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Human trafficking in Lea County?

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Human trafficking is one of the most underreported crimes, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline.

In 2018, the Hotline reported, there were only 5,147 cases reported in the U.S., awith 21 of those cases from New Mexico.

But, the Land of Enchantment is a prime location for human trafficking because of the Big I, the interstate exchange of I-25 and I-40 in Albuquerque, said Phoenix House founder and nurse Gretchen Koether.

And, Lea County is not shielded from the world-wide plague of human trafficking. Hobbs and the surrounding areas are a prime location for human trafficking due to the high amount of oilfield traffic, man camps and its close location to the border, Koether said.

“I am very concerned about the number of people being brought across the border right now. This presents the perfect storm for traffickers to increase their profits through either trafficking human beings themselves or (the work that they do),” Koether said. “I have heard reports about a large Afghan population being transported and housed in a man camp in the Carlsbad area. As this group begins to assimilate into this area, the cultural and language barriers are, initially, going to be difficult to navigate which will impact their health care as well. They may not be familiar with the laws in this state or this country, and that makes them much more vulnerable to traffickers and others who may be looking to take advantage of someone for profit or otherwise.”

Koether said her agency, along with other law enforcement agencies are just now starting to “tap into” the human trafficking occurring in Lea and Eddy counties.

Learning about human trafficking starts with education about the problem. The education process begins by learning the signs of someone being trafficked — the questions to ask and in what manner and who to contact once trafficking is discovered.

“We have seen an increase in smuggling here in this area. Smuggling occurs when a person is brought over from another country, mostly through Mexico. Exact numbers are not known, but it is believed that many of the women and children are being trafficked once they get here,” Koether said. “Basically, anybody can be trafficked. I think this issue is much deeper than anybody knows or believes. It seems to be more of an underground system, but the more we learn about it, the truth is these individuals are being hidden in plain sight.”

Any person can be a victim of human trafficking whether male or female, said Koether, but one of the more common groups are young females between the ages of 12-14 who have a history of running away from their homes or caretakers.

Parents, a family member or a person close to a child are common traffickers of children and do so in exchange for money, housing, or drugs.

Koether stated traffickers often lure their victims in by telling them, “You’re so pretty you could be a model. Come over and I’ll introduce you to this person who is a modeling agent or looking for his next big star.”

The next thing they know they are on a bus or in the back of a truck or van being moved to another location, she said.

“If somebody tells you they can make you the biggest, richest person in history, or makes any other claim that sounds too good to be true, you should be weary of this person,” Koether stated.

The places sex trafficking often occurs at is truck stops, hotels, a home in a residential area, streets, massage businesses, man camps, people selling magazine subscriptions door to door and ever increasingly, on the Internet, she noted.

Koether said victims or traffickers may be someone you encounter at the grocery store, doctor’s office, nail salon, or restaurant.

The behavior and dynamic between the trafficker and the victim are one key component in identifying the crime.

The trafficker will not leave the victim alone in public and will answer most, if not all, of the questions being directed at the victim. The victim will generally not make eye contact with anyone but the trafficker and will look for approval from the trafficker if allowed to answer.

Another major identifier of trafficking is through tattoos or brandings. Typically, a trafficker will tattoo a victim near the hairline, at the base of the neck, inside the bottom lip, or on the arms. Some commonly used tattoos are the words “Daddy,” “Daddy’s Girl,” “Money Maker,” or the traffickers name. Symbols are also commonly used such as, dollar signs, a number, bar codes or the trafficker’s initials. Anything that denotes ownership may be used as a tattoo.

What questions should be asked of a person whose situation may seem “off” and trafficking is suspected?

Note: Only ask these questions if the two are separated. If they are not, you will get the “right” answers every time, or the answers the traffickers want you to hear.

• What type of work do you do? Are you able to quit?

• Can you come and go as you please?

• Do you live with your employer or do you live where you work?

• Do you have passport/identification? Who has it? Do you have access to it?

A trafficking victim moves around a lot and a person who does not know their address or what city they are in should prompt more questions.

If someone lives in the same place they work, this could be a red flag for trafficking.

Health care professionals should question patients who have chronic untreated medical conditions present with sexually transmitted infections multiple times a year, lack proper nourishment, and are not dressed appropriately for the time of year. The health care field needs to be very aware of the trafficking signs, Koether said.

“I watched an interview of a trafficking victim who said, ‘I went to a doctor 50 times and not one time was I asked if I was being trafficked or if I could leave if I wanted to. I could’ve gotten out 50 times, but not one person asked,’” Koether said. “Victims are trained and taught how to respond to questions and won’t usually ask for help unless prompted by someone.

“They’re highly conditioned and would never say ‘I need help, or can you get me out’ because they know if something goes wrong and they don’t make it out, they’ll be in danger. If you can get one of these victims alone and start asking the right questions, you can start piecing the story together. Most will not identify as being ‘trafficked’ and will deny it because they can’t see it. If you ask the right questions, you can begin to see the trafficking history.

“I think a lot of people don’t recognize it, because they simply don’t realize it’s happening here. Really, when you think of a trafficking victim, you think they’re going to have tape over their mouth and their hands are going to be tied together. Not true. These traffickers are much better at keeping their victims compliant, in and out of public view, through threats and abuse.”

Victims of human trafficking are often difficult to remove from their situation, said Koether.

They do not trust anyone and are deathly afraid to leave the trafficker for fear of the punishment if they are not successful. Many will not talk freely and are highly guarded in their answers.

Sometimes the trafficker may use drugs to control the victim through a forced addiction — yet another layer of control which is difficult to overcome.

Resources for these types of survivors are limited, especially in New Mexico, Koether said.

The New Mexico Dream Center in Albuquerque houses and treats victims of human trafficking, and has a facility to house and treat, or begin treatment, for victims of human trafficking who are also addicted to controlled substances. They can be reached at 505-900-3833.

Any law enforcement agency can be contacted through 911 for assistance, and The Phoenix House can be contacted at 575-942-1911, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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