Mollie Halpern: The Barrett Jackson Car Auction. The Waste Management Phoenix Open. The Pro Bowl. The Super Bowl. All of these high-profile special events are happening in the Phoenix, Arizona-area around the same time. The events draw millions of fans, collectors, and others looking to enjoy themselves. The events also attract human traffickers. Sergeant Clay Sutherlin of the Phoenix Police Department says law enforcement is looking to expose the underbelly of these events in order to raise public awareness and deter the human trafficking industry and its customers—known as johns.
Clay Sutherlin: So there is a group of events here in the valley that make it very desirable for traffickers to bring their girls down into the valley here and work them out of the valley knowing that the state has a large number of people coming in for these types of events. The law enforcement groups around the country, we know that any time there are large events, that that is how traffickers operate, that they look for those opportunities to make more money. And they follow large events.
Halpern: The FBI, together with its law enforcement partners and the private sector, is committed to combating human trafficking. I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and coming up in this edition of Inside the FBI: Hear from investigators who work the cases and victim specialists who help victims escape the so-called “life”…how they they counter the crime on a daily basis and in advance of special events…and how you can join the fight.
But first, what is human trafficking, and what is the scope of the crime problem?
David Rogers: Human trafficking is modern-day slavery.
Halpern: Human trafficking is the enslavement of another human being for the purpose of profit. It is defined in three ways: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and domestic servitude. Supervisory Special Agent and Human Trafficking Program Manager of the Civil Rights Unit at FBI Headquarters David Rogers explains that it’s not the work that makes people victims of human trafficking; rather, it’s the condition under which they’re doing the work.
Rogers: And so the indicators are, are they free to leave? And if they were to leave, is there a cost to them? Physical, financial, what are the costs that are keeping them in place?
Halpern: So, what do these victims do for work? Where can we find them? How do they look?
Rogers: It looks like somebody who is painting your nails. It looks like someone who is selling magazines door-to-door. It looks like somebody who is cleaning the office building you work in. It could be somebody who's serving you your lunch.
Halpern: Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking—adults, children, males, and females. When it comes to sex trafficking, pimps use empty promises to prey and recruit vulnerable children and adults into the “life.” Supervisory Special Agent George Steuer says recruiting is done in person and online.
George Steuer: These pimps are very aggressive at using social media to recruit victims: Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth.
Halpern: Once they’re recruited to the “life,” pimps use force, fraud, and coercion to make it difficult for victims to leave.
Steuer: The elements of force, fraud, and coercion that we're seeing pimps or traffickers use to control these victims, by and large, is violence and threats of violence. That if these girls ever attempt to leave—if they do leave—they will find them. They will beat them. And they will advise them that if they ever do it again, they will be killed, and their family will be sought out and hurt. A lot of these pimps will also get their girls addicted to some sort of drug that will allow them to maintain control of them because they need their fix every day, and the pimp becomes that person who can provide it. And they also create a unit that the pimps refer to as their family, and that once they have been recruited and broken, the pimps let them know, "I'm now your daddy. This is your family. And don't think of ever leaving your family. Your loyalty is to us."
Halpern: Millions of people in the world are estimated to be victims of human trafficking. In America, the FBI sees cases of it in every single one of our 56 field offices. According to the United States Agency for International Development, known as USAID, the problem is one of the fastest-growing criminal activities in the world. It reports that human trafficking generates more than $150 billion each year. Rogers says our cases continue to increase annually as people become more aware of the problem.
Rogers: And we are addressing it, as you said, every single day. It’s something that we have people that are dedicated to doing every day of their lives.
Halpern: For example, the unit Rogers is a part of, along with special agents throughout the country, participates in more than 100 human trafficking task forces and working groups to address all forms of the crime. And the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Section leads 71 Child Exploitation Task Forces across the country and partners with 400 local, state, and federal agencies to target those who victimize children through commercial sex trafficking.
Partnerships really come into play when tackling this crime. So does training. In the Phoenix Field Office, the FBI teamed up with about 15 local and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, at least six months before the events. Steuer says it’s a force multiplier…
Steuer: The benefit of doing that is we create a more cohesive and effective campaign against the trafficking industry. Instead of working alone, we work in partnership.
Halpern: Sergeant Clay Sutherlin…
Sutherlin: The Phoenix Police Department’s relationship with the FBI has just been outstanding. Just a great working group. The FBI agents that we are working with are extremely knowledgeable on these types of human trafficking cases.
We have been working together for a while. So we know what to expect out of each other. We know what each other’s capabilities are. And it has been a great working relationship. It’s a relationship that we want to expand on with the Phoenix Police Department because we see the benefit through these types of working relationships. So one thing about human trafficking, working these types of cases, these are huge, complex cases. They are not easy to work. And we learned early on that you better build relationships between the community and between the other law enforcement agencies and along with your prosecutors. And we have that situation here in Arizona. It’s really been a very smooth working relationship between the agencies.
