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Leaders call attention to untold stories of human trafficking victims

Perhaps law enforcement’s biggest roadblock in combating human trafficking in Arizona and elsewhere is a conspicuous absence of victims, a group of officials and advocates said Feb. 1.

Intimidation, coercion and manipulation keep those forced into labor or prostitution, half of them children or teenagers, from attempting escape or alerting authorities, the leaders said at a news conference to call attention to the problem.

“They are tasered. They are beaten. They are tortured beyond your wildest dreams,” said former City Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten, who now advocates against child prostitution with the nonprofit Project Streetlight.

“And that perpetrator makes sure they know that if they think they have any chance of escaping or they have the audacity to call for help, the hell they’ve lived through is just the beginning,” she said.

Identifying more of these victims and getting them to tell their stories are among the goals of a new task force formed by Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, in collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, U.S. Department of Labor, Phoenix Police Department and nonprofit groups.

Burke said it’s important for the general public to be on alert for signs of human trafficking, such as houses large numbers of people coming and going and people showing evidence of physical abuse.

“Cases can’t be brought without victims coming forward, and that’s why this awareness campaign is so critical,” he said. “You are in a position to be a voice for a victim of human trafficking by alerting law enforcement to signs of human trafficking.”

The second biggest challenge is teaching general public that human trafficking isn’t the same as human smuggling, which many in the public consider a victimless crime, said Matt Allen, special agent in charge of ICE investigations in Arizona.

“Human smuggling, in the end, is a crime against the state,” Allen said. “The crime of human trafficking, on the other hand, is a crime against the individual, a crime of exploitation.”

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