HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN SOUTHERN COLORADO
A CATALYST SPECIAL REPORT
COLORADO SPRINGS –– In December, the Colorado Attorney General’s office indicted 14 people suspected of running, abetting, and patronizing a human trafficking organization that stretched from Denver to Grand Junction. But what seemed like a major success in a little-discussed crime was really just a blip on the map.
It was one of maybe hundreds of cases of human trafficking in Colorado, mostly unreported because of discrepancies, confusion, and misunderstanding surrounding the crime.
Those arrested were charged with crimes involving child prostitution, drugs, and violence in cities such as Boulder, Glenwood Springs, Colorado Springs, and Lakewood. Another 10 suspects were indicted for accessory charges.
Yet experts and activists alike say this case was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I know there have been several cases in the southern Colorado, Colorado Springs area but there just aren’t reporting systems like there are for murder [or other crime],” said Amanda Finger, executive director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in
Denver. “That just doesn’t exist for trafficking.”
In Colorado, there are no uniform state standards for reporting human trafficking, meaning oftentimes trafficking cases will be categorized under kidnapping, sexual assault, or pedophilia.
“I think it’s totally complicated,” Finger said.
When you call the Colorado Springs Police Department or the El Paso County Sheriff’s office, they tell you that they either never or very rarely see human trafficking cases.
But they exist. In fact, there are potentially hundreds of victims in the Pikes Peak region alone, federal officials and activists say.
Human trafficking victims in southern Colorado are like forgotten shadows –– everywhere around us, voiceless, and without the respite of the social safety nets that rescue survivors of other atrocities.
TESSA in Colorado Springs, which provides services for victims of domestic violence, sex crimes, and aims to raise awareness about atrocities against women and children in the community, currently receives no government funding for work related to human trafficking.
Representatives said that if they were to receive funding to help trafficking victims and their families, it would be based on statistical reporting.
“We know it does happen in Colorado Springs, in the county, and throughout the state,” said Phil Steiger, a pastor at Living Hope Church and one of the founders of a sanctuary for young female victims of human trafficking in Colorado Springs. “It would be hard to put a specific number here, but I would not be surprised if it were in the dozens or hundreds.”
Last spring, a southern Colorado organization, Southern Peaks, confirmed a number of cases of human trafficking, mostly of young girls who had been sexually trafficked, according to The Gazette.
In 2012, there were roughly 30 minors trafficked in the Denver metro area, the Laboratory said.
“I can tell you that in Colorado in general, over the past several years, there have been roughly 300 potential and identified cases [of human trafficking], with victims from fourteen different countries,” Finger said.
There are two major kinds of human trafficking: labor or commercial sex. Sometimes confused with human smuggling and immigration issues, trafficking encompasses the loss of human rights, such as the lack of pay for work and a degree of servitude almost similar to slavery.
Trafficking is a problem throughout the country, and, depending on federal grants or local laws, reporting and recording differs from place to place. In Colorado, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken reign in order to raise awareness, prosecute, and enforce federal laws.
“Sometimes other [law enforcement] agencies will charge people with a state statute, for instance prostitution, and won’t charge the federal statute of human trafficking,” Dave Joly, the FBI spokesperson for Colorado and Wyoming, said. “The FBI doesn’t do state court, they do federal court.”
Since local law enforcement agencies are either unaware of human trafficking statutes, or even unaware of the crime itself, the FBI has allotted an increasing number of resources to assist them.
In the Denver metro area, federal agents have created a task force with local law enforcement that patrols and works along the Interstate 25 corridor. The interagency program allows for swift response and coordinated prevention efforts.
“We work with our partners dramatically,” Joly said. “We have to because we can’t do things alone. But this is a newer violation and a newer task force, so trying to educate and make sure the public is aware, we have done a lot of outreach. The [Colorado] Attorney General’s office has sent out press release after press release about successful convictions. It’s just a point about getting everybody aware of the problem and identifying it in the right way.”
Human trafficking laws are so new that Joly says “some people just aren’t aware of those kind of changes in the reading of the law.”
Activists like Betty Edwards, who heads the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado in the Springs, agree.
“I think that law enforcement [enforces] as they see it, and they have no avenue to do anything about [human trafficking] the way things are right now,” Edwards said. “One of the things I would like to do in the future is encourage the police department and state police to make a team like they do for the homeless.”
The El Paso County Sheriff’s office and CSPD have no special unit or system in place to investigate human trafficking cases.