Halpern: The Greater Phoenix Area Human Trafficking Task Force and the Phoenix Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force conducted proactive and aggressive operations leading up to the events. As the events got closer, the operations became more frequent. The task forces are now in a daily operational mode.
Steuer: We basically used everything in the last six months to hone our skills, train our partners. And now everybody is executing them throughout the Phoenix valley to frustrate the industry. And on any given day, we could be doing two or three different operational techniques to frustrate the industry.
Halpern: The task forces' message to the industry and its customers? Human trafficking at the events—or any time—isn’t taken lightly. It's taken to heart.
Sutherlin: We take these cases personally. You know, we get involved. This is our state. This is our city.
Halpern: Law enforcement is postured to protect its city and its people.
Sutherlin: Come to Arizona, enjoy the Super Bowl, enjoy the other events going on around the valley. But if you're coming down here as a trafficker or looking to exploit women, just so you know, we're out there looking for you, and we're coming after you.
Steuer: Our mandate is that we want you to come and have a good time. We want you to bring money to our economy. Just don't come here and buy sex. This is not a victimless crime.
Halpern: Because human trafficking has so many facets, the FBI and its law enforcement and private sector partners tackle the crime from every angle. Some operations focus on taking down the pimps, others are designed to arrest the johns. All of the operations are aimed on rescuing the victims.
Steuer: These victims are being brutally assaulted on a daily basis, both by customers and their pimps. And our primary mission is to afford them an opportunity for rescue, to get out of the life.
Halpern: Sylvia Conchos knows all too well that human trafficking is not a victimless crime. She is one of 122 FBI victim specialists across the country.
Sylvia Conchos: My role as a victim specialist with the task force is to be available and go out with the FBI agent and the task force officer during an operation to rescue victims.
Halpern: Victim specialists work with victims of all crimes, but Sylvia says victims of sexual exploitation are different from others.
Sylvia Conchos: Victims of sexual exploitation sometimes do not consider themselves victims because of the beatings and the brainwashing that they have gone through. One of the things that I do as a victim specialist is to be there to support them, to let them know that they don't have to sell their bodies in order to survive. In order to let them know that I care about them, and the detectives care about them. It’s incredible to see someone who is just sitting there—low self-esteem and looking down and not really feeling like a human. They feel subhuman. They're treated with disrespect. There’s no dignity. And this is part of what we provide. We provide someone with that needed respect that we all deserve.
Halpern: Victim specialists provide victims with immediate needs such as clothing, hygiene supplies, and food. It doesn’t stop there—they also help with the long-term needs, such as connecting them to detox and vocational programs, free counseling, and special, safe shelters where they can lay their heads.
In fiscal year 2014, FBI victim specialists provided more than 31,000 direct services—including on-scene response, crisis intervention, accompanying victims to interviews, and providing referrals for counseling, medical, legal, and financial assistance—to more than 5,000 victims involved in 800 ongoing investigations.
Conchos: Victims need to know that there is someone that cares about them. Typically, victims are being torn in different directions. The pimp wanting the money, everybody wants something from them. And so as victim specialists, as victim advocates, we are there to provide them with a service, to provide them the support.
Halpern: Time is needed to heal from the abuse sustained as a human trafficking victim.
Conchos: And this takes time and building rapport and building trust, because they have no trust with other people. There’s no one that they can trust. And so we try and build up that trust, so that when I say to them, "You don't have to live like this. You have opportunities,"—they look at me like if I'm strange—because opportunity is out there. And there are people out there wanting and willing to help these young women, but they just don't believe it.
Halpern: There are survivors. One of them is a woman whose pimp only fed her one apple a day because he thought she was fat.
Conchos: She was at her wit’s end out in the desert. And she prayed and talked to God and said, "I don't know what to do." Around that time, we had that encounter with this young lady. And she was wonderful. She listened to what I was saying. She heard about the different services—and not only that but started following up on it. She was ready. She was ready to listen to my words of encouragement, to listen to my words of opportunity available to her. And she went to school and now is working in the medical field.
Halpern: Furthermore, the woman, through working with her attorney, was able to receive compensation for the money her pimp withheld from her while she was under his control.
The task forces say the momentum from preparing for all of the events will stay with them long after the crowds have gone. They will continue to combat this crime and they need the public’s help to do it.
Rogers: If people see something that they think isn’t right, if they see people not being able to speak for themselves—that there is somebody always around controlling everything that they do, or if it looks like they’re locked up and they're having to do those things—they can call the FBI, they can call the state and local police.
Halpern: You can also call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at (888) 373-7888. I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau. Thanks for listening to this edition of Inside the FBI.