LOS LUNAS — A little known multi-billion dollar industry is operating in New Mexico that many residents and businesses are not aware of, and it’s recruiting immigrants and New Mexico youth into service labor and prostitution.
Members of the Brotherhood of Saint Andrew from St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Los Lunas, hope to stem the flow of human trafficking.
Their project, Roadblock, is spearheaded by member John “Jack” Crowl.
“It’s a very ugly topic and a very sensitive topic and people are reticent to discuss it,” Crowl said.
Human trafficking was the topic at one of their regional meetings in Socorro.
“When you hear the details and the facts about it, it’s really shocking,” said Dana Bowley, the Los Lunas brotherhood director. “It’s particularly got Jack hot on this and he really wants to do something about it.”
Roadblock uses a multi-pronged approach, one being educating the public about the issue.
Crowl, who is a retired college professor, said the group particularly wants to share with residents how to spot the signs of someone vulnerable to recruitment.
“Roadblock is unique in the sense that it’s a seven-pronged effort,” Crowl said. “It’s not just law enforcement; it’s not just social work; it’s not just psychiatry; it’s not just educational. Seven different task forces are being formed statewide.”
The New Mexico Office of the Attorney General created a human trafficking task force in September 2015 with federal funding.
“Human trafficking is occurring in plain sight and it affects all of us,” said Anthony Maez, the special agent overseeing the task force. “It could be the woman next door or man in the field or it could be a child that’s going to school.”
Maez said the task force is focused on educating school staff because they’re seeing it first hand.
Over the past three years, the AG’s task force has investigated more than 100 cases of human trafficking across the state and more than 27 people have been indicted. Maez said there have been no reported cases of human trafficking in Valencia County.
“It’s occurring every day and many of us are not seeing that,” he said.
At the mall, the arcade or anywhere teens gather, loners on the sidelines and youth with low self esteem are vulnerable to kindness, to an approach by someone who talks to them, is nice to them and makes it seem as though they are a friend, Bowley said.
“And before the kids know it, they’re caught in this and they can’t get out of it,” he said. “They target homeless kids and there are a lot of homeless kids in Valencia County.”
Homeless children, runaways, outcasts or children from troubled homes are what recruiters look for because of their vulnerability.
According to the Polaris Project website, human trafficking enslaves millions of adults and children around the world. Immigrants are often recruited by the people who helped them cross the border and then indenture them for transport costs.
Hotel maids, restaurant workers, gardeners and seasonal field hands are frequently brought into their jobs through human trafficking rings, which is believed to be a $30 billion-plus industry worldwide.
In the United States, human trafficking is about a $10 billion business. Most of the victims, 80 percent, are immigrants but 20 percent are U.S. citizens.
An affiliate task force in Valencia County was formed between the AG’s office, the Los Lunas, Bosque Farms and Belen police departments, and the Los Lunas school district.
“They’re very active, very supportive ... and great partners,” Maez said.
While human trafficking is international, the U.S. sees more domestic trafficking.
“For example, over the last 24 hours, we received two tips, one involving a 15-year-old girl who was seen at a truck stop,” Maez said.
It was suspected that she was being trafficked because of her demeanor, how she was approaching the tipper and the individuals that were with her appeared to be trafficking her, the agent said.
“And then, right now, my folks are in the field working with a 13 year old that was trafficked ... we’re seeing them every day,” he said.
The task force is educating all the schools, churches, people in hospital emergency rooms, beauticians, the retail and hospitality communities.
“Anyone and everyone can come in contact with these victims. They’re there and so that’s why it’s important that we get the message out,” Maez said.
In 2016, an estimated one out of six runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely sex traffic victims.
“The traffickers play on that because it’s easy to offer them food and shelter,” Maez said. “They provide them food, shelter, nice clothes and some money for a short time and, then eventually, they’re completely controlled.”
Maez also oversees the internet crimes against children task force.
“They’re two separate task forces but they have a similar mission when it comes to children,” he said.
Crowl maintains that boldness is needed to stem the tide of human trafficking in New Mexico.
“If we’re going to solve this problem, people are going to have to be bold,” Crowl said. “They have to step forward and get out of their easy chairs and be uncomfortable.
“Who is responsible for our children,” Crowl continued. “They’re being abused, neglected, sold, prostituted — who’s responsible?”
The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew’s project Roadblock meets at 11:30 a.m. on Thursdays at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 400 Huning Ranch Loop, in Los Lunas. The Roadblock project campaign to end sex and labor slavery in New Mexico is planning a statewide conference on Oct. 12-13.
For more information, call Jack Crowl at 409-8753 or Roadblock at 316-9920 and to learn more about human trafficking visit polarisproject.org. If human trafficking is suspected text LifeLink at 505-GET-FREE or call the National Human Trafficking hot-line at 888-373-7888.