Yes, It Happens Here

September 09, 2013

When Maria was 12 years old, she was persuaded by Sandra Bearden to move from Mexico to the United States to help her with housework. Bearden was a well-to-do, middle class woman. She lived in a comfortable house in suburban Texas with her husband and child. Bearden promised Maria an education, a good salary and an opportunity to learn English. After Maria was smuggled in to the United States, however, her life was nothing like Bearden had promised. She was forced to work non-stop throughout the day. Sometimes, Bearden would blast pepper spray in her eyes when she was too exhausted to keep them open. Bearden would beat Maria mercilessly: Once, she shoved a garden tool up the girl’s vagina. When Maria was not working, her trafficker chained her hands and feet to a pole in the backyard, where she would spend the night. The only food Maria received was the occasional dog feces Bearden force-fed her.

Maria was saved after seven months of confinement when a neighbor happened to see her and called 911. Most victims of human trafficking live through four or five years of hell, after which they are discarded because their abused bodies are no longer of any use. Labor and sex trafficking take place in Colorado as well. In 2006, police convicted a Centennial couple of enslaving and sexually abusing a 24-year-old Indonesian woman. This past summer, a man from Denver used promises of high salaries and work at a non-existent university to lure foreign nurses to the United States, then proceeded to take their money and threaten them with deportation. Between 2003 and 2005, a ranch in Moffat Country took away their Chilean workers’ documents before overworking them and then refusing to pay them a salary.

It is hard to wrap our minds around the fact that human trafficking exists so close to campus. It’s all around us, but remains invisible to most. This summer, the Colorado Springs Police Department helped lead Operation Cross-Country, a nation-wide sweep that rescued 105 children and arrested 150 pimps. Later in the year, 80 more children were rescued in Colorado alone. The proximity of the I-25 and I-75 highways make Colorado Springs an especially vulnerable location: Human traffickers consider it good stopping point before continuing on with their journey, which often ends in Las Vegas.

Human traffickers thrive on our blindness. This was an important realization for me. This block, I’m in assistant professor Dana Wittmer’s political science class on human trafficking. For one of our assignments, my peers and I spent an afternoon trooping around Colorado Springs, asking locals the following questions: What is human trafficking? Who is at risk of being trafficked? Where is human trafficking a problem? What is the United States doing about human trafficking? And, finally, how much concern do you feel about human trafficking?

The answers were troubling.

“I don’t really know much about human trafficking. Trafficked people are usually illegal immigrants, at least in the U.S., right? And, anyway, human trafficking isn’t really a problem here. But I have no idea what the government is doing. Is it doing anything? Doesn’t human trafficking mostly happen overseas, in Thailand or Korea or something? No, I’m not too concerned about human trafficking…”

After interviewing each person, I felt like leaping out of my skin and screaming, “Wait! Wait just a minute! Look around you! It’s happening right now, and right here! Maybe in those seedy areas down by South Nevada and perhaps in small, inconspicuous massage parlors.”

Trafficking can happen anywhere. Out of curiosity, I checked out the Colorado Springs section on, a website hosting classified ads. In the “escorts” section, I counted 58 postings put up today—and it’s only 6 p.m. Scantily-clad women pose in sexually suggestive positions, promising to fulfill your fantasies—but first, you “need to agree that you are not affiliated with any form of law enforcement.” In addition to “escorts,” other pages were labeled “body rubs,” “dom & fetish,” “transsexuals” and “adult jobs,” the latter of which invited women to become “webcam models and earn top pay” or join escort agencies.

Many of these women are probably victims of human trafficking. In its simplest form, human trafficking is the trade of human beings for the purpose of exploitation, while maintaining complete power over the victim through physical and mental abuse. And yes, it is happening here, in the “Land of the Free.” And unlike the country’s 70 percent success rate in solving murder cases, human trafficking cases are only solved around one percent of the time. This means that only one percent of people involved in the trade are convicted, and only a small percentage of victims are released from their captivity.

And let us not forget the most prevalent form of human trafficking: sex trafficking. Children, men and women can all be victims of sex trafficking. Of special concern, though, are children. Trafficked women enter the sex industry at an average age of 12. These children usually come from broken homes, where they likely experienced domestic or sexual violence. Seventy-seven percent of prostituted women and children run away from home before being lured into prostitution and 90 percent are sexually abused at some point in their lives. Once they enter into sex work, they find it hard to leave. Drugged and beaten into dependence and obedience, many experience Stockholm’s Syndrome and express love for their pimp. Pimps, meanwhile, force them to have intercourse with an average of 868 men per year.

