HAMLET — Human trafficking is the second largest crime epidemic in the world, according to organizers of the 2nd annual Human Trafficking Conference coming up later this month at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke — and this upcoming Sunday is the darkest day of the year for American victims.
Judi Paparozzi, adjunct professor of criminal justice at UNCP, said the nation’s biggest day in professional football is a perfect storm of misery for slaves.
“It’s considered the day that the most human trafficking victims will be violated,” Paparozzi said. “Traffickers will bring the sex slaves to brothels in and around the Super Bowl. These slaves will be servicing the men who are going to the Super Bowl, and most of the victims will be child or women sex slaves. Both boys and girls.”
The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 21 million people are subjected to modern-day slavery in the forms of sex trafficking, forced labor and organ harvesting.
“It’s so hidden, such a hidden crime,” Paparozzi continued. “We lock our doors at home to protect our children, but we don’t lock our computers. The internet is our friend, but at the same time it has become a major tool to lure our children and adults into this nightmare world of human trafficking.”
Sex trafficking, she said, is of particular concern because of the age of many of the victims.
“The traffickers want younger and younger victims, because the clients think they can avoid AIDS and HIV by having sex with younger sex slaves,” she said. “So traffickers work hard to lure younger and younger girls and boys. What people don’t understand is after a slave has sex with that first john, she may have became infected with an STD. They go to a brothel, they want the youngest one available thinking they won’t get AIDS. It’s a crazy logic, but it’s driven the trade less to adult sex trafficking and more to child trafficking.”
Paparozzi said the old days of typical prostitution have dwindled beneath the shadow of the more profitable slave trade.
“The start-up cost, if you can lure that one victim, snare her and break her in — in one week she’s made you several thousand dollars,” she explained. “It’s the perfect crime in many ways: low start up cost, huge profit immediately, and a low chance of prosecution. Before, pimps would attract sex workers with the promise of money and a supply of heroin or other drugs. Trafficking doesn’t cost them anything.”
The life expectacy for a child sex worker once they’ve been victimized for the first time is only four years, she said.
“Suicide plays a big role,” Paparozzi said. “And they have untreated STDs and a lack of health care.”
Slaves are recruited in a number of ways, she said, again emphasizing the internet as a sort of gateway.
“Right now we’re testing the American pimps,” she said. “A typical pimp runs a business on his own, and instead of paying the victims, he enslaves them. There’s a softening-up period after capture consisting of repeated rape and sodomy, and assault until the victim’s will is broken completely. Threats are made against the slaves’ families, and they believe them and are too afraid to seek help.”
Paparozzi said slaves are often forced to service up to 30 or 40 clients a day.
“The sex slave’s will has been broken by the trafficker,” she explained. “What we’re seeing now from law enforcement is in America it’s moved more from a prostitution model to an enslavement model — and because the public is so unaware of what’s going on, they don’t see that because there is a Winnebago in a parking lot with lots of people going in and out, that something illegal could be going on.”
She said there are numerous cues people miss, simply because they appear innocuous on the surface.
“Traffickers also use hotels, like in Wilmington, where we’ve had trafficking problems,” Paparozzi said. “Places with hourly rates. And the victims don’t complain, because they are under the constant threat of being beaten or killed, or their families being killed, by the trafficker.”
The state’s interstate highways, she explained, have been useful to traffickers for years, that its military bases are targeted by traffickers, and that its “long, unprotected coastline” makes it easy for slaves to be brought in from other areas unnoticed.
“And tourism attracts traffickers,” she added. “Large sporting events. Then we have our immigrant population. Criminals in Mexico set up what they call Mexican brothels near areas where immigrants settle. They rent a house for a couple of months, and then they move. It’s always very short term, and they move. They stay one step ahead of the police.”
Some people wonder what they can or should do if they suspect trafficking-related activity.
“If you do suspect something, you can remain anonymous by calling the Polaris Project’s national human trafficking hotline,” Paparozzi said. “I think they have 30 or 40 languages covered. If you call to complain about something, Polaris will call the local (police department) with the concern.”
She said she is proud of the steps the state has taken to combat human trafficking, especially the 2013 passage of the Safe Harbor Law which declassifies sex slaves as prostitutes and recognizes them as victims.
“Another thing you can do is get educated,” Paparozzi added. “Come to the conferences. I’ve had people come here saying, ‘I had no idea.’ And fair trade products really should become something we think about every day: our chocolate, our coffee, things that are made by forced labor around the world. Our department of labor has an incredible website as to where a lot of our foods come from. We should be thinking about everything we buy, making sure none of it was made with child labor. Many of our candy companies are not on board.”
In addition to coercion and internet luring, she said traffickers are not above brutally kidnapping their victims.
“The (United Nations) has referred to human trafficking as the worst human rights violation in the history of mankind,” she said. “We have more slaves in the world today than we did during trans-Atlantic slavery times. It’s hard to believe, when you think about the Holocaust and what happened with starvation in Ukraine, that the U.N. would name this the worst in history. And it’s so hidden, we don’t even realize it’s going on.”
The conference opens its doors at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at the UNCP University Center Annex and is free and open to the public. The keynote speaker will be Louise Shelley, founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center and author of “Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective.” The conference will also feature a law enforcement panel of state and federal agencies and a panel of several non-government organizations.
To report suspected human trafficking activity, call the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To learn more about human slavery, visit the PolarisProject online at www.polarisproject.org.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.