Slavery has a new face: trafficking

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— Similar to domestic violence in the 1970s, little is understood about human trafficking today. Few laws concerning it have been enacted, and even fewer organizations and shelters have been created to help its victims.

That might be changing.

On Friday, a group of social service providers from across Colorado gathered in a conference room at the Snowflower Condominiums in Steamboat Springs to discuss and learn about human trafficking. The gathering was part of the Col--orado Coalition Against Sexual Assault's statewide fall meeting. Among those who gathered at the meeting were Steamboat and Craig staff members of Advocates Against Battering and Abuse.

Jim Smithwick of the Univ--ersity of Denver and Dr. AJ Alejano-Steele of Metropolitan State College of Denver gave the group a "Sex Trafficking 101" presentation. Both are involved with the Polaris Project Colorado, a branch of a nationwide group that works to raise awareness about the largely unknown world of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, they said, is modern-day slavery. Most of the victims are women and children who are funneled into the commercial sex trade. Many also are held as unpaid domestic and agricultural laborers.

On Friday, Alejano-Steele read the testimony of a 14-year-old Mexican girl who was taken to Florida as a victim of human trafficking.

The girl, who lived with her family in Veracruz, was working at a hotel when a man told her she could make a lot more money doing the same thing in the United States. He promised her family she would be in good hands. The girl's family objected, but she thought it would be a good opportunity.

She was smuggled into Texas and then to Orlando, Fla., where she was told to have sex with anyone who came into her trailer.

"Because I was so young, I was in much demand with customers," she said. "I was a decent girl in Mexico."

The girl's story and the larger issue of human trafficking may seem distant to people in Routt County. Even if human trafficking is not a widespread local problem, it can pass through town and end up here unexpectedly because of traffickers using U.S. Highway 40.

And there are other manifestations of human trafficking. Smithwick said those who study cases of human trafficking point to the sheep herding industry, in which many shepherds are abused, unpaid or kept trapped by a "company store" system of payment that keeps them from every making any take-home pay.

Human trafficking is a $9 billion a year industry, he said. Human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world, behind arms and drug smuggling.

The kind of people who end up as slaves often are illegal immigrants who are promised jobs in the United States; once they arrive, the terms of the agreements change.

Women and teenage girls often find themselves forced into work as sex slaves, guarded by armed men. Many are forced to have sex 20 or 30 times a day with customers, Alejano-Steele said. They are moved from place to place so often that they rarely know what city they are in, let alone know whom to contact for help.

Many don't speak English and are brainwashed by their captors to fear local law enforcement, Smithwick said.

The most vulnerable are people living in poverty and without many opportunities, such as victims of natural disasters, Smithwick said. "We've already started hearing stories of human trafficking of Southeast Asian women and children after the tsunami, and there are a number of Americans after Hurricane Katrina who are vulnerable to being trafficked."

Social service providers and citizens who come across human trafficking victims probably have only one chance to help those people, Alejano-Steele said.

But no one at Friday's meeting could offer concrete solutions about how to help victims or what questions to ask. Their first step is to develop answers to those questions.

"We're at the beginning of this," Smithwick said, "and we have a lot of work to do."

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