Human Trafficking and the 2016 Super Bowl

How the Bay Area is building America's most ambitious anti-trafficking coalition.
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Cowboys Stadium, home of Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the year Texas' attorney general called the annual event the single largest human trafficking incident in the U.S. (Photo: Ken Durden/Shutterstock)

Cowboys Stadium, home of Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the year Texas' attorney general called the annual event the single largest human trafficking incident in the U.S. (Photo: Ken Durden/Shutterstock)

Human trafficking is what investors might call a growth industry. Whether stealing organs, or extracting sex and labor, human traffickers participate in the fastest-expanding black market in the modern world. The United Nations estimates that trade in human flesh nets $32 billion each year second only to the drug trade. Gangs are learning that human contraband is safer to peddle than narcotics. If a cruiser pulls you over, good luck explaining the two keys of coke taped under the seat; if you're smuggling people, your odds look much better. “Oh, these people? Just my wife's uncle and my cousins. They don't speak English.” Carry on then.

MS-13—Mara Salvatrucha, a dynastic gang composed largely of Central Americans—has deep investments in the game, but the gang's domestic competitors are catching up. Between 12 and 27 million souls across the globe live in some form of slavery. The International Labour Organization's estimate of 20 million is now widely accepted; Secretary of State John Kerry cites this number on behalf of the administration in his preface to the State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. From farmhands to prostitutes to men and boys and girls living in domestic slavery—these souls are not confined to Law & Order: SVU, nor are they necessarily foreign. Americans are bought and sold or kidnapped or duped into slavery every day. Devastating in its silence, the industry thrives on the fear and reticence of its victims. It depends for its survival on the popular sentiment that trade in human flesh is somehow confined to Singapore, or that stateside slavery means undocumented Guatemalan nannies or Chechen housemaids who obtained false papers in Budapest.

"Survivors use a lot of humor. All these tragic stories, but there can also be laughter and humor, something funny and gross and weird. Humor is a real aspect of surviving trauma."

"These are not children living in some faraway place, far from everyday life," FBI Director James Comey said at a press conference at the J. Edgar Hoover Building this past June. "These are our children. On our streets. Our truck stops. Our motels. These are America’s children."

Depredation happens regularly on Facebook; consider MS-13's Victor Manuel Contreras, recently sentenced to 60 months in Virginia for using the site's chat function to seduce a minor away from home and coerce her into prostitution. Last month, Arizona police caught a dozen men in a Facebook sting; officers. As the Arizona Republic reports, the officers baited their quarry online, “concealed by trade slang and a fresh-faced social media avatar.” Children who feel alienated at home or bullied at school are naturally more vulnerable to Web predators, who offer help and the illusion of empathy, anything to convince this piece of human chattel that he or she should leave home and find someone who “gets it.” The predator is patient and persuasive. He buys an e-ticket, which he sends to the child's inbox. He wires money for a taxi to the airport. He offers what passes for kindly advice about how to sneak out.

And then, if the unaccompanied boy or girl slips past the flight attendants without raising red flags, the predator has won, and the next stop is an impromptu brothel or a silent auction in a strange hotel room.

As in other states, advocates and law-enforcement in California have been collaborating on a comprehensive, shared strategy of prevention, intervention, and aftercare. Such efforts are very much alive in the southern part of the state, but the Bay Area has seen unique developments in the past decade, with activists at the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition drafting an ambitious roadmap for wide-scale information-sharing and police cooperation across the area's nine counties. Last month, California passed SB 473, an amendment to the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act that recognizes human trafficking as a gangster phenomenon and therefore subject to the same “sentencing enhancement” that applies to the state's other “gang-related” crimes. The BAATC, meanwhile, is more interested in stopping the problem before it starts—and enlisting citizens in a struggle that pervades their community. With the approach of Super Bowl 50, to be held in Santa Clara, the Transportation Security Administration, police, and civic leaders alike know that they will see a major influx of coerced prostitution and slave labor. In 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott called the Super Bowl "the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States," a claim that some call an “urban legend.” Congress, though, seems to take the threat seriously; as USA Today reported this past January:

With the Super Bowl just days away, federal officials are working with airlines, Amtrak, and other transportation providers to help identify and rescue victims of human trafficking who are brought to major sporting events to be exploited for sex or forced labor.

