Five years ago victims of human trafficking had no legal remedies under New Mexico’s laws. But in 2008 a new statute provided prosecutors with tools to help victims and bring the traffickers to justice. And the state was years ahead of 39 other states that only began to pass laws this year, according to the Polaris Project.
Law enforcement reports show up to 900,000 modern-day slaves are trafficked across international borders each year- 20,000 in the U.S.- for a variety of purposes by traffickers using force, fraud or coercion. Human trafficking is an Internet phenomenon, too, with purveyors touting escort or dating service thrills that are just a click away. Special Agent Anthony Maez leads the anti-trafficking efforts of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
“We are seeing more prosecutions in the AG’s, and the US attorneys office is very motivated," Maez said. Prosecutors both at the federal side and the state side are very aggressive, he continued, with federal agents sometimes stepping in to prosecute higher profile cases.
Maez said his prosecutors are going to trial with trafficking cases every few months - the result of better collaboration between state, local and federal law enforcement agencies over the last five years. Since the law was passed, at least nine cases have been prosecuted in New Mexico District Court; and training academies are also focusing on how to identify a human trafficking victim and divert them from incarceration to an array of social services.
“You know they’ve been through so much, and it can range from sexual abuse to sexual assault, to domestic violence," Denise Gutierrez, a victim-witness advocate said. She noted that human trafficking can encompass lots of different things.
Gutierrez, who works for the federal office of Homeland Security in Albuquerque, said that gaining trust is key to getting a victim to testify in court and getting them the help they need.
“If you can convince them that life after this will be better than what they know, which is usually all they know, then they usually stay," Gutierrez said. "But they know life in no other way, so they’re scared of a new life.”
Gutierrez said it’s hard to keep a victim from running back to her trafficker.
Lynn Sanchez is a counselor with The Life Link of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s only provider of long-term housing and wrap-around services for vulnerable victims. Sanchez connects them to state-funded services until they qualify for help under the federal Victims of Trafficking & Violence Protection Act.
Sanchez says seeing their human traffickers face justice helps the healing process.
“And then building an internal structure of self-efficacy so they believe in themselves and believe they have a future,” Sanchez stated.
Agent Maez said victims can be found working in brothels, strip clubs, and escort services, and they could be children, domestic help, or immigrants who do not enter the US willingly and are being used to send money back to families in another country. Maez pointed to a recent trial that ended in a guilty verdict in state district court. He said that demonstrates society is more aware of what human trafficking is.
“We’ve seen an increase in reporting because of the awareness factor. Now that we have our truckers involved, we’ve met with massage parlors, the strip clubs, training the nurses, training folks at the jails, everyone’s aware, so people are calling in,” Maez said.
New Mexico’s statute passed five years ago makes it a felony for human trafficking of anyone over 16, with stiffer penalties for coercion of kids under 13. Another law passed this year provides cash, food and job training for victims.
The website Polaris Project follows gains made against human trafficking, and awareness is also spreading through billboards and electronic ads that invite victims to securely text for help in escaping the clutches of a human trafficker. Since its inception last spring, social workers in New Mexico report more than 200 inquiries and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as victims.