Inside Colorado's underground sex trafficking empire
Whether it’s for sex or labor, labeled human trafficking or slavery, in 2016, human beings in this country still live and die toiling under force, fraud and coercion every day to fulfill criminals’ wealth, power and sexual fantasies. And it turns out Denver is a human-trafficking hub, a place where newsworthy, exploited little girls combine with forgotten boys to make up a roughly $40 million industry. The state — and nation — face even larger-scale labor trafficking issues, but a comprehensive, collective approach appears to be gaining steam in Colorado.
In the last 11 years, the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative brought together more than 400 law-enforcement agencies nationwide to collaborate with communities to recover and assist more than 3,400 children, 74 through the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force in 2014 (when the data was retreived) alone, said Denver Police Sgt. Dan Steele, who supervises the Rocky Mountain program. The initiative resulted in roughly 1,450 convictions, according to the FBI. That’s huge.
Unprecedented, really, and those numbers continue to grow as states adopt stronger, clearer anti-trafficking laws designed to serve victims and survivors.
The Polaris Project, which rates states based on 10 types of laws that affect these cases, bumped Colorado from a tier-four rating to tier one when Colorado joined 36 other states that passed new trafficking laws and revised trafficking language in 2014.
“Previously, that language was problematic because it was not consistent with the federal definition,” says Amanda Finger, co-founder of The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. “This law this year was much more comprehensive than past laws have been. It brought forward a council appointed by the governor to focus more state-wide on responding to this issue. It also addressed other areas of cleanup, such as rape shield laws so victims or potential victims of sex trafficking will be protected from (prosecutors) bringing in their past sexual history.”
Human trafficking stands as one of few issues in this country nobody can call “polarizing.” It’s fucking horrible. The end. That the people we sell here in the United States think their circumstances are normal, are terrified to leave or don’t know they’re victims or survivors, believing the abuse better than the alternatives, doesn’t make this acceptable, it makes it human trafficking. By most definitions, it’s modern slavery.
And it’s up to communities working in tandem to refocus and actually address this issue from a victim- and survivor-centered standpoint across the board, in mindset as well as law, says Brad Riley, founder of iEmpathize, a crimes-against-children non-profit out of Boulder.
“When you’re arresting a 14-year-old on a prostitution charge, it’s a contradiction,” says Riley. “They’re not prostitutes. They are being sold, and by federal definition, they’re not prostitutes. But the fact that law enforcement still sees them as that or girls still get arrested on that charge, those things need to shift.”
No human, legally aged or not, American or here for a better life, deserves to work under force, fraud or coercion without basic rights to food, a fair wage, family security and dignity. Americans collectively agreed to and purport to uphold an amendment, the 13th, stating as much.
No 13-year-old girl — the average age of recruitment for a female prostitute — or 12-year-old boy dreams of becoming a prostitute, raped 20 to 48 times a night. A few years after recruitment, these typically sexually abused and/or displaced teens look like pros, exactly like that hooker from spring break. Seven years after recruitment, studies show he or she will most likely be dead.
“Regardless of what we see on TV or what some people actually experience in real life, for the vast majority of the people in that industry, it’s not an easy life,” says Steele. “There’s a lot of victimization, whether it’s rape, beatings, torture, you name it. … It’s a pretty bad environment, so isn’t it pretty reasonable to assume maybe people are being forced or coerced to be in it rather than volunteering to be in it?”
They’re sold on a circuit from south to north to the coastal west and everywhere in between, says Steele, from Denver to Cheyenne to northern oil fields to Salt Lake to Vegas, south into the border circuit, even into Kansas and Nebraska.
That circuit brings the exploited into towns for male-dominated events and operations such as conferences, sports games and construction or mining projects, keeping victims and pimps transient and harder to find. It also takes trafficking victims from location to location, disorienting them as well as law enforcement and keeping them from making contacts who might help them, though the nation’s truck drivers have banded together to report suspicious activity in increasing numbers, says Riley.
“We’re in the middle of the country, and that makes us a destination state but also a transit state,” says Finger. “With I-25 and I-70 connecting us to the coast or to the borders, we sit right in the middle of a lot of action. … We are the largest city in a 600-mile radius.”
There’s still so much work to be done. Despite the legal changes, it’s possible to fuck a pimped-out child and be sentenced to a maximum of 12 years for trafficking in Colorado, and Steele says the number of trafficked children continues to increase.
With a rough total of 1.5 million human trafficking victims at any given time in the United States alone, nobody’s looking to turn limited anti-trafficking resources away from sexually exploited children to what many experts believe to be an even higher number of labor-trafficked individuals, either. Look at the numbers on the right. We can’t argue with where the resources have been allocated in the vast array of human-trafficking cases. But we can add resources.
Everyone involved agrees: Law-enforcement officials and non-profits alone don’t have the comprehensive resources necessary to address and stop the broad spectrum of contributors to human trafficking; communities do. Communities actually stand as one of the strongest tools in preventing and eliminating human trafficking, despite public obliviousness, especially for displaced teenagers and those forced into prostitution.
