Human trafficking is such a horrific crime that many people turn a blind eye simply because it’s too traumatic and upsetting to acknowledge.
Perhaps we choose to naively assume it can’t happen to our loved ones or us, or we falsely believe it’s a crime plaguing other communities, far from our own worlds. But those assumptions would be false and dangerous, because sadly, human trafficking in the Latinx community is an authentic problem, and we all need to pay attention to it.
The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as an act that “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
Because this crime requires victims to be misled and manipulated, traffickers often target vulnerable individuals, whether due to a language barrier, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, or political instability, just to name a sampling of vulnerabilities.
Besides, the broken immigration system makes Latinx immigrants even more susceptible to trafficking. These immigrants may fear their traffickers, fear local law enforcement, or fear getting deported if they ask for help.
At a moment when immigrants are being attacked and dehumanized by political leaders, and misinformation is instilling fear of immigrants across the country, immigrant populations are traffickers’ favorite target.
While Latinx immigrants, particularly Latina women and young girls, are always at an increased risk for human trafficking, that risk is doubled, especially during a pandemic.
This past April, Santiago Nieto, head of Mexico’s financial intelligence unit (UIF), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that because of the global pandemic, some of the country’s most notorious cartels had branched out in terms of crime, and their organized crime had transitioned from drugs and money laundering to include sex trafficking.
“When one possibility ends … they start to link up with other kinds of criminal activities,” he said.
Why is this not all over the news? Why must we dig for information and data to learn about these attacks on immigrants and human trafficking in the Latinx population?
Experts suggest it is because human trafficking is a largely hidden crime. Victims often are too fearful of seeking help, and the trauma caused by the traffickers can be so commanding that victims may not ask for help, even in highly public settings.
Human trafficking on a global scale is estimated to be worth $150 billion a year. Yet, we hear so little about these criminal activities and how they target the Latinx community. This is an authentic problem that we should all be talking about.
Latinx Communities Are at Increased Risk for Human Trafficking
In 2014 the FBI reported that Hispanic or Latinx youth account for nearly 20% of minors’ commercial sex act arrests.
In 2016 Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors, released a report on the growing underground sex trafficking business operating out of U.S.-based cantinas and bars exploiting young women from Latin America.
According to the report, “from December 2007 to March 2016, Polaris identified 1,300 potential victims from Latin America in cantina-related cases in 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico through its operation of the National Human Trafficking hotline and Befree Textline.”
Similarly, a new study investigates how immigrants from some regions of the world — particularly Latin America and the Caribbean — are at an increased risk of human trafficking, primarily due to the unrest and instability during the global pandemic.
In “The Latino Face of Trafficking and Exploitation in the United States,” a project spearheaded by Polaris and the Department of Homeland Security, one of the main reasons that Latina immigrants are such prime targets for human trafficking is due to the geographic proximity of Latin American and Caribbean countries to the United States.
Statistics reported by the National Human Trafficking Hotline reveal that 77% of confirmed Latin Americans and Caribbeans are easy targets for traffickers. The remaining 23% are victims of sex trafficking or a combination of sex and labor trafficking.
In terms of where most of these victims come from, six out of ten possible victims from Latin America and the Caribbean come from Mexico. The industry where they are most vulnerable is agriculture.
And not only is the Latinx community at elevated risk of being targeted for human trafficking, but too often, law enforcement and immigration officials seem to miss opportunities to identify and prevent trafficking attempts.
“Every day in the U.S., young women and girls are held prisoner by criminal networks that sell sex in cantinas and bars right in our backyards,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, in a 2016 press release. “If we want to stop the victimization of Latina women in these highly abusive venues, we have to change the equation for traffickers by disrupting the business model and making the crime high-risk and low-profit.”
What Organizations Need to Do
While aware that the Latinx community is more vulnerable and at higher risk of human trafficking, government agencies need to focus on the victims’ mental and physical recovery.
A 2019 report from the University of Nebraska Omaha entitled “Out of Sight and Underrepresented: Human Trafficking in the Latino Community in Nebraska” found that the organizations established to help victims and survivors do not effectively engage and cater to minority populations.
“There is a lack of access to interpreters and little ethnic minority representation. In particular, there are either no interpreters available in-house, or they are restricted to commonly used languages. Having workers that look like them and make them feel represented would increase trust among vulnerable populations,” the report stated.
There is also a lack of bilingual interpreters in these organizations, especially for particular indigenous Latin American dialects. “Not being able to communicate with at-risk populations continues to leave them at a high risk to be trafficked,” the report continues.
My Lo Cook, director of Polaris’s Strategic Initiative, Mexico, echoed that same sentiment in a Polaris statement: “Law enforcement need training and resources to identify more victims and effectively pursue cases, and service providers need to be equipped to respond to the unique trauma experienced by these victims in a way that is culturally and linguistically competent.”
It is clear that the Latinx population is uniquely vulnerable to human trafficking, and immigrant populations especially are often targeted by traffickers. These minority individuals might not seek help for various reasons. Even if they did, organizations are not adequately equipped to assist these Latina women in the ways they need to be supported and helped.
However, this is an issue people of all ethnicities, ages, genders, and backgrounds should be paying attention to.
“The judges and public prosecutors have to realize how bad this issue is, trafficking at the end of the day is about…human life,” said Santiago Nieto, head of Mexico’s financial intelligence unit (UIF).