By Michelle Simonsen, true crime writer and victim's rights advocate
When you ask the average American what they think of sex trafficking and where it originates, you will most likely hear, “Thailand, Philippines, Eastern Europe.” The majority of Americans don’t believe that most sex trafficking occurs within our own borders. Many victims are regular kids and young women who aren’t runaways or have been abandoned. They are lured and coerced by clever predators.
FBI Deputy Assistant Director, Chip Burrus, who started the Lost Innocence Project, which specializes in child and teen sex trafficking stated, “What you can see time and time again, is that the predators will adapt their means to whatever the young people are doing—whether it’s malls, whether it’s ski slopes, whether it’s beaches…predators are going to do everything in their power to try to convince young girls, young boys, to come with them and enter this particular lifestyle.” [i]
United States is recognized among the top three countries for sex traffickers, along with Japan and Australia. Traffickers pick locales and business “fronts” in cities all over the country, but many choose to “set up shop” in areas such as San Francisco, New York, Arizona, Las Vegas and other cities and counties that would make your jaw drop.
Statistics and Economics of Human Trafficking in the U.S.
There is a huge economical difference between human trafficking and drug/weapon trafficking. You can sell a kilo of cocaine or a semi-automatic weapon only once. With a person, they can be sold over and over and over, making them nearly priceless to the trafficker.
Research and studies done on human trafficking within our borders is pathetic. The Department of Justice reported that in 2008 there were more than 1,200 “reported” incidents of human trafficking. [ii] Due to each state’s little to no research on human trafficking, that reported statistic cannot be a true, definitive number.
“Because sex trafficking is so far underground, the number of victims is not known and the statistics vary. According to Ambassador John Miller, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “The number will always be an estimate, because trafficking victims don’t stand in line and raise their hands to be counted, but it’s the best estimate we have…The CIA won’t divulge its research methods, based on its figures on 1,500 resources, including law enforcement data, government data, academic research, international reports and newspaper stories.” [iii]
However, in a February, 2006 ABC News article it states, “The FBI estimates that well over 100,000 children and young women are trafficked in America today.” [iv]
Could the FBI’s estimate be more accurate than the Department of Justice’s 1,200 “reported” cases?
The level of apathy towards education, prosecution and punishment of these crimes is dismal. I have to wonder if our own police officers, local officials, or politicians are not making an issue of this crime because “money talks”? Think about it. Sex traffickers yield profits of over 32 billion dollars a year. That makes drug and weapons traffickers look like kids with a lemonade stand. [v]
Difficulties in Prosecution
The trafficking industry thrives because it is hard to prosecute. The women who are victims need to serve as witnesses and testify in court in order for the prosecution to prove their case against the perpetrator(s). These women don’t come forward not only because of the “re-victimization” in court, but also the threats made to them by their traffickers. They have been burned with acid, “disappeared”, or have had their families threatened or murdered.
“We have to explain the woman’s mind-set—that she’s often unsophisticated, comes from a country with a corrupt government and would believe her captors’ lies that if she flees should could get arrested by the police…Juries have a hard time. They wonder: If the door was open, why didn’t she just run?” [vi]
Destination America--From Sea to Shining Sea…
Neighbors wondered why a 65-year old man had a succession of young foreign women living in his home. He told neighbors they were au pairs, yet Joseph Yannai had no children.
“You’d think a warning bell would go off in a neighbor’s mind,” said author Ron Soodalter, “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today”.
The State Department estimates 17,500 people are trafficked INTO the U.S…but Nassau County Detective John Birbiglia, who runs the Long Island Anti-Human Trafficking Task Forces says “that’s a guess because less than 1 percent of cases get prosecuted…it’s the invisible crime.” He thinks the number of enslaved people is much higher. He continues, “We used to arrest these women, now we know they’re victims.” [vii]
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas has an infamous slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” They didn’t get the name “Sin City” for nothing. The Associated Press reported in 2008 that Las Vegas is a “hub” for child sex trafficking and that more than 400 children were found working as prostitutes during a SINGLE MONTH in 2007.
Shared Hope International, a non-profit based in Vancouver, Washington released a 165 page report in March 2008 that stated, “Las Vegas was one of 10 U.S. locations for which the agency completed reports. Others included Salt Lake City, Dallas, Bexar County and Fort Worth, Texas, the New Orleans area, Clearwater, Florida, Erie County, New York, Independence, Missouri, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.” [viii]
“Federal officials have recognized Las Vegas as an area where human trafficking is a concern, and a cooperative effort was launched in 2006 called the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery.” Even with the well-intended effort of the groups involved, there are no local safe houses to protect the victims.
Vegas Under-Reports Problem—Dare I Say “Tourism”?
“There is a huge and growing sex-oriented trafficking problem in Las Vegas. Yet they quickly add that no statistics have ever been gathered and law enforcers never before have made it a top priority—so the scope of the problem still needs to be determined.” [ix]
…Police in the past haven’t paid sufficient attention to the signs that the prostitutes or others they’re investigating may also be trafficking victims—meaning the problem has gone underreported for years.” –Terri Miller, Civilian Director of “Anti Trafficking League Against Slavery”, and Las Vegas Metro Captain, Terry Lesney. [x]
Could this problem be underreported because of the implications that would affect Las Vegas’s TOURISM? There are too many people invested in that moneymaking machine of a town, so it is plausible to assume that many are paid to look the other way. Starting from the top such as politicians and law enforcement all the way down to cab drivers and hotel managers and/or employees.
