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Skilled masters manipulate the child and adult victims of human trafficking

At 15, Theresa Flores was a sophomore in high school, living with her parents and three younger brothers in Birmingham, Mich. Her father, a corporate executive, was transferred a lot, and so by the time the family landed in the upper-middle-class Detroit suburb, Theresa had changed schools eight times. Entering a new classroom was never easy.

One of her classmates, a boy named Daniel, took an interest in her. For six months they eyed each other, but they ran in different cultural circles, so the schoolgirl interest stayed a secret crush until one February day.

Daniel approached Theresa that afternoon and asked her if she wanted a ride home. She said yes, but he didn't take her directly there, making an excuse that he had to run to his place for something before he could drive her to her house.

"A group of men targeted me for my vulnerability," Theresa says now, 30 years later. "[Daniel] was in charge of grooming me, talking to me. ... He was very, very nice. He was different, a different kind of boy. I was intrigued."

Because of his "niceness" she went inside his house, ignoring the red flags that popped into her head when she saw that the driveway, and then the house, were empty. Without question, she accepted a soda he offered — a drink that "tasted strange," made her dizzy, and may have facilitated his raping her.

A few days later, he tracked her down and told her his older cousins had photos of them having sex. Theresa feared her family finding out what happened — and after seeing the photos, began to blame herself for the situation.

"You have to earn [the photos] back," he told her.

That, she says, began two years of slavery. Daniel's cousins regularly abused and sexually assaulted her and sold her to other men. They threatened to hurt her family if she said anything. They would call her, often in the middle of the night, and she'd have to respond.

"As any teenager will tell you, it was pretty easy to sneak out," she says.

"For a long time, I thought my story was really rare," Theresa adds. But as a public speaker and Ohio-based author of The Slave Across the Street, in which she details much of the above, she hears from women all over the country who tell her they, too, were trafficked while living at home. "I think these guys, they have more control over you if you're living at home, because you obviously don't want your parents to know."

A $32 billion industry

Trafficking of people comes in many forms. Thai girls sold by their parents to brothel owners in Bangkok. Eastern European women offered a hotel job in the United States, only to arrive here to find themselves pimped out for sex. A Mexican boy smuggled over the border with promises of making a good wage to send back to his parents, only to end up forced to work in the fields or run drugs in order to "pay back" his trafficker.

The first U.S. law to address human trafficking, 2000's Trafficking Victims Protection Act, defines the issue in great detail, using terms such as "involuntary servitude" and "debt bondage." (See the box below.) Officer Chris Burns of the Colorado Springs Police Department, who's also a member of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado, puts it pretty simply: Human trafficking is when "people are literally bought and purchased. They are trafficked through an area and they are forced to do labor without compensation or choices about leaving.

"It's no different than it was when it was slavery."

Burns believes Colorado on the whole is on par with or slightly above national statistics for trafficking, owing in large part to geographic location. Interstate 25 is a major transportation corridor, and significant agricultural needs here draw migrant workers.

But according to the Polaris Project, one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States, specific statistics anywhere are hard to come by, due to the covert nature of the crime, the invisibility of victims and high levels of under-reporting.

One thing Polaris is sure of is that trafficking is big business. It quotes International Labour Organization figures that estimate minimum annual worldwide profits at $32 billion, $15.5 billion of that arising from just the United States and Europe.

Some of the project's other numbers come from the federal government. A 2004 Department of Justice report claims 14,000 to 18,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. annually, and a 2007 Department of State report says 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.

In a fact sheet, Polaris adds, "Particularly lacking are estimates on the number of American citizens trafficked within the U.S." But a DOJ-funded study from 2001 estimated the number of American children at risk of sexual exploitation to be 244,000. They might be runaways and/or homeless kids who are prostituted, or, as in Flores' case, middle-class teens pimped right from their family's homes.

Flores will share her story at the Task Force's third annual Human Trafficking Symposium on Saturday at the Youth With a Mission campus in northern Colorado Springs. With her talk will come a discussion on domestic child sex trafficking. However, Betty Edwards, Task Force chair, says this year's symposium will focus on what individuals and communities as a whole can do to address the larger human trafficking issue.

The Craigslist connection

Craigslist has made plenty of news lately for what it's done. On Sept. 9, the popular online classifieds site dropped the adult services category from its U.S. pages. Seventeen state attorneys general had written Craigslist executives at the end of August, urging them to shut down what was viewed as a venue for facilitating prostitution and trafficking of adults and minors.

Last week, Craigslist's outside attorney, Elizabeth McDougall, gave written testimony to Congress confirming the business' permanent removal of adult-services ads. She wrote, "Craigslist abhors and has a long track record of vigorously combating crimes such as human trafficking and child exploitation in the context of adult services, and is highly sympathetic to the victims of such unspeakable abuses."

In May 2009, the site had implemented manual screening of ads by their attorneys, and more than 700,000 have been rejected over the past 16 months.

But McDougall added, "Migration of the relatively small percentage of total U.S. adult-services advertising that had been posted on Craigslist to less socially responsible venues uninterested in best practices is an unfortunate step backward in the fight against trafficking and exploitation."

Burns agrees.

