This is the first article in a two-part series about the often under-reported crime of sex trafficking in New Mexico. It was spurred by the death of a 20-year-old woman who police say had been shot and killed by a hit man hired by the people who had been forcing her to sell sex.
In January 2016, police were called to a Northwest Albuquerque home after an 18-year-old girl said she had been beaten by her 39-year-old boyfriend.
The teenager, who had bloody and swollen lips, told the officers that her boyfriend was also her “pimp” and had beaten her with a sharpened shovel handle.
She told them he regularly hit her when she didn’t make enough money working as a prostitute – which is a potential sex trafficking offense – yet they charged him only with domestic violence, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Law enforcement officers and advocates who focus on sex trafficking say this scenario plays out all too often, and it’s one of the biggest obstacles to helping victims and stopping offenders.
“We see the girlfriend thing a lot,” said Detective Kyle Hartsock with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Ghost Unit, named “after the part of society that is often overlooked,” according to the BCSO website. “We see police characterize it as domestic violence.”
Many sex trafficking victims are unable to escape their traffickers without help, and Hartsock said he believes that with specific training, officers will be able to better recognize them so offenders can be taken off the streets. He and his partner, Kyle Woods, have started a program at the BCSO to tackle the issue.
“Domestic violence cases are a dime a dozen,” Hartsock said. “If you call someone a human trafficker, the courts and prosecutors put more weight on it.”
Authorities say sex trafficking is a vastly under-detected and under-reported crime since many of the victims are living on the fringes of society and may not want to come forward or even identify as victims themselves.
New Mexico State Law defines sex trafficking as knowingly recruiting or transporting a person in order to force them into selling sex or benefitting financially from forced or coerced sexual activity. It’s a third-degree felony.
Although Hartsock said there are prostitutes who work independently and are not forced into selling sex, he said it’s extremely common for traffickers to try to recruit them under the guise of offering protection. Often these relationships devolve into sex trafficking as the worker is forced into doing more and more and isn’t able to keep most of what he or she makes.
Law enforcement agencies across New Mexico investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases, but no state government agency keeps statistics on the number of cases or victims.
Anthony Maez, a special agent in charge of the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit in the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, said identifying victims of trafficking in the state is particularly difficult because many remain in the area only a short time. The interstates that meet in the middle of the city can act as thoroughfares for traffickers who are bringing their victims from one area to another.
“New Mexico appears to be part of a ‘circuit’ where victims are brought for a couple of days, posted online or forced to walk the streets and then moved on to another city,” Maez said.
However, some groups have amassed statistics.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 32 cases the organization was aware of in New Mexico in 2016, and Lynn Sanchez with The Life Link’s Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative said in the same year the local hotline came into contact with 46 to 52 victims.
And Hartsock, using national studies and statistics as well as personal experience, extrapolates that at any one time there are more than 25 traffickers in BCSO’s jurisdiction alone and more than 40 juvenile sex-trafficking victims.
These calls and experiences lead some advocates to say the number of victims in New Mexico could be in the thousands.
Christine Barber, a local victims’ advocate and co-founder of Street Safe New Mexico, has taken it upon herself to try to figure out how many sex trafficking victims could be in the state.
Barber and a crew of volunteers gather twice a month at casinos to walk up and down between the neon glow of slot machines and count the women they suspect are being coerced into prostitution.
Barber said although she initially focused on bringing everyday supplies and assistance to sex workers on the streets, particularly in Southeast Albuquerque, she began to hear from victims that casinos can be hotbeds of activity for sex trafficking.
That inspired her to try to count them and estimate the scope of the problem. She then passes along her data to the Attorney General’s Office.
“If we don’t start counting those trafficking victims, it allows us to ignore them,” Barber said. “We’ve allowed everyone to be complacent for far too long.”
Hartsock said he and BCSO have made recent progress in the fight against sex trafficking by focusing on homeless, at-risk teenagers.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six runaways has been coerced into prostitution, and teenagers who have run away from state programs are the most at risk. A 2016 study found that 86 percent of the juvenile victims had run away from social services or foster care.
Hartsock said there are 262 juveniles who have been reported as missing in BCSO’s jurisdiction, and he expects there are three or four times that number in the Albuquerque Police Department jurisdiction.
He said for that reason, uniformed officers are the most likely to encounter sex trafficking victims as they respond to other calls, but they often don’t realize it.
Victims “generally have a long history of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect,” Hartsock said. “It’s rare that a victim says they’re a victim.”
APD Detective Matt Vollmer agrees. He said he worked on the department’s vice unit when it had six detectives, and although there are only two now they still carry out undercover operations.
Vollmer said sometimes officers arrest a woman who is working as a prostitute multiple times before she discloses that she is the victim of sex traffickers.
“A victim is not a victim until they decide to be a victim,” he said. “Once they decide to be a victim we have to be prepared to assist them with everything from substance abuse treatment to housing, to money, to clothing – basic necessities to help them escape whoever is trafficking them.”
Hartsock and Woods, on the other hand, started taking a more proactive approach at the BCSO in June 2016, by training all deputies on how to identify and interview potential victims of sex trafficking.
Hartsock said signs that indicate someone is being trafficked include close monitoring by another person, buying an exorbitant amount of condoms, not wanting to say where they are staying at night, making references to “the life,” which is slang for being a sex worker, or getting random calls at all hours of the day. He said victims also usually display signs of mental illness or drug abuse.
“We rarely find a victim that is not being drugged by their trafficker on a consistent basis,” Hartsock said.
BCSO also introduced a seven-deputy High Risk Victims Unit that works more intensively with the community and follows up with at-risk teenagers and families.
Results came quickly.
Hartsock said they have identified 15 juvenile victims since October and have several new cases building against traffickers.
He said the trick is recognizing the behaviors victims often hide behind.
“We’re saying if they’re acting like this, they’re probably acting like this for a reason,” Hartsock said. “It has to be our job to find out why they’re doing this.”
MONDAY: Victims’ advocates