Repugnant Transactions and Human Trafficking

This week I attended a lecture by Alvin E. Roth, Nobel Prize Winner for economics in 2012 (Prize winner together with Lloyd S. Shapley). The topic of the lecture was ‘Repugnant Transactions as a Constraint to Markets’. The lecture was based on a well-known article published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. For those of you who have access to decent libraries, the article can be found here. Otherwise, an early version is available here).

The key point of the lecture was to improve understanding of the relationship between ‘repugnant transactions’ and ‘the moral limits of markets’ (see also paper by Michael J. Sandel) or, in other words, to understand when and to what extent a transaction is morally and ethically acceptable.

Repugnant transactions may include, for example, bodies and body parts (eg. selling organs, such as kidneys), labor (servitude and slavery), reproduction and sex (prostitution, surrogate mothers), financial markets (gambling on the destiny of people as in the case of the US ‘housing bubble’), drugs (eg., illicit drug trading), and so on.

One of the key questions about ‘repugnant transactions’ is therefore what money cannot and should not buy (ibidem). Sex can be easily traded, one might argue, but love is a more difficult item to be bought and sold. This is something I know from my personal experience as involuntary infiltrate.

In the past, I participated to an international project on human security and human trafficking (see the collective monograph on human security), as well as on migration, but I could not expect that such repugnant transactions existed also in more developed countries. I knew, for example, that ‘servitude and slavery’ are not so uncommon practices in Sub-Saharan Africa (see my other book here), but I could not expect that even in the more industrialized world such practices continue to exist.

To provide some examples, in terms of questionable transactions, not rarely, Italian Antimafia authorities acquire the total control of an individual, suspected of allegiances with the criminal organization ‘Cosa Nostra’ (Our Thing). Repugnant transactions involve, in this case, the blackmail of ‘suspected mafiosi’ and their parents in order to force, mostly false or, in each case, unreliable, depositions, auto-accusations or accusations of other suspected mafiosi.

In order to obtain a confession or a deposition, whether true or false, a not uncommon practice is as follows. You target a suspected mafioso, you destroy all his/her circles of parents and friends, you isolate him/her from every social network, you scare him telling him/her that his/her life is in danger and you wait for his/her confession. If the confession does not please you, you can always try to let him/her become a bit nicer with you by rendering his/her life outside or in jail a real nightmare.

Another related ‘repugnant transaction’ concerns, for example, the ‘legge sui pentiti’ (‘law on informers’) which involves the reduction or the total exemption from the punishment. This may occur in case a suspected criminal accuses himself/herself or in alternative he or she accuses others. This is an extremely politically sensitive issue in the Italian political system, as it has become the flag of the ‘Fight against the Mafia’. From a democracy-oriented point of view, the ‘law on informants’ involves a reduction of formal rules and practices of investigations that constitute, close to economic and social liberties (see Lipset 1957), ones of the main prerequisites of democracy. It offers extremely high incentives to the supposed criminal, which may spill-over in hidden forms of corruption or of manipulation of the testimony through an ‘offer that you can’t refuse’ (for example, the total estinguishment of the punishment for ‘pentiti’ serial killers) (see also discussion on An Offer You Can’t Refuse? Incentives Change What We Believe by S. Ambuehl).

Several hundred criminals have, in this way, been put in jail, but several hundred murders have obtained liberty. As the issue is also electorally sensitive, a parliamentary discussion on the necessity to revise this law may result in the political death of the politician, who could be seen as ‘contiguo’ (close to) to the mafia by the general public or addressed as such by competing politicians.

On human trafficking and members of the secret services, the issue becomes more complex. They have a special status and they can do things on behalf of the state that other law enforcement authorities are not allowed to do. Macht und Herrschaft, as Weber (1922) would put it, play here a more determinant role in deciding who has the right to live and who must die. In the case of national security, for example, some country legislation allows the killing of an individual. This ‘procedure’ must be justified, however. One thing is killing Osama Bin Laden. One thing is killing an innocent citizen, simply because he or she does not please to someone in a police station or in a ministry cabinet.

In my hopefully temporary on-leave period from the academia, I have discovered that in some reserved circles people can buy and sell other people. Every person has a value and for some of them, this value can be monetized. Until few years ago, I thought that, with some exceptions, people were intrinsically priceless. Sadly enough, I took note that they are not. They can be traded. They can be bought. They can be sold. Sometimes, they can also be convinced to sell themselves or to commit suicide in order to escape from unbearable situations. Other more emphatic individuals can also be convinced to sell themselves in order to save others or, in alternative, to kill one individual in order to save more individuals.