“When we do statistical reporting, as far as cases are concerned, there are different statutes that apply to human trafficking, but they aren’t human trafficking,” said Lt. Jeff Kramer, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s office. “Those numbers can be skewed or confusing because of a category that might be described better under different state statutes.”
Without accurate reporting or investigation, discovering the identities of the victims and criminals can be difficult.
“In Colorado, we see a lot of labor trafficking situations,” Finger said. “We actually don’t know if there are more women than men because of how it is responded to. If you only look at minor sex trafficking cases, you’ll see its mostly women. If you look at [certain groups] working with farm labor workers, it will be mostly men.”
A crime that is sometimes only associated with women, actually impacts juvenile boys and older men.
Trafficking has also been linked to gangs and other organized crime groups. Edwards added that certain business in Colorado Springs act as fronts for hiding and moving victims.
Human trafficking usually occurs across state lines via highways, and because of the proximity to I-25 and I-70, the crossroads of Colorado Springs is an easy stop for criminals transporting their victims.
The area’s abundance of hotels and motels also perpetuates the problem by providing a safe haven for kidnappers and their victims. Meanwhile, the heavy agricultural areas in the plains to the east and south foster labor trafficking.
Experts and officials from the Department of Labor are planning a meeting with farmers near Rocky Ford in coming weeks to educate them on trafficking.
“[Victims] can’t always get away from it because they often times are tricked or lured into this kind of life by someone who is a little older,” Edwards said, “They tell them that they love them and they are going to buy them pretty things. Sometimes they [even use] drugs and get them hooked.”
While the public might think of people in chains when it comes to human trafficking, studies have shown that psychological persuasion is actually much more impactful.
Funding can be difficult to secure because in some areas, statistics say that trafficking doesn’t exist. Many citizen and non-profit groups have sprung-up around the state to aid victims and raise awareness.
Pastor Steiger’s organization, Sarah’s Home, is one such example.
“We plan on opening this summer and taking care of our first girls,” he said. “What Sarah’s Home does is provide long-term solutions for people pulled out of human trafficking. Our plan is not only to provide the home, [but also] the safety and the spiritual care.”
The sanctuary is also run by a local victim who now serves as a counselor.
“We will probably have several girls within a few weeks,” Steiger said.
The Southern Colorado Task Force, which meets regularly once a month, promotes advocacy and awareness, and offers rehabilitation options and services for survivors. The program, which is five years old, is still in its infancy.
Human trafficking is now starting to gain more recognition in the Pikes Peak region, and throughout the state, however.
Last month, the El Paso County Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution in favor of creating efforts to stop the growing problem, supporting public and private efforts to help victims and find solutions.
“An estimated 200,000 people are trafficked in the United State each year, and the state of Colorado is not exempt from this problem,” commissioner Peggy Littleton said during the reading of the resolution, according to a county press release. “The I-25 corridor makes El Paso County particularly susceptible to becoming an unwilling host to those people involved in the trafficking industry, and El Paso County must therefore be informed and alert.”
Authorities and activists agree that education is the key way to create change and promote understanding. Last month, the Southern Colorado Task Force held an event in Denver to raise support and awareness.
Meanwhile, the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in Denver just recently completed a three-year, $1 million study on trafficking in Colorado.
“Although there have been many efforts to raise awareness throughout Colorado, the focus group data demonstrated that there is a range of knowledge of human trafficking (e.g., variation in the ways participants defined human trafficking and confused human trafficking with other crimes),” the report said.
Since much of the education has been targeted at service providers, including law enforcement and non-profits that are working to advocate and counsel victims, identifying cases and survivors will increase.
“I think there has just been enough in the last few years that people are starting to pay attention to the issues,” Steiger said. “A lot of organizations are coming to the surface, but there are still plenty of niches in the society that don’t really to know what’s going on.”
And it cannot be a simplified process.
“First, we need to think about this issue comprehensively,” Finger said. “It’s not just sex trafficking or labor trafficking. And then we need to look at how to do a comprehensive response, really looking at service providers to assist survivors of trafficking and looking at different ways to understand how somebody would be identified or could fall through the cracks.”
Joly said a statewide understanding of the crime is not far off.
“Eventually that is coming,” he said. “[Law enforcement] will have those resources. I know they are invited to the table. It’s just a point of labeling it and identifying it correctly. That is where the tracking issues come –– it’s tracking in a certain way.”