DENVER – The FBI Denver office and Department of Justice announced Wednesday that its July operation to recover child victims of sex trafficking and the alleged traffickers netted one arrest of a trafficker and recovered four child victims and eight adult victims in the Denver area.
Operation Independence Day as a whole led to the recovery of 103 child victims and the arrest of 67 traffickers during July, the FBI said.
The trafficking operations through a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have been a priority in 2019 and over the past 16 years have recovered thousands of victims and led to the convictions of more than 2,700 people.
There are also renewed discussions of how to handle human trafficking at the upcoming Republican and Democratic national conventions next year – places where human trafficking has been prevalent in years past.
In 2008, Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention. Aside from tens of thousands of party loyalists, the convention also brought to town a massive spike in labor and sex trafficking to accommodate conventioneers.
That’s not unusual for events like this. And as the DNC plans its next convention, this time an army of men and women are preparing to fight back against this crime of force, fraud and coercion.
Just one year from today, Democrats will choose their candidate for President in Milwaukee. Denver saw a spike in humane trafficking during its DNC convention 11 years ago. Wisconsin is expecting an explosion.
“When you have powerful men with money and free inhibitions coming to a city where they don't know anyone, chances are they’re more likely to do things they normally wouldn't do when they're, say, at home,” says Emmy Myers, herself the victim of sex trafficking.
After escaping from her traffickers, Myers now heads a human trafficking awareness organization. The evolution from victim to advocate is pretty common in hundreds of cities, including Denver.
“It’s incredibly pervasive,” insists Maria Trujillo. She’s the Colorado Department of Public Safety Human Trafficking Program Manager. “And it’s something that really hidden beneath the surface of our society.”
Yet it shows up is nearly every industry that makes Denver a destination city – including hotels, restaurants, local festivals and fairs, agricultural industries and of course, conventions.
Trujillo says it’s the public that needs to understand the crime and its victims, because those victims don’t wear scarlet letters.
“They don’t have the words, human trafficking, to tell someone else that I’m a victim of this crime called human trafficking,” Trujillo said.
Recognizing that victim can be a challenge. But Trujillo says the signs are always there.
She says look for trauma, like cuts and bruises. If you get into a conversation with a victim, listen for indications of a controlling relationship, someone constantly checking their phone. Do they talk about irregular pay, long hours, employer housing and transportation, or large amounts of debt?
“Be aware of these situations that just don’t seem right and to report that information to law enforcement,” Trujillo said.
Milwaukee is actually learning from Denver’s past. During the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, sex ads by traffickers increased by nearly 30%. That same year in Minneapolis during its hosting of the Republican National Convention, the city saw a rise in sex advertising closer to 50%.
Since that time, our state legislature has given police here more effective laws for prosecuting traffickers. And the proof is in the numbers. Between 2006 and 2014 there were just three human trafficking prosecutions. Since coercion laws changed in Colorado in 2014, the state has prosecuted nearly 200 cases. The FBI reported a 1,500% increase in prosecutions nationwide during that same period.
Still, Colorado remains among the worst states when it comes to incidents of human trafficking. But as always, it takes two to tango. One of the more-recent attacks by law enforcement has been aimed at the paying customers.
“Paid sex is forced sex,” says Emmy Myers. “You are paying to rape someone.”
Now a $150-billion a year industry nationwide, it’s hard to imagine the task ahead for agencies like Colorado’s Department of Public Safety without the public’s help.
This is a very different kind of war against a well-funded and well-organized enemy. And it operates on multiple fronts, from labor trafficking to sex trafficking. So, the recipe is simple. Add a desirable destination and stir.
“All of these elements just bring us into a perfect place for human trafficking to thrive,” said Trujillo. “We have all these different industries that people are vulnerable for exploitation and people want to live here and we have lots of people coming to the state for the purposes of engaging in – potentially – in these crimes.”
Trujillo remembers how it took 20 years of educating the public to convince Americans that stopping spousal and child abuse was not a private matter but everyone’s business. She expects human trafficking will be next.
In 2020, we’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act.” Colorado’s laws follow this federal act very closely.
It’s one reason why Denver was the host city for the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Council on Human Trafficking earlier this month.