The following post was written by Kyle Woods and Kyle Hartsock, detectives inside the Ghost Unit, with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. Through their work investigating human trafficking cases, they use Spotlight regularly to aid in investigations. We’ve asked them to provide insight on factors that contribute to sex trafficking.

Until our unit started in 2014, our department had never investigated human trafficking (HT), not even on accident.  HT is unique because the victims usually don’t self-identify. Instead, you must find common factors in their life and behavior that can lead us to look further into the circumstances. We have made big pushes locally to train professionals and our own deputies on what HT victims look like (not physically per se, but their behaviors), so that they can take more appropriate actions. This includes a group of 10 patrol deputies, all with higher levels of HT training, and might run into victims on traffic stops, domestic violence calls, etc.

Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking

(Taken from various real survivor interviews)

Who is a human trafficking victim? Your neighbor. It’s that girl you went to school with in elementary, who, because of your young age and maturity, seemed normal. But then in middle school you didn’t hang out as much. She was too wild. Or wore the same clothes a bunch. She talked bad about your friend, and now you just don’t like her. By the time you’re in high school, you barely recognize her because she’s hidden herself in plain sight. One day, she just isn’t at school anymore. And you know what, you’re kind of relieved about it. She was just causing so much drama.

At home, she is made to feel worthless. When violent threats aren’t happening to her, she’s watching her mom’s jaw get broken by her boyfriend. She is fighting off her family members sexual advances at the age of 7. When she’s 9 and a little more aware of the world, her and mom just fight all the time. She starts to feel more like the mom in the home, taking care of her siblings, picking up messes, and her mom seems more like a teenage daughter, wanting to party, blame others for her problems, and fall into deep depressions. One day she and her mom get into such a bad fight, as her mom is standing over her screaming, she hits her mom with a closed fist. She gets arrested.

While in juvenile jail, she makes new friends. When she is released, these friends and their friends seem like safer bets than anyone in her family. And you know what, it’s chill. No pressure for school (doesn’t have a ride anyway). Adults help with food and when they don’t, they just steal it. She gets to stay at different people’s places from time to time, but so far, not bad. She definitely doesn’t miss home.

Soon after she meets a guy. He’s older for sure, but is insanely charming, good looking, and even drives an 8-year-old Mercedes. Pretty nice! They hook up, and he hooks her up with whatever drug she desires. She had only casually used drugs before, but she feels safer with him, so she tries more. After a few days, she is in love and the highest on meth she has ever been, and he asks her for a favor. He asks her to sleep with one of his friends, and that he is cool with it. She is shocked, and a little hurt, but eventually agrees. She trusts him. He is safe. He cares for her.

3 weeks later, she’s in handcuffs with an older adult woman in a hotel in North Dakota. She’s lying to a cop about her name and age while they go through her bags. She’s had 48 different sexual partners in the past few weeks, been forcibly raped once, cried as she injected her next hit of meth, missed home like she never thought she would, been too afraid to leave the room without getting permission from him, even though he is several states away, and for the first time, the idea of suicide doesn’t seem so bad. Or just OD’ing at least.

Challenges in investigating human trafficking

Victims of human trafficking are from your community, not usually from a foreign country. You should want to help no matter where they are from, but we see those that rack it up to immigration and the problem of the federal authorities, and out of their personal grasp. Further, almost all victims come from homes where they have been severely neglected or abused at a young age. It matured into human trafficking later in life, but there is a connection.

One of the biggest challenges is handing victims off to other professionals and services who don’t understand the mindset of a highly traumatized sex trafficking victim, and sometimes treat them like criminals. And of course, the stabilization of the victim is one of the single biggest issues to tackle. Without it, cases fail.

This is a forgotten class of people that need help. That is why we are called the Ghost unit, they are the ghosts, and we want to make them whole again.

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If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.