Taking a stand against human trafficking

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Many experts believe human trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery that often includes sexual exploitation.

Barron Jones-News-Bulletin photo: Students from Calvary Christian Academy in Belen show off there stylish wears. The students participated in Dressember, a public awareness campaign aimed to bring attention to the growing problem of human trafficking.

Several governmental and nongovernmental agencies estimate that millions of people, mostly women and children, have fallen victim to the crime here in the United States and abroad.

In New Mexico, it is difficult to estimate how many people are victimized by human traffickers because of the secretive nature of the crime and victims unwillingness to cooperate with authorities.

To help bring awareness to what the New Mexico Attorney General’s website refers to as the “second largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world,” male and female students at Calvary Chapel Academy in Belen participated in Dressember.

Dressember is a worldwide campaign, where participating members wear dresses for the entire month of December to shed light on the growing problem of human trafficking. Calvary’s male students, who are participating in the campaign, wore suits and other business-like attire to show their support.

Bubba Luna, a 16-year-old student at the school, encouraged her classmates to participate in the campaign after learning about the issue and the crime’s devastating impact through one of her teachers.

Calvary Chapel Academy instructor Jenny Chavez said she introduced Luna to the human trafficking issue in response to Luna’s desire to help keep children safe after Albuquerque voters defeated a late-term abortion ban.

“I told her that if she really wanted to fight for kids, there was the fight against human trafficking, which really needs attention,” Chavez said. “I told her it affects everyone because it can happen to anyone.”

Chavez said she often challenges her students to voice their opinions on important issues, such as gay marriage and abortion.

“I am trying to teach them to communicate their beliefs and convictions, even when the world doesn’t agree with them,” she said.

Luna said she enjoys working with young kids and it disturbed her to learn that an estimated 1.2 million children worldwide are exploited by human traffickers as modern-day sexual and labor slaves.

“It breaks my heart to learn that children at such a young age are sexually exploited,” Luna said somberly. “I wanted to take a stand for people who don’t have a voice. So as that voice, I can prevent people from getting harmed.”

Luna said to know the problem exists and do nothing about is just as bad as watching a classmate get harassed.

“It’s like bullying. If you don’t take a stand it only gets worse,” she said. “If more people get involved we can stop it.”

To help deal with the issue on the state level, New Mexico Legislature enacted human trafficking legislation that makes the crime a felony in 2008. The law also calls for increased penalties for trafficking children, and provides special benefits and services for the victims.

In addition to increased criminal penalties and victim services, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Border Violence Division works to provide training and establish task forces in the state’s 13 judicial districts. The task force is made up of federal, state and local law enforcement officials works to identify victims and prosecute offenders.

Since legislators enacted the law, the attorney general’s office has prosecuted 19 cases, mostly brought against defendants in Bernalillo County.

Attorney General spokesman Phil Sisneros said the state has charged so few people with the crime because of the newness and nature of the crime.

“Victims rarely come forward and are reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement,” Sisneros said. “We definitely do not have nearly enough attention and resources in New Mexico to address the crime.”

Sisneros said special training is an ongoing need to help law enforcement officials properly identify and interview human trafficking victims.

He also said there is a growing need for resources to help victims deal with social problems associated with the crime.

“There is only one agency, The Life Link, www.thelifelink.org, in New Mexico that is currently providing comprehensive services to human trafficking victims,” Sisneros said.

Life Link provides human trafficking victims with emergency and long-term housing, crisis management and behavioral health services to help them transition back into the mainstream.

Michael De Bernardi, the director for clinical services for The Life Link, said the organization has helped about 22 people since it began providing outreach services to victims about five years ago.

Most all of the link’s clients come via referrals from the state, county and local law enforcement agencies.

“I think it started slowly and at least half of those numbers have come in the last year with the help of awareness campaigns,” De Bernardi said.

The organization recently established 1-800-Get-Free, a hotline victims can call or text to report cases of human trafficking.

DeBernardi said that the hotline’s text option is crucial for attracting victims, because it allows those who can’t talk freely an opportunity to communicate their troubles.

In addition to the hotline, the organization has partnered with the mayors of the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe to place anti human trafficking ads on billboards and bus stops.

Chavez said teenagers often get a bad rap but this campaign shows that all teenagers aren’t preoccupied with themselves.

“I’m excited because it shows the kids are very mature and they are willing to tackle social issues,” she said. “Besides it shows they care.”