Some 69 people were rescued Wednesday from a life of chains, cages and torture at a Christian ministry in the twin island nation of Trinidad & Tobago in a case local police describe as “slavery” in the largest human trafficking ring in the country.
"What we believe is that we have cracked what we believe is the biggest human trafficking ring in the country ... some of them said they have been here for years ... this is a much bigger picture and we have to investigate each and every case...this relates to virtual slavery with what we have seen here,” Trinidad & Tobago’s Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith told the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian.
Police announced that they rescued 65 men and four women from the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre in Arouca, Trinidad, during a sting operation Wednesday morning. The victims were ranged in ages from 20 to their 60s and most of them were found “in cages and some handcuffs.”
“Some of them say they have been tortured. It is such a bigger picture with profit being made out of this ... family members deliberately sending their loved ones here and extracting the profits from the families," Griffith said.
Human trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide annually, including in the U.S.
A member of the ministry speaking on condition of anonymity to the T&T Guardian denied that the people found at the facility were being trafficked and noted that the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre is simply a rehabilitation home for people who want to come out of drug addiction.
"It is not human trafficking. It is a rehab so the pastor have [sic] the place gated to prevent them from running away. These people's parents sign contracts and agree. They also view the places. ... So why would families put their love one there if they saw it? Nobody there is in chains, etc., they are lying. God hear me it is a lie, “the ministry member said.
It was still unclear Thursday how the victims were being used for profit but Griffiths said the “barbaric” scene they encountered at the ministry showed evidence that the victims were being tortured.
"Persons are seen in cages, handcuffed ... persons were being tortured. We saw tasers and batons ... and again this is a situation of virtual modern day slavery,” he said.
At least six persons have already been arrested in connection with the ministry which promised to use the Gospel and expert training to “serve male ex-prisoners and deportees by providing safe transitional housing, developmental and rehabilitation programmers, to promote healthy reintegration into society.”
“The philosophy at TLM is one of empowerment and responsibility. The ministry wants to ensure that residents leave the facility rehabilitated, empowered and self-sufficient. The residents should not only be capable of taking care of themselves, but also accepting the responsibility of providing for their families and giving back to the community,” the operators of the ministry state on their website.
The ministry was founded 19 years ago by pastor and ex-convict, Glen Awong, who said he was called to serve while doing a seven-year stint at the local Golden Grove Prison.
“Despite adverse conditions and lack of resources, Glen ministered to the spiritual needs of the prisoners with a strong desire to impart the new found grace and message of God’s redeeming and restoration powers, that can change the ‘worst’ individual and remove the stains left behind from a life without God,” the ministry said.
Awong’s work in the prison with other inmates attracted the attention of prison officials and it earned him early release from prison for good behavior.
He continued visiting with inmates after his release and conducted Bible classes with other former inmates until they found a physical space to house the ministry.
The operators of the ministry have featured testimonies from families with loved ones struggling with substance abuse and other mental health issues.
“I came to Transformed Life Ministry in 2009 and since then, I was able to get one-on-one counseling, helping me to refrain from substance use and abuse; learning that my addiction is a disease and is curable; that once an addict is not always and addict. I also met and related with other people who were addicts and most important building a relationship with God,” one testimony from a happy client identified as James, 29, said.
“I am still at Transformed Life Ministry and my goal is to take it one day at a time, work with the ministry to help others see the vision. Thanks to pastor Awong, Mrs. Awong, and Transformed Life Ministry for helping me rearrange my life for the better.”