Arizona is a state best known for its bustling real estate markets, colleges, sports teams, and warm weather. It is home to an estimated population of more than 7 million people who walk, ride the streets and enjoy the nightlife every day.
However, under the veneer of this thriving city hides a hidden underbelly of crime. Women and children are prostituted. Undocumented migrants and Native American children are disappearing and going unreported. Human trafficking, most commonly in the form of forced sex work, has taken root in this sunlight-laden desert.
“Arizona has many trade networks that run through the state,” said Kathleen Winn, executive director of Project 25, an organization dedicated to ending sexual exploitation by 2025, and its Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST) program. “Is human trafficking happening in Arizona? Absolutely.”
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A longtime Arizona organizer, Winn has a long history of dealing with this elusive crime. From 2010 to 2015, she was the Community Outreach Director with the Arizona Attorney General, working very closely on human trafficking in both litigation and legal practice. Through her work at VAST, she has met with business leaders, survivors, law enforcement and lawmakers to try to find a solution to sex and human trafficking within the state.
“We have criminal companies here,” said Winn. “That happens in Arizona. It’s not anecdotal. Law enforcement agencies will tell you that this is happening upon request. “
There are several factors driving human and sex trafficking in Arizona. The most important seems to be the geographic location and the tourism industry. The crime is temporary and often occurs wherever many people move between states or national borders.
Arizona, which borders several states and Mexico, hosts spring training, has an abundance of young families, students and foster children, airports and military bases, and is a mix of Native American and American territories, are all factors that contribute to the continued existence of sex and human trafficking in its territory.
“So when you start adding up all of these things, none of them is the reason, but all of them together are the reason,” said Winn.
Underground trading and prostitution rings are inherently elusive and well funded. They are motivated by greed and almost invisible with access to some of the best technology. You need dedicated resources and teams for this. Finding people who have been abducted or forced into prostitution will require resources, civil assistance and technology. Maybe even a little luck. Even more so in the digital age.
In addition, the ongoing threat of sex trafficking only makes the situation more complex. Chris Bray, a retired police sergeant with the Phoenix Police Department, served from 1979 to 2013. For the last 15 years of his career, he served as the investigative chief for the VICE law enforcement agency in the heart of Arizona. His job covered human trafficking, prostitution, money laundering, illegal business and gambling. During this time he saw many people injured and killed against the human trafficking and prostitution industries.
“In the 15 years I’ve worked on these cases, I believe we have had 16 Phoenix police officers killed on duty,” Bray said. “About 65 prostituted women, children and one man were killed in the same period. So it’s very dangerous. “
Most experts agree that the key factor in these sexually exploitative relationships is control. Convincing someone that they need your protection or that their life is getting worse is a basic tactic used by these predators. Blackmailing the victim with sexually explicit photos, videos, or conversations is often the first step in developing these relationships. Step two, should emotional compulsion fail, is physical violence.
“Some of the beatings these victims suffer are absolutely horrific. If you sit across from a victim and look at that person’s bruises, you can see that those bruises are in various stages of healing. This tells you that this person was attacked, beaten, and injured several times a week. Sometimes during the day, ”said Bray. “It will eventually become violent just as a means of control.”
Human trafficking and sex trafficking develop crimes. Crimes for which the internet played a major role. While the typical picture of a kidnapping is that of a white van stopping on the street and throwing someone in, the truth is that many of these relationships are actually made through online interactions and what experts call nursing.
“It’s amazing to me how uninformed people are,” said Brenda Gifford, founder of the Arizona Run Against Trafficking, an anti-trafficking event. “Which 12 year old girl doesn’t want to be 20? Which girl doesn’t want to be Beyonce? You want it. They want the equipment. They want all the bling. They want all that stuff. They want to be told that they are mature and smart and handsome. Because most children don’t get that at home. “
“It’s something like a dip in the toe. The old photographer trick where I’m a talent scout and I think you have what it takes and that’s why I’m gradually getting you to do a model shoot for me over the next few hours … you are selling the wrong dream. They appeal to their desire for money, for vanity, and they will gradually bring them to a point where they are okay with exposure, ”said Bray.
From this point on, the often young victims find themselves in an everlasting nightmare.
“This naked selfie gives me control of you because now I have a lever against you. How would you feel if that selfie showed up at school? What if I send it to your parents? What if I post it near your church? Do what I say and it won’t happen to you… It’s so simple it’s almost formulaic, ”Bray explained.
Something else that shapes the face of the sex trade, according to Winn and Bray, is a culture that drives children from before and after into sexual promiscuity.
“Is the government failing us? … I’d say it’s bigger than that,” said Winn. They are currently accepting hyper-sexualized content. of teaching materials that are likely to be inappropriate for age. Yes, government policies fail, but I think we also need to be accountable for the choices we make as consumers. And if we as consumers consume porn and inappropriate content and go to massage parlors to engage in sexual acts on ourselves, we are at fault and liable. We cannot lay that at the feet of the politicians. ”
Winn says this cultural drive for promiscuity badly collides with human trafficking. Their theory is that increased exposure to sexual content through media increases public demand for sex. This increased demand for sex increases the prostitution and human trafficking market to supply prostitution rings. Additionally, online pornography, a multi-billion dollar industry with annual sales, continues to provide easy access for children and a busy market for predators.
“If we continue to buy and participate in these services, we are equally guilty. You know, look at the abort culture. We’ve done a really good job over the last year of disliking certain things depending on who said they liked or disliked, ”said Winn. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all agreed to quit pornography and rape deals if we discovered them by … making the penalties far stricter than they are now.”
In the dispute between the Arizona Police Forces and other anti-trafficking organizations, Winns VAST and Project 25 have made great strides within the state in raising awareness, closing dangerous sex trafficking markets, and saving human trafficking victims. Winn used to be part of the legislation that shut down the sex markets on the classifieds publisher Backpages, and has set its goals in the fight against sexual exploitation higher and higher.
Most recently, the work of Winn’s organization in the heart of Phoenix has resulted in the rescue of several children. Although the details of these events cannot be made public in order to protect the mechanisms involved, progress is being made. New methods of combating trafficking in human beings have been developed. New players using new tools have entered the battle.