Area law enforcement agencies are hoping to uncover “what is hiding in plain sight, which are the victims of human trafficking,” US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM, told a group of reporters Monday at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
Responding to requests for resources from Santa Fe Police Chief Paul Joye and Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, the first-term congresswoman organized a day of training this week for each agency to better understand the signs of human trafficking. The training comes as federal officials have ramped up initiatives this year to combat the issue, while the New Mexico Attorney General Human Trafficking Task Force identified over 100 cases of trafficking in 2020.
Joye says he’s confident that the true numbers are higher, largely because instances of trafficking are going unreported. The Human Trafficking Awareness Training, provided by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, was an opportunity, he explained, for officers to learn from anti-trafficking experts and advocates, something he wishes he had while working his way up the ranks.
“The more I’ve learned in my positions about human trafficking—the identifiers and how to interact with the victims of this—you start to reflect on your own experiences out on patrol and investigations,” Joye said. “In my position, I hopefully get to better equip my officers and department with the tools that I feel like I was lacking when I was out there.”
Human trafficking is often mistaken for human smuggling, but the terms are not interchangable. Smuggling is the illegal movement of someone across a border, while trafficking is using force, fraud or coercion to subject a person to labor, services or sexual activity. It’s a third-degree felony unless the victim is 16 or younger (second degree) or 13 or younger (first degree).
Training officers to spot human trafficking red flags allows the state attorney general and district attorneys where the crime took place to pursue stiffer penalties than, say, in a domestic violence case. The New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force also partners with various law enforcement agencies to prosecute cases at the local, state, tribal and federal levels. Federal law allows anyone convicted of human trafficking to be imprisoned for no more than 20 years, unless the violation resulted in death or includes kidnapping, attempt to kidnap, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
Some people fall victim for multiple reasons, including sex trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude. Experts have also come to understand there is no standard victim type. Rather, it could happen to anyone.
“More of them do tend to be women, but they’re not all women,” Leger Fernández said. “They’re women, they are men, they are young men, they are middle-aged men, they are privileged.”
Officials rolled out a long list of signs someone may be a trafficking victim: if they don’t have their identification and travel documents; if someone appears to have been coached on what to say to police; signs of mental or physical abuse; fearful and submissive behavior; unsuitable living conditions; disconnection from friends and family; no longer attending church or school and more. However, not all these signs are present in every human trafficking situation.
So identifying victims requires law enforcement and service workers to ask the right questions and put all the pieces together, Joye said.
“There’s not one individual [indicator], but putting things together when you look and you’re doing these interviews,” he said. “Sometimes it might get misclassified as a domestic violence issue, because our victim is seeing the perpetrator as their loved one. They care about this person and they think this person cares about them, but they’re being used and they’re being trafficked for sex, or work or whatever else it may be.”
SFPD’s Special Victims Unit includes six detectives, some of whom work with the state attorney general’s office on the human trafficking task force, but also dedicate time to sexual assaults, child abuse cases and internet crimes against children. Moving forward, Joye said he expects the department to work more with the AG’s office and the FBI to improve reporting and data sharing for cases of missing Indigenous people, too, after the Bureau released a list last month of more than 170 Native Americans verified as missing throughout New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.
The other piece of trafficking to address, Leger Fernández said, is providing assistance to victims. So she and other members of the Congress allocated funding within the National Defense Authorization Act two weeks ago to increase training and offer more resources. Should the US Senate agree to the spending package—and should President Joe Biden sign it—$2.3 million a year will go to the federal awareness training program through Fiscal Year 2028.
“The awareness that we should all have is very important. My office is now very much aware of it and this is an issue that we will continue to follow, we will continue to bring federal resources to,” she said. “The goal is to make sure that we transform victims into survivors.”