When human trafficking came up in the New Mexico Legislature earlier in the 2008 session, victims’ advocates had to tread carefully: State officials were hesitant to get involved in enforcing federal immigration laws. However, as Assistant Attorney General María Sánchez-Gagne explains, the focus of the law on victims, rather than smugglers, motivated the Legislature to back the proposal and, in February, New Mexico became the final border state to establish human trafficking as a felony. Ten months later, Sánchez-Gagne, who also is the director of the Attorney General’s Border Violence Division, explains the challenges of educating communities across the state on the local implications of a global crime.

SFR: How did the human trafficking bill come about?

MSG: In developing the Attorney General’s Border Violence Division, we learned of human trafficking affecting other border states, as well as our sister state of Chihuahua, across the border. It’s huge. Human trafficking is the second largest industry next to drug trafficking, tied with illegal arms as the next largest industry in terms of profit. We learned that many states had human trafficking laws in addition to the federal laws and New Mexico did not have a human trafficking law. We needed a law to fight this crime that we are discovering exists in states around us, in both rural and metropolitan areas.

What are the key components of the legislation?

The elements require that a person is exploited for either labor or commercial sexual purposes using force, fraud or coercion. Not unlike kidnapping, a person may be psychologically kept against their will for fear of deportation, fear of reporting them to law enforcement. It provides for penalties: three years if an adult is trafficked and we have higher penalties for children. More than half of trafficking victims are children.

Is there a difference between human trafficking and smuggling?

Good question. Yes, this is the first thing we explain in our trainings because this is often confused and misinterpreted. In Arizona, human trafficking and smuggling are enforced at the state level. At the state level in New Mexico—and this was one of the sticky points for us in the Legislature—New Mexico as a state was not going to move into the realm of enforcing federal immigration law. However, a trafficking case could arise from a smuggling arrangement. A person may want to be smuggled and pay a coyote a fee of $500 but, once they arrive in New Mexico, that fee then goes up and the person owes a debt that keeps mounting or their papers may be held or threats made against their family and they’re not free to leave. At that point, that person is no longer an illegal immigrant but is a trafficking victim. That distinction is very important because a person who is here illegally may be seen as a criminal on a federal level, however, if they’re being exploited they are a trafficking victim and should be entitled to some victim services and benefits.

There is also a state human trafficking task force, right?

The New Mexico human trafficking task force is a multi-disciplinary group, which includes victim services workers, faith-based community workers, local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, the US Attorney’s Office, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. All these levels work together to develop our policy and protocols with these types of cases.

Has the attorney general begun prosecuting traffickers yet?

Not yet. There was a possible case in April in which a brother was selling his sister to support his heroin habit. We might have been able to prosecute, but it was prior to the enactment of the law. Now that we have the tools, we don’t expect a rush of victims to come forward. They are not going to self-identify as victims. So, it’s going to take people recognizing victims, developing trust with them, working with them to let them know they have rights. It is modern-day slavery. We are developing a subcommittee to do community and media awareness to help with that

Is New Mexico’s trade only from Latin America?

We’re seeing it as a global issue. New Mexico may be seen as a pass-through, but the data we’ve seen in surrounding states is that it’s all of the above. We may see traffic from the Latin American countries; we may see Eastern European [trafficking] right here in New Mexico. There may be the Asian component, such as Vietnamese. But there’s also an area that we shouldn’t overlook: our own minors that are being trafficked for sex.

You mean from New Mexico outward?

Yes, and any other state. Domestic-minor sex trafficking is huge and those numbers are growing. We’re finding that young people may be either abducted or lured into the life of prostitution. Teen runaways are very vulnerable to being trafficked. New Mexico may be a pass-through, but it may also be occurring here. A person does not have to be moving through the border to be trafficked. A person can be trafficked right here and no movement is required. That’s part of the whole thing—opening our eyes to see that a person working in a restaurant, a sweatshop, an agricultural setting could be a trafficked person. Traffickers can be anyone from international organizations to mom-and-pops that are exploiting a person for domestic servitude to use as a nanny in the home.