An anonymous source, who is an employee with Clark County’s law enforcement sector stated, “We’ve had some very sad cases of sex trafficking. Naturally, they don’t report that kind of stuff because it would ruin tourism.”
Everyone can be bought in Vegas.
San Francisco, California
“San Francisco’s liberal attitude towards sex, the city’s history of arresting prostitutes instead of pimps, and its large immigration population have made it one of the top American cities for international sex traffickers to do business undetected, according to Donna Hughes, a national expert on sex trafficking at the University of Rhode Island.” [xi]
Once in California, the women learn too late that the job offer was a ploy. They are beaten into submission, drugged and raped, then transported and hidden inside homes, massage parlors, apartments and basements.
The women are most often locked inside by security doors, watched by video surveillance and guards who analyze their every move and gesture. They are forced to have sex with as many as a dozen men a day. The organization pays crooked taxi drivers and hotel operators who are willing to shuffle the women to their “appointments” and accommodate the pimps.
They are constantly beaten, drugged, raped and starved.
Debbie, a 15-year old from Phoenix, got a phone call one evening from a girlfriend who said she was stopping by. Debbie, wearing only her Spongebob pajamas, went outside to her driveway to greet her friend at the car who was with two older men. Debbie’s friend lured her to the car door and the three pulled Debbie into the car.One of the captors ordered Debbie’s friend to tie her up and put tape over her mouth and eyes.
After being drugged and gang raped, Debbie was trapped in one of Phoenix’s toughest areas. She was driven around Phoenix and ordered to prostitute herself, and when she refused, she was raped and kept in a dog kennel for 40 days.
Her traffickers put an ad on Craig’s List for Debbie’s “services”, and shortly thereafter men came all hours of the day and night demanding sex. Debbie was forced to have sex with over 50 men during her 40-day nightmare, not including the pimps who gang raped her on a regular basis.
The pimps told her that they would kill her family, “they even threatened to throw battery acid on her 19-month old niece.” Debbie stated, “After they told me that, I didn’t care what happened to me as long as my family stayed alive.” [xii]
Eventually tips came into the police and the apartment Debbie was kept in was searched, but they couldn’t find Debbie. Luckily, a police officer found her tied up and crushed into a drawer under a bed.
Police arrested two individuals and were only charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. They have pleaded not guilty and the current disposition of their cases is unknown. [xiii]
Chelsey lived a seemingly “normal” middle class life with her family in Georgia, but at age 10 her life forever changed when she was sold as a prostitute by her own father. Chelsey’s story is one of redemption. After her escape, she managed to graduate from high school and received a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Georgia. Chelsey is now working on her master’s degree. The following is an excerpt of a journal passage Chelsey wrote during her unfathomable ordeal:
“As I hang from the beam of a dim, musky, cold basement, I think of as many descriptive words as possible for the body parts I loathe the most. I have endured 14 hands, 70 fingers, all the while my hands are tied.They are numb from being laced above my head and are exhausted from supporting the rest of my body. I am naked, beaten, bleeding, and alone. Sunshine creeps in through the holes in the shades and amplifies my new wounds. I am coming down from a large dose of cocaine and I hope that at least one pair of hands returns to feed me some more. I close my eyes because the drips of sun, of life hurt, and I begin thinking of names of presidents and countries. Dusk approaches with footsteps. I count 14 feet, 70 toes, returning for another round. I inhale, I exhale, I brace myself. I close my eyes, ask silently for death, and hope they have enough blow to get me through the night. I am twelve years old.” [xiv]
Rate Your State
U.S. Current and Pending State Laws on Human Trafficking
The U.S. Policy Alert on Human Trafficking charts current and pending state laws in regards to human trafficking. Polaris Project gathered information in regards to whether or not each state had (a) prosecution for human trafficking, (b) a state task force, (c) research commission, (d) law enforcement training, and (e) victim protection.
“U.S. states with no existing law or pending legislation specifically addressing human trafficking: Alabama, Delaware, District of Columbia, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.” [xv]
Hawaii is the only listed state that does not have any laws prosecuting human traffickers, in addition to no law enforcement training and no victim protection.
States With No Human Trafficking Task Force[xvi]
States with no Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Training [xvii]
States with no Human Trafficking Victim Protection [xviii]
“Loverboys”—a/k/a “Pimps in disguise”
Many women lured and trapped in sex trafficking are brought by “loverboys”. These are men who befriend women and even engage in false relationships in order to win a woman’s trust, who then in turn releases them to the actual pimp. These are the men who control the women on a daily basis, through orders of the “head trafficker”, the man in charge. This is the man who decides which girls go where, and most often are the “head of operations” via their “legitimate” business fronts such as beauty parlors, hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies that are scattered throughout the entire United States.