"The supply and demand have not gone anywhere," he points out. "But what they've done is effectively like grabbing water. They're going to seep to other parts of the Internet."

On the Springs site, look at how many "table showers" are now offered by "masseuses" in the therapeutic services section, and you'll see what he means.

Burns notes that he supports the motivation for Craigslist's move. But officers have now lost a known and very localized place in which to engage with perpetrators and uncover victims. With Craigslist, officers could more easily follow leads, pose as pimps and solicit an encounter or other labor activities in order to track down and ultimately charge and prosecute traffickers.

He doesn't know of any trafficking prosecutions in the Springs, but the potential exists. Just at the beginning of this month, as reported by the Associated Press, six work recruiters were indicted in what the FBI has called the largest human-trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history. Accused of "luring 400 laborers from Thailand to the United States and forcing them to work," the Los Angeles and Thailand-based recruiters placed workers on farms in at least 13 states, including Colorado.

"In the old days, they used to keep slaves in their places with whips and chains," FBI Special Agent Tom Simon told the AP. "Today it's done with economic threats and intimidation."

'End-destination crime'

The Task Force's Edwards came to the cause after seeing a TV story on a local massage parlor raid. As a member of the local chapter of Zonta, a national organization that works on women's issues worldwide, she recognized the potential for human trafficking and contacted the station to find out what happened to the victims. The response: "What victims?"

She says she thought to herself, "Oh my gosh, they don't even know about [trafficking].'"

Sgt. John Hahn, of the Colorado State Patrol, shares another reason why trafficking tends to fly under the radar — at least for his agency: "The number of human trafficking cases we've had is relatively low — the reason being, it's an end-destination crime."

In other words, a CSP officer may stop a car on I-25 for speeding, and during the course of the contact notice the car is carrying eight passengers, when it should only hold five. There are no signs of human trafficking because "trafficking happens when they reach their destination and they're put into a situation of indentured servitude," Hahn says. But CSP may be able to charge for smuggling.

"Every time we've stopped a vehicle ... where we have human smuggling," he says, "there's the potential for it to be a trafficking case when they get to where they're going, that's been prevented."

Lauren Croucher, human trafficking project manager for the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking (CoNEHT), says that in Colorado, labor trafficking tends to be the most common type.

"Media pay more attention to sex trafficking and it's very sad," she says, "but labor is much more common and much harder to locate." And "labor" in Colorado, Croucher adds, primarily means agricultural and hospitality work.

When it began in 2007, Croucher says, the 24-hour hotline averaged about one to three calls per month. Those numbers have since grown to four to 10 a month.

Meanwhile, in 2009, Colorado joined only a small number of states in taking steps beyond the federal Trafficking Act in regards to sex-related cases. Co-sponsored by state Rep. Kent Lambert and state Sen. Dave Schultheis, both Colorado Springs Republicans, HB 1123 encourages and supports local law enforcement and attorneys in pushing for trafficking convictions in the Colorado judicial system, improving local and statewide efforts to eradicate human trafficking. All people under 18 involved in the commercial sex industry are now legally classified as victims of human trafficking here, helping to ensure that youth in exploitative situations are not unfairly prosecuted.

Also, in April, prosecutors got some help with the passage of Colorado Senate Bill 10-140. The bill moved human trafficking offenses from miscellaneous offenses in the criminal code to the offenses against persons section, specifically adding them to the definition of "racketeering activity" under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act. According to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, this change would allow prosecutors to go after a whole organization rather than each individual involved, similar to their work with mobs.

Not a minor offense

Burns says when minors are involved in prostitution, the fact that they are underage may not preclude law enforcement from charging them. But if investigations show that they were participating against their will, "that shifts gears as to how they are looked at in the judicial system."

Victims, no matter the type of trafficking, often understand they are participants in criminal activity. Burns says this makes them less likely to come forward. One of his goals as a Task Force member is training the local police department so that officers can better understand the dynamics of human trafficking and how to identify trafficking within the context of other calls.

"What the officers receive training on and receive guidance on how to recognize, will get enforced," he says.

For its part, the Task Force is working on the victim side. With member agencies such as TESSA, Urban Peak, Lutheran Family Services and the Women's Resource Agency, the group is developing a service provider network to help those who emerge from the trafficking underworld. Helen Smithwick, coordinating the network efforts, says this project is important so local victims don't have to go to Denver for services.

But all of us can help.

"There are certain things that one needs to look out for," says Smithwick. "If you go and get your nails done, just be aware of whether this is an up-front organization. It may be, but it may not be.

"Or little things, like buying magazines or chocolates from kids on the street. Just be aware, look beneath the surface, because it's there. ... Then you call CoNEHT and share your suspicions."

"One of the biggest things that has to happen is a public realization that human trafficking here in 2010 does exist," Burns notes. "And it doesn't happen necessarily in the barrios of some cities or the ghettos of some cities or the industrial districts where you wouldn't see it. This happens in suburban homes in cities all across the country."

Take it from someone who's not only lived it, but heard similar stories over and over again.

"The common response I get is, 'I didn't know,'" Theresa Flores says. "If everybody's 'not knowing,' then it's not going to go away."


Trafficking Victims Protection Act

kakens@csindy.com

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