Though based in Colorado, Matt and Laura Parker of The Exodus Road say that they have always felt the need for human trafficking intervention to be greater overseas. The way the numbers shake out, one can see their point. According to the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation's 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, more than 70 percent of victims of sexual exploitation are estimated to be in Asia and the Pacific region, and only 4 percent in the Americas.
But the Parkers say those invested in The Exodus Road always have their eye on their own community, too. "Everyone wants to know what we're doing here [in Colorado]," Laura says. "... Which is good, it's a fair thing. It's just difficult because numbers-wise it is so much larger overseas and the capacity for law enforcement is so much less over there."
But they plan to use their technological resources, an arsenal of gadgets and cyber analytics software, in order to be of use locally.
Exodus Road's cyber-ops room, from which they coordinate all global investigations, lives in their Colorado Springs office, where they conduct forensics and intelligence analysis, and manage situational awareness. A cyber analyst monitors six screens of data, prioritizing investigations, communicating actively with investigators, and using data-scraping tools to search the internet for evidence of trafficking, or photos (identified through facial recognition software) from wanted persons.
"This gives us leverage to not only focus globally on managing our investigations," Matt says, "but here locally. ... We're on the lookout for our people; these [victims] are our people."
In another effort to help out close to home, Exodus Road will launch TraffickWatch this summer — a free, online training program to help people understand human trafficking in their area, and learn how to report it.
They have recently hired two full-time investigators for Colorado, and have begun conversations with Colorado law enforcement officials to see how they can be of most use. (Exodus Road declined to provide names and departments of these connections, saying that they're still cultivating relationships.)
Sgt. Craig Simpson, who supervises the Colorado Springs Police Department's Human Trafficking Unit, says Exodus Road hasn't approached them about a potential partnership, and that CSPD seldom brings in outside help in their investigations.
However, he recognizes that human trafficking is a major issue in the area, predominantly sex trafficking. Unlike Domina Elle of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project (see "Collateral damage" on p. 18), Simpson claims underage sex trafficking represents the largest portion of cases CSPD encounters.
When asked if some of these minors may have entered the sex industry willingly, he says: "There's only a very, very, very small percentage of victims we've encountered who do not actively have somebody running them. ... We do have that segment that maybe they're runaways, and they get involved in [survival sex], but then at that point they become ripe pickings for a trafficker to help them manage their things."
But he says CSPD has their own techniques, including undercover investigations, to gather evidence against these traffickers, and he says that the potential for interference from NGOs can be "a concern."
"I just know that for an NGO," Simpson says, "they don't have the law enforcement, the arrest authority, to really hold the people accountable like actual sworn law enforcement can do. ... We would much rather them give the information to us and let us be able to go out and make an appropriate arrest, and get them into the criminal justice system in an appropriate fashion, and hold them accountable that way."
Internationally, the concern is much the same. In a 2016 Washington Post article, Anne Gallagher, founding chair of the U.N. Inter-Agency Group on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, said that "the civilian groups can cause problems for prosecutions, and that they often are unprepared to help victims." (The Independent reached out to the inter-agency group for comment, but did not hear back by press time.)
Exodus Road asserts that their goal is to do exactly as Simpson suggests, providing information to law enforcement and working with them to enable their success, rather than swooping in to play hero. But with so little oversight for these international NGOs, it's impossible to confirm that their practices match their policy.