Women Used as Traffickers
Believe it or not, a large amount of traffickers are women themselves. They are used to coerce naïve girls and young women into going with them for various jobs. Many claim modeling opportunities for the girls, where they are then tricked into going overseas or to a mansion used as a “front” in the method of their coercion.Once the bait is taken, the girls are beaten, drugged, kidnapped and sold. The woman trafficker gets her “cut” and she walks away looking for more vulnerable women and children.
Why Use Women as “Ploys”?
Using a woman as a trafficker is a fool proof way of obtaining a child or young woman’s false sense of security; simply because she is a woman. The woman predator is easily believed because the victims don’t perceive her as a threat. Children and women trust women more than they would a man who would offer the same things: opportunities of jobs, modeling, traveling around the world, making money to help their families or build their lives.
Let’s take into consideration the “supply and demand” aspect of why sex trafficking and forced prostitution is such a lucrative business. It is the high demand of these “services” that men command, and unfortunately, many of the solicitors are male American citizens.
There would be no sex trafficking and exploitation if there weren’t a need for it.
Who are these men? Why do they think this is ok? Maybe the latter question is something we will never know or understand.
Let’s Get to the “Root of the Problem”—the Solicitors
Dr. Jerry Albom
Meet Dr. Jerry Albom, a middle-aged radiologist from Oklahoma. Dr. Albom decided to take a trip before starting his new job at medical facility on the island of Guam. His destination? A secret. His family, friends and colleagues think he’s going to Bangkok. But he’s really going to Cambodia…his favorite and most frequented travel locales where he can have cheap sex with young teen girls.
Dr. Albom is a “child sex tourist”.
He is one of thousands of adults who travel overseas every year to sexually exploit children, some as young as five years old.
The majority of sex tourists are adult males from more industrialized countries who travel to lesser developed countries where laws are weakly enforced and sex is cheap and readily available. According to recent reports, Americans comprise an estimated 25% of all sex tourists. In countries such as Cambodia and Costa Rica, the percentage of American sex tourists jumps to 38% and 80%, respectively. [xix]
“Many impoverished countries rely on sex trafficking as a source of real income, and in effect, often have a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo…countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, the ‘sex sector’ accounts for anywhere between 2 and 14 percent of national income.” [xx]
“In many countries…the lack of political will and the abundance of corruption among government and law enforcement officials…undermine efforts to enact stronger laws and harsher punishments for perpetrators of child sex crimes.”
As a result, in countries where corruption is rampant, public officials are often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
A new report released by the humanitarian organization World Vision—Cambodia indicates that ‘many high ranking officers [in the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism] are involved in child sex tourism and the sexual exploitation of children and even support the activities of child sex traffickers.” [xxi]
Albom Confronted With Hidden Video
“I don’t want to participate and make judgments of something I may have said when I was drunk, or…or, may have been slipped a pill, who knows?”
“Drunk or slipped a pill…that’s your defense?”
You don’t have to be a politician, law enforcement, or part of some special group to make a difference. As a citizen…just be aware. Take notice. If you see something strange, odd, or just not right, do something! Say something! If nothing is done, call the local media! Spread the word within the community until something is done.
We, as American citizens need to take part in the responsibility of protecting these innocent children and women. Let’s officially put our U.S. politicians ON NOTICE, educate your family and friends on human trafficking, and make some noise!
Michelle Simonsen is a victim's rights advocate, crime analyst and blogger for "Michelle Says So", founder of the grassroots consumer boycott, "Boycott Aruba--Justice for Natalee Holloway", an advisory board member of "Survivors in Action", and is a contributing writer for "Now Public", and "True Crime Talk".
[i] ABC News, “Teen Girls Stories of Sex Trafficking in the U.S.”, June 2006
[ii] Department of Justice—“More Than 1,200 Alleged Incidents of Human Trafficking Reported in the U.S.”, January 15, 2009
[iii] May, “San Francisco is a Major Center for International Crime Networks That Smuggle and Enslave”, October 2006
[iv] ABC News, “Teen Girls Stories of Sex Trafficking in the U.S.”, June 2006
[v] Polaris Project, “U.S. Police Alert on Human Trafficking—Summary of U.S. Policy Activity”, July 2007
[vi] May, “San Francisco is a Major Center for International Crime Networks That Smuggle and Enslave”, October 2006
[viii] Associated Press, “Report: Las Vegas a Hub for Child Sex Trafficking”, March 2008
[ix] Adapted from: Sam Skolnik, “Do we have a human trafficking problem? Justice Department names Las Vegas among 17 most likely destinations.” Las Vegas Sun, January 29, 2007
[xi] May, “San Francisco is a Major Center for International Crime Networks That Smuggle and Enslave”, October 2006
[xii] ABC News, “Teen Girls’ Stories of Sex Trafficking in U.S., February 2006
[xiv] Wagner, Johnson, The Columbus Dispatch, “Untold Horrors”, June 2009
[xv] Polaris Project, “U.S. Police Alert on Human Trafficking—Summary of U.S. Policy Activity”, July 2007
[xx] Klain, “Prostitution of Children and Child Sex Tourism”
[xxi] The Associated Press, “Child Sex Tourism Spreading in Asia”