Human traffickers see major sporting events such as the Super Bowl as lucrative opportunities to bring in adults and children who have been forced into prostitution or are made to clean hotel rooms or work in restaurants without pay. The victims are both Americans and foreign citizens, who are often lured to the United States by traffickers promising them good-paying jobs that do not exist.

As for advocates and law-enforcement types in the Bay Area? They plan to be ready.

THE FBI ESTABLISHED ITS Innocence Lost Initiative in 2003, and Operation Cross Country in 2007. Feds estimate that Innocence lost has rescued some 3,600 minors from sex- and labor-exploitation. Operation Cross Country is a now-annual nationwide bust. This year's was the “largest such enforcement action to date,” extricating 168 victims and nailing 281 “pimps.” Dani Geissinger-Rodarte, of the FBI's Office of Victim Assistance in Washington, observes that it can be hard for survivors to accept help:

A lot of victims of child prostitution have difficult backgrounds.... You start with the basics: Do you feel safe at home? Do you have clothing? What’s your interaction with your parents? You assess everything, and then you make referrals to community service providers to fill that void or address those issues.

Of the 70-odd trafficking task forces in which the FBI is involved, the Bay Area's operation is among the toughest and most impressive. Advocates are clearly concerned about Super Bowl 50; much like political conventions, the Super Bowl is a magnet for labor- and sex-trafficking. Jurisdiction-wise, that could be a problem.

“For the Super Bowl in 2016,” says one advocate, “you're gonna have people in San Francisco hotels who want prostitutes and everything, but the game is in Santa Clara. This is why we need to stamp trafficking out in the entire Bay Area: It shouldn't be so easy for traffickers to move little girls and boys to a different city.”

The BAATC has also done aggressive work enlisting veterans of the police force and district attorney’s offices, and in establishing a multi-pronged strategy for combatting not merely the branches of the problem but its roots, as well.

Betty Ann Boeving, founder and executive director of BAATC, emphasizes the importance of being prepared for a case on all fronts: “Do we have lawyers ready to prosecute these trafficking cases promptly? How do we get police to do proper interventions on the street? And after prevention and intervention, what about aftercare? Law enforcement can't work alone.”

Not that Californians are the only advocates asking these questions; Boeving notes progress on similar coalitions across the country. “You've got Atlanta doing great stuff,” she says over the phone. “Same with Portland, Seattle, L.A. But you don't have a group going entirely from Portland to Seattle, regional as opposed to city-by-city. In the Bay Area, that's what we've set out to do.”

The Coalition's work involves conquering widespread disbelief that “this isn't happening in my town,” as Boeving puts it.

“In some of the earliest cases reported in northern Cali,” Boeving says, “you just had people walking dogs, and then these people noticed bars not on the outside of the windows but on the inside of the house. You see that this global phenomenon has reached home soil. And when the calls came in, we uncovered brothels and massage parlors, no consent.”

As for labor trafficking, people in affluent neighborhoods began to see five foreigners mysteriously living in a cramped second garage on an otherwise well-heeled property. The first labor case to be prosecuted in Berkeley, nearly a decade back, concerned Walnut Creek, a bedroom community-suburb of Berkeley; local teachers had noted a family of kids arriving at school, on time and nicely dressed each day, while the nanny looked “disheveled, malnourished.” The FBI was called in and discovered that the nanny lived in a cupboard under the ground-floor stairs and would be beaten if it was decided she hadn't done something properly.

Most advocates agree that the labor issue is too often overshadowed by the sex element, one reason—alongside systemic immigration problems—why labor exploitation is less frequently reported.

Boeving warns against too much one-dimensional thinking. “Whether it's sex or labor,” she says, “we're sending the message to traffickers that the Bay Area isn't their place to do business.

THERE ARE OTHER REASONS that victims don't come forward, and other ways that traditional, prevention-based initiatives could do a better job at reaching out. Labor trafficking doesn't have the same headline cachet as sex slavery, and we thereby tend to overlook the majority of indentured souls in our cities and towns. Faith-based organizations, which often work closely with women victims, can be bullish about prayer and religious conversion while failing to identify—indeed, ignoring entirely—the needs of LGBTQ youth.

