2023 Emerging Leaders

Michael E. Camal  

Leads and has expanded a government campaign to help aviation personnel identify potential victims of human trafficking and report their suspicions to law enforcement.

In 2022, Department of Homeland Security investigators received a tip from an airline pilot who suspected that a teenage girl traveling on his flight might be a victim of human trafficking.  

Authorities swiftly investigated, discovering that one of the men communicating with the girl was a sex trafficker and part of a large criminal enterprise. The victim was connected to a local non-governmental organization for support services, and a criminal case was launched against the trafficker.  

The pilot’s keen observation resulted from government training he received under the Blue Lightning Initiative, a joint DHS and Department of Transportation program led by Michael Camal that provides information to help aviation personnel identify potential traffickers and victims and report their suspicions to law enforcement.  

As part of the broader DHS Blue Campaign, Camal has expanded the aviation initiative by increasing the number of partners from 17 to 125 since 2018 and added airports, universities, aviation companies and associations, and foreign airlines to the program.  

Camal, 27, also initiated training for more than 350,000 aviation staff members to recognize and report suspected human trafficking cases, and expanded and diversified the initiative’s network to help survivors. The program’s outreach includes awareness posters and electronic billboards in airport terminals across the country. 

Sounding the alarm about human trafficking 

“Michael’s hard work and dedication to human trafficking awareness training has contributed to better-informed staff, safer airports and greater awareness among the traveling public,” said Karinda Washington, the executive director of Social Impact and Campaigns for DHS. “The awareness generated from this program has led to victim recoveries and federal investigations into human trafficking criminal networks.” 

Although DHS does not break down the number of human trafficking cases it receives from its various public campaigns, the department in fiscal year 2022 initiated 1,373 cases, carried out 3,655 arrests and assisted 765 victims. 

While federal human trafficking cases can often take years to prosecute, efforts are made by DHS to provide immediate support for victims.  

Building aviation coalitions 

Skiffington Holderness, a Delta Airlines director, described Camal as “a mission-driven coalition builder who has energized the aviation human trafficking program.” 

“He is looking at airports, he is talking to U.S. airlines and foreign carriers and he is bringing them into the coalition and really helping them join the fight.” Holderness said. “He is great at bringing people together to organize and to be more active on anti-human trafficking programs.” 

Brenda Abdelall, a DHS assistant secretary for the Office of Partnership and Engagement, said Camal proposed and led a successful roundtable discussion for 25 airline executives in Florida last year hosted by DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

“Michael knew everyone in the room and really handled it well,” Abdelall said. “It was a testament to the relationships that he has built with the airline executives and the tremendous respect that they had for him, his work and the initiative itself.”  

Karla Solomon, a human trafficking survivor and now director of outreach and training for Mercy Gate Ministries, works with Camal on training sessions for aviation personnel, and calls him “a committed advocate.”  

“He is really mindful of our experiences and the importance of our voice,” Solomon said.  

Camal, who started his federal career as an intern with the U.S. Marshals Service, said human trafficking cases are heartbreaking, but added he feels compelled to bring awareness to this issue to help as many people as possible and save lives. 

“Once we arrest a trafficker, it’s not case closed. We also have recovered someone and the process of getting a survivor help is critical,” Camal said. “We need to be here for them every step of the way. That is what motivates me on a daily basis.”