Are sex workers criminals or victims? In the Albuquerque area, that may depend on who’s doing the investigating.
Local law enforcement agencies involved in a four-day, multi-agency operation targeting sex-trafficking of minors two weeks ago took very different approaches in dealing with those involved.
The Albuquerque Office of Homeland Security Investigations ran the operation, which started on July 17, along with the Attorney General’s Office. They were also joined by the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
During the operation, APD detectives booked five women into jail on petty misdemeanor prostitution charges after finding their ads for “adult services” online.
BCSO didn’t arrest any sex workers, but identified nearly a dozen and helped them find social services.
Meanwhile, the AG’s Office focused on finding men who prey on underage girls.
APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said in a statement that detectives interview people caught in such a sting to determine whether they are working as prostitutes willingly or being forced.
“At the conclusion of the investigations, we sometimes arrest the individual for prostitution,” she said. “Arresting an individual often removes the individual from a dangerous situation and gives them time to decide if they want to take advantage of the resources being offered.”
The women were released on their own recognizance the next day and the charges are still pending.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office detectives said their focus in the operation was on rescuing trafficking victims who were being held in area motels.
Detective Kyle Hartsock, with BCSO’s Ghost Unit, said his team identified a couple of juvenile victims and rescued one while helping nine sex workers get services and assistance from The Life Link, a local behavioral health center. The Ghost Unit handles missing persons cases and child victims of exploitation or sex trafficking.
Hartsock said his unit typically doesn’t arrest or charge anyone with prostitution.
“We see them all as potential victims,” he said. “We want them to get services and rescue out of this.”
Hartsock said that while his group didn’t arrest anyone on trafficking charges during the course of the operation, members of the unit have opened 15 new criminal cases involving potential sex trafficking, including some involving juveniles. He said they did arrest six men on warrants and charges not related to the operation.
Lynn Sanchez, executive director of The Life Link, said she was surprised to hear APD’s vice unit had made arrests for prostitution. She said she thought law enforcement attitudes toward women working as prostitutes had been shifting away from arresting them as offenders.
“I think that’s horrible, and we need to stop that archaic outdated process,” Sanchez said.
But New Mexico law still considers prostitution a crime defined as “knowingly engaging in or offering to engage in a sexual act for hire.” It is a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
APD Police Chief Gorden Eden issued a special order in May instructing officers not to arrest certain suspects in low-level misdemeanor crimes, including prostitution. He said officers will still enforce those laws but they are permitted to issue a citation instead of taking them to jail, based on the officer’s judgment.
APD spokeswoman Espinoza did not respond to questions about why detectives decided to make arrests, rather than issue citations, in the cases during the operation.
Anthony Maez, the special agent in charge of Internet Crimes Against Children and the Human Trafficking task forces for the AG’s Office, said his office arranges operations to target sex trafficking about four times a year throughout the state.
He said in the most recent operation his agents charged seven men with attempted human trafficking. Those men had all arranged online to go to a hotel in order to have sex with an undercover deputy thinking she was a 15-year-old girl.
Maez said New Mexico’s human trafficking statute is extremely broad. Regarding the trafficking of minors, it says violations include “recruiting, soliciting, enticing, transporting or obtaining by any means a person under the age of eighteen years with the intent or knowledge that the person will be caused to engage in commercial sexual activity.” It’s a felony.
Maez said the goal of the AG’s sting operation is to target adults who are trying to have sex with minors.
“They want to meet a child to have sex with them,” Maez said. “We want to send that message that you have no idea who you’re going to walk in with, so maybe just don’t do it.”
Sanchez said although the operation lasted only four days, the fact that sheriff’s deputies were able to identify and help 12 trafficking victims shows that sex trafficking is a real problem in Albuquerque.
“If we could find that in one week, we could do that all the time,” she said. “We know there are more out there.”