Camden County woman a world leader on trafficking cases

Marcial poses with 2 boys she worked with in Bolivia, who were taken from their villages and forced to beg.
Marcial poses with 2 boys she worked with in Bolivia, who were taken from their villages and forced to beg.
Posted: January 30, 2014

On a warm November afternoon in northern Uganda, Aida Marcial heard that the serial rapist she had been investigating had been spotted downtown, and drove there with local police.

She video-recorded the arrest and his subsequent confession to 10 counts of sexual assault; enough evidence, she said, to put him away for a long time even by Uganda's less stringent judicial standards.

In talking about the case, the first image Marcial dug up during an interview this month is of one of the victims, age 9, smiling at the camera with her thin arms wrapped around Marcial.

"I'm driven by faceless victims," Marcial, 52, of Haddon Heights, said, gesturing to a photograph of the girl. "And when I get on ground in a country, a face appears in my investigation, and that's the moment that I know I'm there for a good reason. There's no child that I have met overseas that I have not fallen in love with, and when I leave them, I just pray their world is a little better."

In nearly 30 years of law enforcement work, Marcial has specialized in some of the darkest types of criminal behavior, working with debilitated victims, often under primitive investigative circumstances abroad.

She is a leading international investigator of child abuse and human trafficking cases, and a former sergeant with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, where she worked for 23 years. She now runs her own international investigation and consulting company.

For the last three years, Marcial has investigated child abuse and human trafficking internationally, where law enforcement expertise is in high demand and arrests for those types of crime are rare. In October, she was sent to Uganda on a joint mission to build a case against the repeat sexual offender and to study human trafficking and child health for U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R., N.J.), who wrote much of the country's legislation on the issue.

With five days until the Super Bowl, human trafficking is a topic headlining newspapers, billboards, and law enforcement training sessions. Marcial says that kind of in-your-face attention is the only way to stop the practice.

"People that are trafficked are hostages within their own skin; psychologically, they're prisoners," Marcial said. "So you're not going to see them shackled, they don't come knocking at your door for help, they look average, and it takes proactive investigations, the whole community involved, to spot it."

Trafficking looks different based on the geographic location, but it's universally based on money and power, said Marcial, who has disrupted a labor trafficking operation in Bolivia, a prostitution ring in El Salvador, and a brothel in Panama, among other incidents.

Born in Philadelphia, a mile away from the Liberty Bell, Marcial, a graduate of La Salle University, joined the Camden County Prosecutor's Office in 1989. She became the first Latina assigned to undercover operations in the history of the narcotics task force. (She played a fellow undercover operative's girlfriend and helped take down a major drug cartel valued at more than $70 million.) She also worked for six years in the Homicide Unit and became the first female in the department to be promoted to sergeant in 2002.

But it was in 2003, as commander of the Camden County Child Abuse Unit, that Marcial found her specialization. She investigated many nationally watched cases, including State v. Jackson, where children were being starved by Collingswood foster parents, and developed a passion for working with children and special victims.

A career as focused as hers made having a family difficult. She and her ex-husband, who worked in the also-demanding restaurant industry, divorced after 12 years. She has no children.

Marcial is quick to thank God with a prayer after an arrest. Colleagues describe her attitude toward the criminals she chases as relentless.

Marcial helped train Scott Thomson, chief of the Camden County Police Department Metro Division, when he was in the academy. "She didn't yell or scream at the recruits to get their attention. Rather, she ran farther and faster than most of the class and endured every physically exhausting day right alongside us," Thomson said.

Thomson also called her the "Mother Teresa" of special victims investigators.

"The toughest assignment in policing isn't SWAT, narcotics, or homicide, it's working in a special victims unit. Investigating the egregious actions of predators upon children taxes your limits as a human being every single day and requires an unusual balance of skills and techniques," he said.

Putting herself in harm's way has led to injury. In 2000, a suspect she was chasing through Camden slammed a steel door on her hand, smashing it and taking off a piece of a finger. She completed the arrest before seeking medical attention and then, after five surgeries on her hand, took up dragon boat racing to help with her recuperation.

By 2007 she had qualified for the Dragon Boat USA team, practicing on the Schuylkill before and after working in Camden.

"She put in a lot of hours both on the water and off to qualify," said Robert McNamara, Dragon Boat USA team coach. "But her most distinguishing feature is, she's a great teammate, always supporting and encouraging other paddlers, even the ones she was competing against."

In September 2007, at age 45, Marcial won the first gold medal with the team in Sydney, Australia.

Marcial calls Camden the perfect training ground for working abroad.

But parachuting into a country with third world conditions to solve a crime can be challenging. She's often contracted by agencies like the International Justice Mission or Interpol.

Village police stations in Africa typically don't have electricity or running water, let alone a computer or a police car. Files - if the departments agree to turn them over - are kept in disorganized piles, tied together with strings.

It's a challenge getting victims to talk (a problem in this country as well) and once she's built a case over months, a perpetrator could wind up serving a very short amount of time, depending on a country's laws.

The poverty and violence she sees can take a toll. Marcial reads seven to nine newspapers a day and gets discouraged by the lack of reporting about conditions overseas.

Still, it's faces like the one in the photo that give her work meaning.

"It's not getting any worse or any better," she said of human trafficking. "Slavery is as old as the Bible. It just looks different. Is it frustrating? Yes. But what keeps me going is there is some resolve, an arrest, a conviction, a child who gets the relief of getting what happened to them off their chest."


Aida Marcial

Born in Philadelphia

Graduated from La Salle University with a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice

Camden County Prosecutor's Office from 1989 to 2011: worked in the narcotics, homicide, and child abuse units, as well as on a burglary task force and as a physical fitness police instructor for cadets.

International Justice Mission, Washington: worked as Investigations and Security Operational Adviser for Latin America and Africa

Currently works for her own international-domestic consulting business

Speaks Ukrainian, French, Spanish, and English

Member of the 2007 Dragon Boat USA gold medal team


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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