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Super Bowl Readies for Human Traffickers

By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-949543.mp3

Dallas, TX – State officials call the Super Bowl a human trafficking magnet, and they'll be on the lookout for it over the next week. KERA's Bill Zeeble reports the crime is among the toughest to identify.

Zeeble: This week, North Texas is home to the biggest party in the country, with hundreds of events, hundreds of millions of dollars in play, and several hundred thousand visitors looking for a good time. Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Rebecca Peters says, for some, a good time includes illegal sex.

Peters: You're likely to see an increase in prostitution, and when you have cases like that, there's a potential. There's a potential of human trafficking.

Human trafficking involves a teenager - a minor - or someone who's coerced or threatened, or both. No one's really sure how many under-aged girls are exploited for sex during events like the Super Bowl. But Peters and others, like Bill Bernstein, say the crime demands attention.

Bill Bernstein: What we're really talking about is modern-day slavery. 338 We think slavery ended 150 years ago. There's more slavery in the world today than there ever has been at any point in human history.

Bernstein is Deputy Director of Mosaic Family Services, a member of the Trafficking Task Force. His non-profit works with immigrant and domestic human trafficking victims.

Bernstein: Human trafficking really means the control of one person over another through some sort of force or auto-coercion.

Peters puts it another way.

Peters: If it looks like prostitution first, that's our job, to get in there and find out, "You know what? Are these females, are these males, are these individuals, are they there voluntarily or involuntarily? Did they sign up for this or did they not sign up for that. And that's what it comes down to."

Peters says officials then look for specific signs of trafficking.

Peters: Does the victim have their id or travel documents? Does it look like that victim has been coached in talking to law enforcement? Does it look like they're under someone else's control. They're not able to say or do what they would wish to? Does it look like there's been a threat against the victim?

Are they teenagers? That's another question task force members will ask. Ruth - not her real name, - was just 14 when she first ended up on North Texas streets years ago.

Ruth: Where trafficking takes place is where runaways run away, or throwaway kids get thrown away. At 14 I can't decide if I was a runaway or throw away.

Ruth fit the classic profile of a domestic trafficking victim: a troubled girl whose parents couldn't or didn't know how to rein her in. The national runaway hotline estimates one in 3 repeat runaway girls gets lured into prostitution. Ruth says victims like her just trying to survive, and can fall for someone promising love and protection.

Ruth: This one person - I ran away from home, & I sought him out. And he was 36 years old. He was exactly my dad's age.

By 16, Ruth lived in his house with another man and a woman, all of whom she says, sexually abused her. She worked in a topless club.

Ruth: Not only was I bringing home cash, but I was bringing home massive quantities of powerful narcotics, street drugs. I was also bringing stolen vehicles home through my clientele, and it never crossed my mind that 3 adults were selling me to bring home cash, drugs and stolen vehicles.

Trafficking task force members expect to find human trafficking victims by going where the customers go. So they'll check strip club, and scan ads for escort services in papers like Metroane Magazine and online posts like Backpage, MetroplexEscorts and Craigslist.

Peters hopes the mention that officials are watching the sex trade is a deterrent all its own. She says when victims are identified, there's help.

Peters: We are not looking to prosecute them. We're not in the business of prosecuting a victim at all. If you have an individual who has been forced, coerced, frauded into doing something they did not want to do, whether forced labor or sex labor, we're not in the game of prosecuting the victims.

That's why some members of the trafficking task force include Catholic Charities, Child Protective Services, Genesis Women's Shelter, and Mosaic Family Services. They have programs that take minors off the streets, & can provide food, shelter, education, and psychological help. The task force itself includes 6 agencies in all, from nearly every area police department, to the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They're all in place for the Super Bowl - and say they're ready. Ruth believes traffickers and their young victims are ready too.

Ruth: I'll never see football again the same. I'll never see it again the same. Because I don't understand. I don't understand how a man can say let's watch some football, get drunk and have sex with a minor child.

Officials say buying a prostitute is an obvious crime. Sexually exploiting a trafficking victim is an additional state and federal crime punishable by up to life in prison. Mosaic Family Services investigator Marrissa Wallace, who fights human trafficking every day, says at least the big game is also raising awareness.

Marissa Wallace: I just like the fact that they're throwing it out there and people are thinking about it. And people are going, "Human trafficking, what is human trafficking?"

Wallace says even though human trafficking - for sex and labor - is a growing crime, especially in Texas, too many people still have no idea what it is.

Email Bill Zeeble