The crime often goes unreported, with victims too scared to reach out for help: adults and children coerced into working jobs for little or no pay, including in the sex trade.
“It is the most vulnerable among us who are victims,” U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat, said Tuesday at a human trafficking awareness training session for local law enforcement.
She and others involved in the training, held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, said victims hide in plain sight, even at local businesses.
About 40 law enforcement officers, including many who work undercover, took part in the four-hour session, designed to raise awareness of the crime and teach officers to identify signs that might tip them off to the presence of a victim.
The training, initiated by Leger Fernández, is primarily geared for front-line law enforcement officers who have little or no background in fighting human trafficking, said Anthony C. Acocella, a senior legislative affairs adviser for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency ran Tuesday’s training in Santa Fe and plans another event Thursday in Albuquerque.
Acocella said much of the training — which was not accessible to the public — centers on describing the crime of human trafficking, discussing federal and state laws addressing it and showing videos with scenarios involving possible cases.
One video presented to officers shows a medical specialist who recognizes physical signs of abuse and overwork on a young Honduran girl accompanied by a woman, purportedly her mother, who is a little too focused on keeping the girl within her sights — an indication something might be wrong.
Other videos, which can be found on the Department of Homeland Security’s website, depict signs of human trafficking at truck stops and hotels. In one video, an older woman pushes a frightened young girl out of a vehicle and directs her toward a line of trucks, presumably to engage in prostitution.
Thousands of people in the U.S. and millions internationally are victims of human trafficking each year, data shows. The National Human Trafficking Hotline found 10,583 reports of human trafficking in 2020, including more than 50 from New Mexico.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office received 82 reports in the state in 2020, spokeswoman Jerri Mares said Tuesday.
But those numbers aren’t likely to paint a full portrait of the crime.
Mares, like Leger Fernández, said she believes the statistics do not represent how widespread human trafficking has become.
“A lot of time they go unreported out of fear — lots of reasons,” Mares said.
Acocella acknowledged the lack of accurate data. “Good statistics are hard to come by because it’s such a hidden crime,” he said.
Leger Fernández noted that while the majority of victims are women, human traffickers target a wide range of people of all ages, including men.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2020 Global Report in Trafficking in Persons, using data from 148 countries, found 65 percent of detected victims were women or girls and 35 percent were men and boys.
Much like victims of domestic abuse, people subjected to human trafficking sometimes develop an attachment to their captors and don’t come forward for help, said Santa Fe police Chief Paul Joye, who attended the training. The session provided “another opportunity to learn and get a better understanding of the crime — what does it look like and who are the people we are trying to help?” he added.
Ideally, Joye said, it will help his officers look for signs that might lead them to better identify a possible case of human trafficking in the city and help rescue a victim from their plight.
Sometimes law enforcement officers have to win over a victim’s trust and ensure the person they will have access to services — housing, food, clothing — to help them escape their situation, Acocella said.
“We’re empowering them to know that there’s a way out, but it’s hard for many victims to recognize that they are victims,” he said. “You are groomed for so long by somebody who makes you think they love you when they don’t — they’re just using you as a means to make money.”
Leger Fernández said she would like to see the same kind of training made available for nonprofits, schools, hotels and service industry organizations to raise awareness of the problem.
She added she will continue to try to allocate federal resources to help people who have experienced human trafficking move on with their lives.
“The goal is to make sure we transform the victims into survivors,” she said.Yahoo! news