They’re on Craigslist and on backpage.com. Human trafficking is in your food, clothes, neighborhood, your favorite ethnic food restaurants. Each of your lives intersects with at least one side of human trafficking on a level that allows you to help victims and survivors, either in identification, prosecution, education, survivor support or prevention.
So many cases end — or begin, so to speak — with a simple call from someone whose “gut feelings” about a person or situation proved right or when a victim simply calls for help, uncertain he or she is actually being trafficked, says Becky Bullard, project director of the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance, a task force out of the District Attorney’s office that brings together more than 40 agencies to address trafficking. Both labor and sex trafficking victims often also feel shame for their circumstances, says Bullard.
“People who call the national hotline never call and say, ‘I know this is trafficking,” she says. “For the most part, a trafficking victim isn’t going to someone and saying, ‘Hey I’m being trafficked.’”
So we’re not going to give you the tale of a traumatized little white girl or a beaten-down, legal Guatemalan coerced into servitude, both terrified into submission. Those are all over the Internet, and we’re not here to make you cry.
In Colorado, human trafficking typically looks like pimping, domestic servitude and exploitation of those farm workers who harvest local fruit and slaughter the free-range organic chickens we all love. This happens on little local farms, huge construction sites and, yes, in area homes and businesses where pimps traffic runaway children and slavers hock cheap labor. It’s right in front of us.
So it’s reasonable for you, the average citizen, to research your brands, make an occasional call and just plain be a little more suspicious.
Trafficking generates billions for criminals, and it costs the public as much or more in human services. Individuals and communities change those numbers anywhere they’re informed and empowered, experts agree.
“Maybe you go, ‘I don’t really like the cops so I don’t want to support the cops,’ but you can support a non-profit group that’s going into schools and educating youth so that, maybe when that girl runs away, she goes, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about traffickers now, so now I’m not going to be lured in or suckered in by them.’ Or educating young boys that it’s not OK to sell people, that it’s not OK to buy people,” says Steele. “ … The thing communities need to do is figure out what aspect of it they think is important, and then support it.”
It’s easier for individuals and communities to address language and cultural norms surrounding “pimps,” “girls” and the availability of cheap goods and services provided on the backs of modern-day slaves before victims exist than it is for the few law-enforcement individuals dedicated exclusively to trafficking to find, reach and recover the survivors while juggling heavy caseloads. These people are working their asses off on a handful of cases and twice as many leads at any time. They need support.
“There are certain ones where you’re just devastated, because you’re talking to them, and you’re interviewing them, and there’s this emotional detachment,” says Steele. “ … There needs to be. Some studies say an average sex worker will have 800 sex partners in a year. If you’re 14, there needs to be some emotional detachment there to cope.”
Society pays for that damage. Everyone we spoke with agreed: Human trafficking cases require immense resources, standing out as the most labor- and time-intensive DoJ focus. Every single person working these cases faces a comprehensive case load additionally complicated by inaccurate views about labor trafficking and prostitution.
Sex cases often involve multiple “pimps” — enforcers, movers, marketers, etc. — who average four to six girls each and easily rake in $150,000 to $200,000 per child each of the seven years that child is expected to survive in the industry. These are your neighbors, Colorado, turning runaways into a cash crop and violating communities.
“We have 12-year-old boys being recruited to be pimps, just like we have 12-year-old girls being recruited to be victims,” says Riley. “We have 12-year-old boys, without their knowledge, being recruited to be buyers. When a 12-year-old has seen tens of thousands of images that objectify a woman, that sets a standard for ‘This is how I should interact with a woman and how I should respect a woman,’ … boys start creating this appetite that’s not appropriate or healthy or respectful to women. When that 12-year-old gets to be 25, it’s much easier for him to be a buyer, and a trafficker will prey on that.”
Labor trafficking cases often involve even more victims and are harder in all arenas: prevention, investigation, prosecution and survivor services, says Finger. And they happen anywhere workers can be moved out of the public eye. So does most sex trafficking, so identifying these cases falls to social service personnel and prosecutors who encounter it while dealing with other cases. Or it falls to curious, caring community members whose work or lives could prevent, identify or address victimization.
“For different communities, it’s a different answer,” says Riley. “… It’s not just about these sectors doing their part on their own. It’s about everyone understanding how they fit together in the puzzle and working together to make one big, complete picture. It’s about finding where the issue intersects with you.
“Empower the people already at those intersections. … Identify those intersections, and go in and empower the people there to understand it and to respond.
“ … That’s a preventative approach. We also work on universities a lot because we believe a large number of our future world and community leaders are on our college campuses … so our future leaders are already wrestling with how to make this a part of their lives. Sometimes we won’t see the impact of that for five or 10 years, but when those people get into positions of influence, they have a perspective on how to fight this issue that wasn’t there before.”
Now you have perspective too. Whatever your career path, your lifestyle, your cause, your recreation, your intersection, look around. It’s already a part of you.