To make my point clearer, imagine if someone asks you the following question: ‘Would you allow the trade of your mother-in-law, if this would save the life of 100 children in Africa?’. Who could resist to such temptation? But still, this is a repugnant transaction. During my course on international human rights, I asked to the students the question of whether the life of one individual is worth the life of two individuals. Mostly the answer was a sarcastic one: ‘It depends on the individual’. I now think the response was not sarcastic.

But how do people buy and sell other people (here addressed as still belonging to the category of the homo sapiens sapiens – both male and female version -) in the intelligence community? In my involuntary research activities, I have discovered the existence of other similar repugnant transactions. To provide one quick example, the owner of a ‘spy’, referred here as ‘the master’, has often total control over the spy. The master decides what he or she can and must do. The master also decides what means he or she has at disposal to recruit others. However, the final decision on the applicability of determined recruitment procedures lie, at the end, on the recruiter’s sensibility, but this is a quality difficult to find in certain circles.

The means at disposal to the recruiter usually range from a simple exchange of money to ‘you have no other alternative’ than to join me or my associates. I have heard about one case in which a recruiter from a secret service of the East tried to recruit one individual for her country or associated friends by: 1) restricting the doors of certain labor markets, whilst opening up only those that were linked to her and her associates; 2) stalking, harrassing and blackmailing the target individual; 3) establishing new partnerships with allied secret services to speed the passage of the individual to the East or, if this could not happen, to facilitate his envoy to a developing country, to a war zone or directly to the other side of the world; 4) proposing the necessity of engaging in suicidal actions (such as having sex without condom) or having homosexual relations when heterosexual; 5) dissipating money gently provided by some donor with the aim of creating a ‘debt bondage’ (see Seven Things You Should Know about Human Trafficking, US Department of State); 6) claiming a missed marriage or unpaid dinners at the country’s restaurants; 7) putting in place various forms of humiliation of the individual (including monetary, working, sexual, etc.); 8) downgrading his social and employment status by making available for him only lower status and lower paid jobs; 9) exchanging a partner with a car. And the list of regrettable attempts could last for pages.

These techniques of forced recruitment, though rarely used with such intensity, are particularly employed by former KGB and Securitate agents, but no country in the West, including but not limited to the USA, can be regarded as immune to these malpractices.

In Italy, for example, in line with the Fascist past, Italian secret services tend to prefer closure of the labor market (especially academia and high paid jobs) in order to expel or gain access to an individual (see, for example, La Vita e’ Bella with R. Benigni). However, this technique of ‘market closure’ is always more often associated with threats or other psychological harassment tactics that may have as an object the production of ‘self-induced injuries or suicide’.

Such repugnant tactics of recruitment apply, however, not only to ‘female recruiters’, but also to ‘male recruiters’, the so-called ‘sparrows’ (see Palace of Treason by James Matthews). In one case, for example, a master used one or more sparrows to blackmail the potential individual, whilst, simoultaneously, recruiting those women that got in touch with him. This implied often the passage of spies from NATO to non-NATO countries under unclear contract and working relations. By so doing, sexual attraction and sexual blackmailing became extremely useful weapons in target selection, recruitment and dismissal.

Repugnant transactions are not unrelated to the enviornment, but have to do with market design. They help the creation of black or illicit markets of crime that often go against current laws or cannot be easily pursued by existent law enforcement authorities or people working under the so-called ‘ghost protocol’ – that is to say – secret missions where the state does not officially figure as the employer of the agent.

Who introduce repugnant transactions often provides repugnant justifications for his/her choices and courses of action. Among the most repugnant justifications, one can mention, for example: 1) saving one life in exchange for the life of one or two people (in this case, as the life of an individual could be measured in kilos); 2) trying to convince someone that in order ‘to eat’, even selling one part of the body is a suitable option; 3) that, at the end, all marriages have some kind of hidden transaction, so even favoring a forced marriage or bribing to acquire a blackmailed surrogate mother or father are not necessarily repugnant transactions. The list of repugnant justifications could also last for pages.

What is the risk of these repugnant transactions for the national security and for the democracy of a country? Risks associated with the above mentioned transactions involve, for instance, the creation of a difficult to control black market of human trafficking, since based on the ‘law of silence’. By continously conducting such repugnant transactions, participants also establish new ties. They build new alliances. They form new ‘networks of friends’. These networks are based on collusion, mutual dependency and protection.

This is why the issue of ‘repugnant transactions and human trafficking’ must not be underestimated and must remain high in the academic and public agenda.

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