Printed in the January 03, 2021 edition of the Yolo County News on page A6 | Published on January 2, 2021
By Natalia Baltazar
January marks the welcoming of a new year; it’s also Human Trafficking Awareness Month – a month to raise awareness about human trafficking issues and support survivors. After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the world’s second most profitable criminal enterprise and in California, there is an increasing need to provide more assistance and care for the victims and survivors of these heinous crimes, according to the Law and Justice section of Yolo County’s official website.
U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against their will. The one exception involves minors and commercial sex. Inducing a minor into commercial sex is considered human trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion.
Human trafficking strips victims of their freedom and violates our nation’s promise that every person in the United States is guaranteed basic human rights. Women are particularly vulnerable to this crime. The victims of human trafficking are often young girls and women. Young girls and women are 57.6% of forced labor victims and 99.4% of sex trafficking victims.
Traffickers, also known as pimps, can be anyone (including family members, parents, friends, gangs, trusted adults or “boyfriends”) who profits from the selling of a person to a buyer. Traffickers target vulnerable children and adults and lure them into sex trafficking using physical and psychological manipulation, and sometimes they may resort to violence. Any child may be vulnerable to such a person who promises to meet their emotional and physical needs. Often traffickers will create a seemingly loving or caring relationship with their victim in order to establish trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship tries to ensure the victim will remain loyal to the exploiter even in the face of severe victimization. These relationships may often begin online before progressing to a real-life encounter.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased vulnerabilities making more individuals at risk for exploitations,” said Empower Yolo associate director Celina Alveraz. Online access has also increased vulnerability. “Distance learning has given children increased internet access making them more susceptible to social media and online traffickers. Someone simply saying hi or showing interest in a child is all it takes to begin to lure a child into inappropriate conversations, which can lead to abuse or exploitation,” Alveraz said. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted an increase from 2 million to 4.2 million reports of online exploitation from March to April 2020.
“Financial stressors including loss of jobs and income have increased vulnerabilities making the ease of earning money seem appealing,” Alveraz said. Because people are more financially desperate due to the pandemic, they are more easily preyed upon.“The demand for sex remains high; Sacramento County completed a sting operation of sex purchasers resulting in the arrest of 46 individuals from September to mid November 2020,” Alveraz noted.
There are many signs and indicators of human trafficking — chronic truant, runaway or homeless youth; excess cash or hotel room keys; multiple cell phones; signs of branding (tattoos, jewelry); having expensive items with no known source of income (especially hair, manicures, cell phones, clothes); lying about age, false identification or inconsistencies in information being reported; dramatic personality change; evasive behavior especially around a “new boyfriend”; talk about being “taken care of”; disengagement from school, sports, community; lack of knowledge of a given community or whereabouts; evidence of being controlled; inability to move or leave a job; bruises or other signs of physical abuse; fear, depression, appearance of being tired or overworked; not speaking on ones own behalf; no passport or other forms of identification or documentation; working excessively long hours; living in place of employment; checking into hotels with older adults and referring to males as boyfriend or “daddy,” which may be slang for pimp; poor physical or dental health; and untreated sexual transmitted infections.
The first step in eradicating this deplorable situation is to make people aware of it and defining how pervasive it is. The Human Trafficking Awareness Month initiative is a worthwhile step in this direction. Better yet, get involved in the movement to rid the world of trafficking. – Rob Kopman