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Training helps law enforcement identify human trafficking victims

Shelby Kleinhans
Source NM

People caught in human trafficking often go unseen by authorities, especially if they’re afraid to seek help. That’s why a new training program is helping law enforcement recognize the signs of trafficking and understand effective ways to intervene. KUNM spoke with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) about how these training programs could help missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives as well.

LEGER FERNANDEZ: We were actually approached by both the chief of police for Santa Fe and the chief of police for Albuquerque. So you know, when you've been asked by the law enforcement that this is a need. We're able to bring federal resources of training around human trafficking to our law enforcement, as well as our tribes, and different nonprofits that specialize in this area.

KUNM: How big of a problem is human trafficking here in the state of New Mexico?

LEGER FERNANDEZ: In 2020, the AG reported about 100 cases and that's just in one year. The other thing we know is that’s an under-reporting. There are so many more cases that go undetected, as we pointed out. We have victims hidden in plain sight and so that's why it's really important for our first responders, our law enforcement, our nurses, our teachers to be able to identify what are some of the signs. If you become aware of it, then you can look for that, you can look for the signs. The more we are aware of this incredibly tragic crime, then the more we are able to prosecute. When we're able to prosecute, we both cut down and we put those who are responsible for human trafficking behind bars. But another really important piece is we want to make sure that these victims of human trafficking become survivors.

KUNM: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to get tribal entities involved and focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women. How will these trainings help fight that issue?

LEGER FERNANDEZ: The victims are often the most vulnerable among us. So that includes Native American women, that includes immigrant women, that includes women who are living in poverty or living in fear. We're also bringing awareness tothe Federal Law Enforcement Training officersabout missing and murdered Indigenous women and what other trainings should we be developing for our first responders in Indian country and so that's been nice, something that's come out of this that we didn't anticipate at the beginning. The Federal Law Enforcement Training officers, they want to do a good job, they want to bring information and bring training to first responders that they can use. So they have the right intention. They just might not have been as aware of the needs in Indian country. Now they become more aware of those needs and have specific training that they might develop to assist Indian country.

KUNM: This program is for police officers and first responders at the moment, but there is an effort to potentially train hotel or gas station workers, right?

LEGER FERNANDEZ: I want to expand it so that we have those people who are most likely to encounter survivors or victims, so that they can say, "Oh, wait a minute, maybe I should alert somebody." We know, that could be hospital workers, people within the school system, people in the social services areas. We want to identify the different areas, and where victims are likely to intersect, so that we become aware of it.

KUNM: What are some of the challenges that this program faces?

LEGER FERNANDEZ: There's always a funding issue and so one of the things that we passed in the National Defense Authorization Act was additional funding that would be available to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers to be able to offer this kind of training. And then it's resources, time, right, we need to be able to identify the time that people can dedicate to get this training. But I think in general, there is a desire to see it because people want to get this information.

KUNM: There's been a problem in the past with victims, especially sex workers being criminalized instead of being recognized as trafficking victims. How can this program help overcome that problem with law enforcement?

LEGER FERNANDEZ: I think it's important to recognize that when an individual is being trafficked, we need to not blame that individual. We should not criminalize what that individual is being forced to do. For example, if there is issues around prostitution, and I think that having this training opens the eyes to the first responders, to the law enforcement. That these are truly victims

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s currently a part of the Local News Fund Fellowship where she will be working with KUNM-FM and NMPBS during her 9-month fellowship where she will gain hands-on newsroom experience. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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