By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
POSTED: 10/30/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
A 19-year-old woman hung out with the wrong crowd in a Denver hotel room one evening and says she was pressured into prostitution by a pimp who knew where her mother and grandmother lived. She was later sold to another pimp for $400.
Police arrested the young woman during a July 2010 prostitution sting, but instead of facing charges, she'll be a key witness early next year in Denver's first human-trafficking case, against 39-year-old Hassan Mayo.
Where Denver law enforcement once saw pimps employing criminal prostitutes, detectives and prosecutors are beginning to see human traffickers victimizing vulnerable young men and women.
The new approach to a very old racket has reinvigorated the Denver Police Department's pimping investigations — the number of cases jumped from four in 2007 to 21 this year — and can lead to more serious prison time if underage prostitutes are involved.
It also means that prostitutes now get access to some of the same services the department provides to other victims, while detectives target pimps.
Denver police recently snagged a $290,000 grant to be part of a cross- state FBI working group focused on human trafficking.
Skeptics say Denver needs to provide more help for prostitutes leaving the sex trade, and they see potential for Colorado's vague laws on trafficking to be abused.
But Denver Vice and Drug Squad Capt. Bill Nagle says the changes are the future of combating prostitution.
"If you're working, getting no compensation and you have no rights, that's slavery," he said. "We have kind of a sleeping public who doesn't realize the depravity that goes into this stuff. We have prosecutors now realizing it and saying, 'These are cases we've got to champion.' "
The difference between pimping and human trafficking remains a gray area.
A federal law enacted more than a decade ago defines trafficking as the sale of a person into any type of labor through force, intimidation or coercion.
Under Colorado's 2007 law, any person who sells, leases or trades another person could face a trafficking charge.
Nagle said that his vice squad recommends trafficking charges only when there's force or coercion involved.
Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at New York's Urban Justice Center, called Colorado's law dangerously broad.
"It is really important to make sure it's human trafficking that's being targeting," said Baskin, who helped draft New York's trafficking statute.
A half-dozen Denver police search-warrant affidavits outline a typical trafficking probe.
A low-level bust of a prostitute in some hotel room leads to information on the middlemen and eventually the pimp heading an operation. Prostitutes often avoid charges if they cooperate.
If it sounds a little like busting up a drug ring in the movies, it's because the business models are similar, said the FBI's Phil Niedringhaus, supervising special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force.
Trafficking is lucrative, up to more than $200 an hour in Denver.
Niedringhaus is heading up a working group that's teaming Denver cops and other jurisdictions with federal resources to combat human trafficking.
"The nature of the crime is changing. The profit margin (draws) not just organized crime but gang involvement," Niedringhaus said. "It's a way someone can make money literally off someone else's back."
Pimping and trafficking adults are most frequently Class 3 felonies. Trafficking children is a more-serious Class 2 felony. And since no one younger than 18 can legally give consent to sex with an adult, it makes proving coercion easier, Nagle said.
Defense attorney Maureen O'Brien said that in cases where a prostitute is willingly engaging in the business, she has an incentive to allege force or coercion against a pimp to avoid charges herself. O'Brien thinks calling pimping "human trafficking" could change judges' perception and has the potential to boost prison sentences.
Billie Jackson, who founded Colorado's branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, sees another problem. Informing on a pimp — especially a "gorilla pimp," a person who beats prostitutes — can be very dangerous, she said.
"Is DPD going to be there when they're out on the street, homeless and trying to survive?" Jackson asked.
The lack of community resources is one place where she and Nagle agree.
Police struggle to find accommodations for even a few nights if a prostitute wants to help investigators. Cities like Dallas have robust programs that provide housing, counseling and addiction services to people leaving the sex trade.
"How do we make these cases? Testimony. We need to keep them engaged, and the only way to do that is to meet their short- and long-term needs," Nagle said. "If you treat them like hookers, you're not going to get much out of them."
Jessica Fender: 303-954-1244 email@example.com
HOST AN EVENT ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING
Helping victims of human trafficking is as simple as talking to a friend. Host an event and invite the community to discuss the exploitation of human beings. At this campaign, we are eager to spread the word and we'd like to talk at any community event about human trafficking and victim identification.
For more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
-Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 -- Complete Report (PDF)
-Introductory Material (PDF)
-Country Narratives: A-C (PDF)
-Country Narratives: D-I (PDF)
-Country Narratives: J-M (PDF)
-Country Narratives: N-S (PDF)
-Country Narratives: T-Z and Special Case (PDF)
-Relevant International Conventions/Closing Material (PDF)
These are some of the things you can do to help fight human trafficking:
Be informed! Educate yourself about human trafficking by reading about it. Follow events in the news. Keep your eyes open - human trafficking is happening all around us.
Raise awareness! Talk to friends, family and colleagues. You could even start talking to your local politicians and authorities.
Get involved! Participate in an anti-trafficking movement in your area and get involved in its activities and campaigns (e.g. hold events, distribute posters, leaflets etc.) in your neighborhood and in schools.
Encourage businesses! Be a responsible consumer! Inform yourself on the labour policies of companies to ensure their products are free from slave labour and other forms of exploitation. If possible, buy fair trade products.
Seek support! If you suspect that someone has been trafficked report it to the institutions or assistance facilities dealing with human trafficking in your area.
"It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -- modern slavery."
– President Barack OBAMA