Being Informed Fights Sex Trafficking

The world of sex-trafficking is complicated and complex, yet the solution may be as simple as education.

“Sex trafficking and human smuggling are somewhat ‘breaking’ for a lot of people,” said Edward Owens, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. “And what we mean by ‘breaking’ is that because of the recent level of increased awareness, we are seeing a lot more information and tips come in, which gives the ability to federal, state and local law enforcement to investigate more cases. El Paso is kind of a gateway, with the I-10 corridor and the proximity to the border. Everyone that gets smuggled into El Paso doesn’t stay in El Paso. This makes it more important for us to try to intercede at this level. It gets harder once they are moved into the interior of the United States. We talk about educating the public on different things to look for and different signs to spot trafficking, and that is where we are going to get the biggest return on our investment.”

Law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups want people in El Paso to recognize how big a problem sex trafficking is in the area, more importantly, they want people to recognize the signs so they can help. A shy person who won’t make eye contact, a neighbor who never leaves the house alone, someone who seems to be controlled by someone else, houses filled with people who are not allowed to go outside unaccompanied or have an unusual number of visitors — all could signal human trafficking.

While law enforcement agencies continue to target websites like backpage.com and Craigslist that are breeding grounds for prostitution and sex trafficking, the best tips come from the public, said Sgt. Jose Hernandez, supervisor of the El Paso Sheriff’s Office strike team. “When it comes to sex trafficking, the best tips and leads we get are from the public,” Hernandez said. “We will comb and search some of the sites that are known to post ads for escorts, and that is kind of the starting point for some of our investigations. But information for the public is almost always our best leads.”

Education does not stop at just the general public. Officials are reaching out to the victims, and even the traffickers themselves. “We also try to reach out to the victims and hope they see our message,” said Sgt. James Belknap of the El Paso Sheriff’s Office’s Criminal Investigations for Crimes Against Persons unit. “For the victims, the message is that it is OK: Contact us and let us know you need help. We are here to help you and get you to a safe place. For anyone involved who wants out but may be reluctant or scared, it is OK to contact us and we will help you.”

Learn more at Aaron Martinez’ Find Law article: Informed public can fight sex trafficking.

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