How many of the 58 women I counted on were below the age of 18? How many were forced into their circumstances? Officers Julie Garrett, Wendy Ethridge and Craig Simpson of the Colorado Springs Police Department visited our class and informed us that the numbers are greater than we realize. Sex trafficking in Denver alone amasses about $60 million in profit each year.

Trafficking victims have a much higher rate of depression than the average population and are more likely to have mental health disorders, abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and commit suicide. However, victims of sex and labor trafficking have genuine reasons for not seeking help. They are often too scared of their pimps/traffickers to leave, don’t have a place to go, don’t realize their predicament is unlawful or are scared of deportation or imprisonment. But in the sex industry, even if a girl does manage to get out, she often goes back to her pimp out of a sense of “love” and dependency. According to officers Garrett, Ethridge and Simpson, 90 percent of victims rescued by the Colorado Springs Police Department end up on the streets again.

In terms of human trafficking, is Colorado doing especially bad? Yes. The Polaris Project, an organization that analyzes anti-trafficking laws, evaluates states based on whether their laws “include services for human trafficking survivors and provides [sic] new tools for law enforcement and prosecutors.” Colorado, as it turns out, has some of the most inadequate laws against human trafficking in the country.

Polaris divided states into four tiers based on their performance in combating human trafficking, the first comprising states with sufficient laws and the fourth comprising states without sufficient laws. Colorado is in the third tier. Overall, Colorado has the sixth least effective set of laws nationwide to combat human trafficking, made worse by the absence of adequate victim assistance programs and “safe harbors” to protect minors.

These services are recommended in the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. The TVPA uses a framework called the Three Ps: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. Prevention, in addition to raising awareness, would include closing loopholes in laws, strengthening law enforcement and forging strong inter-organizational relationships. Robert Bilheimer, director of the anti-human trafficking documentary Not My Life, argues that spreading awareness is the main contribution we can make. As we gain a better understanding of human trafficking, we will be able to exert more pressure on governments to enact more powerful laws.

Protection aims to treat manipulated sex workers as victims, not criminals. Victims would be rescued, not arrested. This encourages trafficked people to come forward regardless of their legal status or the nature of their crimes. Officers Garrett, Ethridge and Simpson explained how they’ve adopted this approach. They, in collaboration with Denver authorities, have begun calling themselves “pimp hunters” instead of the antiquated term “prostitute hunters.” Although prostituted children are placed into detention centers and adults into prisons once they are identified, the police officers assure us that this is only to keep prostitutes safe and maintain space between the victims and the traffickers. The victims are then provided with help and care.

If the victim is foreign, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) aids him or her with housing, care and financial assistance. Although USCCB has done great work in rehabilitation, the fact that it is a faith-based group has generated some conflict. If a female victim is raped by her trafficker or other men and becomes pregnant, she is not allowed to have an abortion. If she does, USCCB denies her further services.

The last P of the Three Ps is Prosecution. The TVPA suggests a maximum of 40 years in prison for traffickers. However, prosecution is often difficult to achieve. One problem is that prosecutors will only file charges if the chances of conviction are high. Much of the time, however, victims are unwilling to speak against their pimps. The biggest problem, though, is that law enforcement agencies are often not aware of human trafficking laws. Statistics show that even in Tier 1 states, 50 percent of officers do not know their state has human trafficking laws. Therefore, many police officers are unable to deal with cases appropriately. They often approach victims with the wrong mindset, fed by prejudice about race and gender. Often, the police categorize victims’ cases under domestic violence or rape rather than under human trafficking. This ignorance also stops officers from being able to spot cases of human trafficking.

As citizens, we can help. We must keep our eyes open to anything that might look suspicious and must report it. Only 10 percent of victims come forward. We need to seek out the other 90 percent so they, too, have a chance at recovery and a normal life. Last year, the number of people statewide who called the Colorado Organization of Victim Assistance (COVA) with tips came to a grand total of 31. There are obviously more than 31 victims a year, and chances are good that, in some instances, people chose to turn the other way when they saw something.

Sometimes, people simply choose not to get involved. Last month, after Colorado Springs police raided the Wheat Ridge spa—an underground prostitution ring—neighbors said they had known what was going on “for years.” Regardless, they stayed silent. Maybe they thought it was normal, or maybe they didn’t want to get involved with the police. Either way, victim after victim suffered because of their silence.

Millions of people across the world live in modern-day slavery. Human trafficking happens all around us and our ignorance has consequences for those trapped in misery. Trafficking is not always a crime that occurs behind closed doors; we simply need to open our eyes.

You can call Project Polaris at 1-888-373-7888 with information or observations. Colorado’s hotline, set up by the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA), is 1-866-455-5075.


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