulled the numbers and noticed a 114 percent increase in the number of traffickers prosecuted in the pilot districts compared to 12 percent throughout the rest of the U.S.
“Those six little pilot districts produced more convictions than the other 88 federal districts combined,” Boutros said.
While at the DOJ, Boutros took a sabbatical to write a book about violence’s relationship to poverty called The Locust Effect that he co-authored with Gary Haugen, founder of the human rights agency, International Justice Mission. Boutros learned that 93 percent of the world’s human trafficking victims are in developing countries.
“That means that even if we could snap our fingers and magically eliminate all the trafficking in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan, we would still have 93 percent of the victims out there,” Boutros said.
Meanwhile, from the time Boutros first heard of human trafficking in the 1990s to now, the world went from having very few comprehensive anti-trafficking laws to almost every country in the world having an anti-trafficking law.
“The laws that I used as a federal prosecutor didn’t even exist until the year 2000,” Boutros said. “The problem with these developing countries was not the absence of good laws. The problem was those laws were not being enforced.”
But because recent laws have caused developing countries to be more financially motivated to beef up their enforcement to avoid U.S. economic sanctions, Boutros said, the landscape is changing.
“We thought, ‘Let’s just take this incredibly positive model that we helped build here [at the DOJ], go to developing countries that have good laws [and] that have senior leaders who are very motivated to improve enforcement but just don’t have access to the model or the expertise to do it,’” Boutros said. “And that led to the formation of HTI.”
There are three pillars to HTI’s model. It first works with foreign governments to build specialized enforcement units of police, prosecutors and victim specialists. HTI team members then train the teams on core tactics that they’ve found to be effective. Finally, HTI hires former FBI agents to be boots-on-the-ground specialists in the partnering countries to help the teams build their skills.
In addition, HTI produces an annual report on human trafficking and conducts research through a fellowship program it created with law students called the Douglass Fellowship, named after the slave-turned-abolitionist-turned-U.S. marshal Frederick Douglass.
One of the largest misconceptions about human trafficking, Boutros said, is that a majority of it is orchestrated by large, sophisticated criminal enterprises. Instead, he said, most human tracking is “highly decentralized.”
“You have small operators who aren’t individually making a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “They’re capturing the spread between what they would pay voluntary laborers in the market and turning that into a profit. People think that … if it’s decentralized, it’s hard to deter. It’s actually a lot easier to deter because they’re very risk sensitive, and even a little bit of enforcement goes a long way. Every one of those traffickers represents not only a group of victims that are freed, but a future stream of victims that never has to endure that trauma in the first place.”
“We don’t talk about ending trafficking because I think the truth is that will never happen,” Boutros added. “But when you talk about decimating it … ‘decimate’ literally means to cut by 10 percent. We don’t have to get all the traffickers to be successful. We just have to get that 10 percent, that critical mass that fundamentally changes the risk calculus for all the rest of the traffickers.”
How Lawyers and Corporations Can Help
Boutros said lawyers and corporations play “critical” roles in decimating human trafficking.
Lawyers can significantly help by “spreading that tangible hope” to reduce trafficking through efforts that go beyond raising awareness — be they partnering with an organization like HTI, financially contributing or engaging in some other way.
“The danger is that awareness of the problem without awareness of the tangible hope that actually begins to decimate trafficking at scale actually has the opposite of its intended effect,” Boutros said. “It actually creates more paralysis. It amplifies that divided heart experience and people being able to retreat away from it.”
Human trafficking is one of the rare issues in today’s society that has bipartisan support, Boutros said, and because of that, law firms and corporations have “a huge business case to be made” to commit one of their corporate social responsibility initiatives to human trafficking because their employees will likely be very engaged and passionate about the topic, and in turn feel satisfied that their employer shares their values.
“You have values-aligned leaders that are acknowledging what their employees really value,” Boutros said. “It’s an incredibly powerful way for law firms or corporations to say, ‘Hey employees, we see what you value. We’re not going to just engage in lip service about it … but we’re actually going to put your money where our mouth is and empower you to be a part of bringing tangible hope in concrete ways that you can count and measure and see.’”
“There’s an important business case to be made and businesses look to lawyers,” Boutros added. “Corporations and law firms have a very strategic role to play in driving this forward — not just because it’s the right thing, but also because it’s actually a very advantageous … thing to do on the business side.”