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Local Law Enforcement Agencies Diverge In Tactics With Sex Workers

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Several branches of law enforcement in the Albuquerque area participated in a sting last month that targeted people who were trafficking minors for sex. But the operation netted adult sex workers, and the agencies took different approaches to dealing with them.

The Albuquerque Police Department jailed five women on minor prostitution charges. And the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office identified almost 12 sex workers but didn’t arrest any of them and tried to connect them to services instead.

Elise Kaplan, a crime and breaking news reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, reported the story. She spoke about some of the stereotypes about who’s being trafficked in New Mexico. 

KAPLAN: With all this stuff, it’s a little tricky to say how much someone’s being forced and how much someone’s being coerced, and how much someone is being trafficked just because they have a really bad drug problem and someone is kind of taking advantage of that. So there’s not really any clear lines.

But I do know it’s not like people going over to foreign countries and bringing in young girls. It happens here all the time. A lot of times it’s like adults taking advantage of either juveniles or people with drug problems or sometimes mental health issues and kind of forcing them to give them money that they’ve made through sex work.

KUNM: You reported that APD interviews sex workers and then sometimes arrests them, while Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office points them toward social services and doesn’t arrest them. Why the different approaches?

KAPLAN: I don’t know if it’s a policy thing or an individual thing. I do know from talking to lots and lots of advocates and former sex workers and people heavily involved in this field that they thing very highly of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department Ghost Team. It’s two detectives, and they seem to be on it. Everybody says really good things about the way that they’re approaching things, and I think that they’ve really taken the reins in the past couple of years to try to deal with how BCSO deputies deal with sex workers and trafficking victims, and really tried to educate a lot about that.

KUNM: APD also said arresting someone and locking them up gives that person time to decide if they want to make use of available resources. Is that how it actually plays out? And what kind of resources are the officers trying to connect them to?

KAPLAN: I don’t know how it plays out exactly. I do know that advocates that I’ve talked to from the Life Link and from Spoken For and from Street Safe—all local organizations—talk about how the biggest thing that helps a human trafficking victim get out of that life is a steady home, you know, lots of resources, food and clothing, and like a bed to sleep in at night, and getting out of that kind of environment.

I don’t think necessarily a jail cell would be getting someone out of that environment. But I guess it’s possible.

KUNM: We know that adults sometimes end up getting arrested, but what happens when law enforcement runs across a young person? Do they go to foster care?

KAPLAN: Some of them go to foster care. Some of them are already in the juvenile detention system. Some of them are able to be maybe taken out of state to live with out-of-state family members. They try to get them out of the situation that they’re in right now and try to get them to safety in whatever kind of way that can mean.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of resources. There’s no center in New Mexico specifically for those children, so they often get put into homeless shelters or treatment centers for substance abuse, or something else. They get kind of wrapped up into other things. Which they may also have those problems but not specifically designated for sex trafficking victims.

KUNM: So did the sting work for catching people who are trafficking children and did they find any people who force young people to work this way? Or did they bust anyone who solicits sex from underage people?

KAPLAN: Yes and no. BCSO has told me that they’ve now opened 15 new criminal cases. Every time I’ve talked to detectives over there, they say it’s not like other cases. These cases are really complicated, a lot of times because the victims are really traumatized and really need a lot of help before they can testify, before they can even cooperate with law enforcement sometimes.

KUNM: Is this issue something that law enforcement might start focusing on more?

KAPLAN: Across the board, it’s definitely something that people are aware of, and we hear about it nationally, too, with human trafficking stings. I think that there’s definitely some interest in it. And there’s been more awareness in recent years about how much of a problem it is. Whereas before maybe those people were seen as suspects. So I’d like to think that people are focusing on it more. 

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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