“It could never happen here.” “My city is too small.” “I would know if it was happening near me.” “It only happens in other countries.”
These statements reflect common beliefs about human trafficking, but the truth is, it can happen any time, anywhere and it does not always look like common TV portrayals.
Anthony Maez is the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office special agent in charge and commander of the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force. Throughout his career, Maez has encountered instances of human trafficking in a variety of settings.
“There is no community that’s going to be immune to this,” Maez said.
As its name suggests, the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force is a coalition of local, tribal, county and state law enforcement and other entities throughout New Mexico that have come together to battle human trafficking.
The main entities comprising the task force are the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and The Life Link, a nonprofit organization providing services to victims of human trafficking.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Department of Labor are other key partners in addition to local, county, state and tribal law enforcement agencies throughout New Mexico; service provider agencies; and nonprofit organizations.
What the task force does
The task force’s mission statement as stated on its website is “to combat human trafficking through seamless collaboration between law enforcement and service providers with the use of victim-centered approaches in proactively investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases; and providing comprehensive, high-quality services to all victims of human trafficking in the state of New Mexico.”
It accomplishes this through collaboration with all members at all levels in the areas of “Prevention, Prosecution and Protection.”
“We try to bring everyone to the table so that they can work together,” Maez said. “We talk about some of the issues that happen, and we train each professional in their area in what they might see, but we also train them as a group so they can network together.”
Maez has been in law enforcement for more than 42 years, which has helped him gain valuable insight.
“When you see a law enforcement person come in and talk about what we need to do better, that really helps that relationship because it opens more doors,” he said.
Grants are available through the task force to help provide needed equipment and law enforcement training in what to look for, how to extract data and access call records from devices, how to interrogate suspected traffickers and other valuable knowledge.
An annual human trafficking conference takes place each year in January, with the 2021 event taking place virtually. More information is available at www.stopnmtrafficking.org/home/accessing-resources/annual-conference.
“Everyone is invited,” Maez said. “We run a lot of different workshops, where different professionals get to work together, and we do a lot of workshops on why it’s important to work together as a multidisciplinary team to support each other.”
Over the past several years, labs have been established throughout New Mexico, making forensics more accessible throughout the state. There are also safe houses throughout the state, where forensic interviewers work with victims to get information about their situations. Multidisciplinary teams statewide are also trained in what to look for.
Where trafficking occurs
Maez noted there is no mold a town or city must fit for human trafficking to happen there. Municipal governments and police departments of all sizes need to remain vigilant and make sure the public is informed. Maez used examples from within his own state to illustrate this.
“It can definitely occur in smaller cities,” he said. “Santa Fe is a smaller community, and we’ve had reports of trafficking there. Farther north, we have some smaller communities, and we’ve had some reports of trafficking there.”
Maez recounted a call the task force once received from a rural area. Law enforcement had pulled over a vehicle with two girls inside and something about them raised the officers’ suspicions. They contacted a detective who had received training through the task force. The detective ended up determining the girls were being trafficked.
“That was in a very small community, under 5,000 population,” Maez said. “It can happen anywhere. We’re getting reports of it happening on tribal lands.”
Clues to look for
Victims do not match a certain description. They can be men, women, children, LGBTQ+ or straight. They can be of any race or ethnicity, come from any religion and can be from any socioeconomic background.
Over the last few decades, increased access to the internet has given traffickers more opportunities than ever to find victims. This, in turn, has made children and teens more vulnerable.
Maez recounted an incident in which a girl struck up a romantic relationship with a man she met on a popular dating site. The man knew all the right things to say and seemed genuine.
“She thought she’d met the love of her life,” he said.
Instead, the man turned out to be a predator, and the girl fell victim to human trafficking.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made children and teens increasingly vulnerable.
“Ever since this pandemic, every child has a device and they’re home and playing with them and going places where they really don’t understand what they’re dealing with,” Maez said.
Sometimes trafficking victims appear to be living normal lives, yet family members or even spouses are trafficking them.
Victims may believe their situation is their own fault, or they are doing what they are doing out of love. For example, Maez said, a woman advertised on social media might proposition an undercover officer, who will try to help her.
“And the woman says, ‘My husband wants me to come out here, and I have to give him the money and he likes to hear what I do,’” Maez said, adding such situations are akin to domestic abuse.
How to join the fight
There are a number of ways to join the fight against human trafficking. Many states have networks similar to the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force. Maez listed Ohio, Wisconsin, the Atlanta, Ga., metro area and the New Orleans, La., metro area as examples.
Awareness is key when it comes to identifying human trafficking. For example, major events that draw large crowds can also draw traffickers. Fairs, concerts, sporting events and others all increase the risk.
“We see an increase across the board,” Maez said. “Any time there is a large event that’s going to bring tourism, you see an increase in ads through various social media platforms for escorts, and many of those girls are being trafficked.”
Collaboration with law enforcement and service providers is crucial during major events. This is the time to be particularly vigilant on social media and on sites like Craigslist.
“Years ago, when I worked vice, you would drive up and down, and you would see the girls out there. Now, they’re advertised on social media,” Maez said.
Maez also recommends educating hotel owners and managers on how to tell whether a person is being visited by a trafficking victim and what to do in response.
Any time of the year, educating the general public is also an important step.
“I think, as a government agency, it’s important to educate your community on what’s going on out there,” Maez said.
Public service announcements encouraging parents to familiarize themselves with the types of social media their kids are using, as well as encouraging parents to be active in their children’s lives, is one step that can be taken.
Another way to become involved is through partnerships with nonprofit anti-trafficking organizations. As an example, Maez named Truckers Against Trafficking, which provides training for truck stop owners and managers, as well as drivers, on what to look for, particularly at truck stops.
These locations, Maez said, are hot spots for traffickers, who drop victims off to proposition truck drivers and others who are passing through.
“I get calls in the middle of the night because we just had a truck driver get approached by a female dropped off by two males, and I can then call the local jurisdiction,” Maez said.
Education is just the first step. Taking action is just as important. If someone who is not law enforcement believes they have encountered a trafficking victim, the first thing to do is call 911, or contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.
The national hotline to report child sex trafficking is 1 (800) 843-5678. In New Mexico, (505) 438-3733 is a resource line for victims of human trafficking. Additional contacts are listed at www.stopnmtrafficking.org/accessing-resources.
Cities, law enforcement agencies and other entities in New Mexico wishing to join the task force can contact Maez at (505) 270-6679.