In other words, there's a need to broaden the narrative.

“Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ in the U.S.,” says Emily Sims, founder and director of West Marin Advocacy, a co-founding agency of the Marin County Human Trafficking Task Force that offers aid and counseling to “survivors of family and community violence.” “We need to make everything less shameful and dangerous for all victims, and especially with a better emphasis on boys.” Sims continues:

People go pray with survivors, and that can be helpful sometimes, but putting religion on someone without choice is never a good thing. Now, 40 percent of our homeless youth are queer, but you talk to community members and never once have I heard them work with LGBTQ organizations. Forty percent is pretty significant in our nation. People in the general public may have more compassion when they hear of a young girl who has been kidnapped and trafficked, rather than hearing someone who was kicked out of his home for being a gay kid. I don't think that is a narrative that mainstream America wants to hear.

It's not rare for trans women in San Francisco, to be stopped by cops and accused of being street-walkers, when really they're just strolling to meet someone for dinner. As Sims describes it to me: “Your visibility as a queer person is often criminalized.” At the same time, Sims emphasizes that though police and faith-based organizations can be slow to help trans or gay victims, there are a variety of local non-profits who cater to these victims—including Lyric and the St. James Infirmary, “a peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers and their families.”

Successful rehabilitation cases often go on to become advocates and counselors themselves; others remain, by choice, on the street. Regardless, hundreds have found solace in writing their stories for the rest of us.

Sims' own story of survival informs her work with LGBTQ victims:

I had become involved with a man somewhat older than me, also white and very affluent. Long before I knew it, our relationship had become one of control and abuse. I mentioned having been attracted to women, and he really kind of latched onto that, used it as a piece of information to manipulate me. He would hand me around like a favor to civic leaders, other people in the hospitality industry. These were all successful professionals, and it was the hospitality business, so my exploiter received a lot of job perks because of me. And then you start to think, well, I stayed in this fancy hotel or enjoyed this expensive dinner—am I complicit?

And because he wasn't smacking me around and dealing in wads of cash, it wasn't clear what was going on.

One day I discovered child pornography. I was looking for a deleted version of an essay in the trash folder on his computer and I found these underage pictures, and then I looked through the browser history and saw that he had been putting up personal ads on Craigslist, with my photo, posing as me to lure in other girls.

I knew it was time to leave.

When Sims speaks to certain community groups, an organizer will ask her to “tone down” the homosexual dimension of her story.

“There's a whole missing piece if you leave out the homophobia,” she says. “This is the only way I will come and talk to the group: if I am able to tell my own story.”

Telling one's tale of victimhood, what Sims quite beautifully calls “consensual writing,” can serve as both personal therapy and a cautionary body of literature. Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, edited by David Henry Sterry, is the result of an outreach project designed to increase safety for those working in the sex industry. Sterry worked with exploited men and women by giving them voices, letting them write their stories. Sterry—a former “rentboy” himself—extols the “courage” of his contributors (some anonymous, some not):

This book is, I hope, a way of showing how people who make money in the sex business come in all shapes and sizes. They are mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and children. I wanted to put a face to people who are glamorized and vilified, worshipped and hated, sexualized and arrested; to celebrate, illuminate, and humanize humans who have lived in this ancient, yet completely modern, billion-dollar industry.

It is a fascinating and often terrifying book of testimony but also rich with a knowing, uncomfortable strain of comedy. As Sims puts it: “Survivors use a lot of humor. All these tragic stories, but there can also be laughter and humor, something funny and gross and weird.” She pauses. “Humor is a real aspect of surviving trauma.”

Humor is our most powerful mechanism of psychic defense, and the survivors' courage must be ours, too, as we turn a punitive eye from those whose bodies are for sale to those who do the selling. Advocates and cops alike in the Bay Area counties agree that it shouldn't take a Super Bowl to rouse us from moral torpor. Undocumented children have fled their home countries and wait in limbo on our southern border while legislators play politics with their lives. Still, unfazed, groups small and large around the country are advocating for immigration reform, for the sensible treatment of refugees; for the rights of the exploited, and for redress against the exploiters.

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