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Super Bowl on guard for human trafficking criminals

12:53 PM, Jan 18, 2014   |    comments
Law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups in both states have been gearing up for the human trafficking problem for more than year. (Photo: Julio Cortez, AP)
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NEW YORK - Thousands of fans will descend on New York and New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII - and experts say human traffickers will be lurking behind them.

The criminals, as with past Super Bowls, hope to use the large crowds to sell people forced into prostitution. Their hope is that they will find illicit clients who may be more willing to engage in reckless behavior, experts say.

Law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups in both states have been gearing up for the problem for more than year. While people are partying during the game, officials will be running undercover operations, monitoring online classifieds and passing out fliers in hopes of thwarting the crimes.

"Anytime there is a large event that is primarily male-attended and there's a party atmosphere, that will result in incidents of human trafficking," said Nita Belles, who has worked during the last four Super Bowls with a coalition to prevent trafficking. "There is a 'boys will be boys' mentality."

That attitude is what traffickers hope to capitalize on, she said.

This year, Belles, regional director of Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans, is working with several other advocacy groups to run "Blitz the Trafficker." As part of the campaign, experienced coalition members will attend events surrounding the game. There, they will hand out fliers with missing children's photos, New Jersey's trafficking hotline number and information about signs that someone is being trafficked.

It's important work for Belles. She said during New Orleans' Super Bowl last year she and several others drove two underage college women back to their dorms at 2 a.m. after a pair of men began harassing them.

Tracy Thompson, an assistant attorney general of New Jersey and chair of the state's human trafficking task force, said officials are well prepared to catch traffickers and rescue victims.

Within the last year, dozens of police officers, hotel staff members, taxi drivers and truckers have been trained to recognize when someone is in danger, she said. On Jan. 24, New Jersey will also host a human trafficking awareness event in Trenton.

"We want people to have a good time, but we want people to be safe," Thompson said.

In the weeks leading up to the Feb. 2 big game, community awareness events and assemblies for middle and high students will focus on educating people about the dangers of trafficking. Local, state and federal officials, some undercover, will also be working together to make arrests in New Jersey and New York, she said.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has begun sending names and photos of children who their analysts believe might be sold to authorities in both states. The group will also equip officials with "hope bags," filled with clothing, toiletries and food gift certificates to give to recovered victims.

John Ryan, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said greater collaboration means victims will not only be rescued, but they will be supported and given resources to go on with their lives.

"It's critical that these organizations work together and are ready to respond with the appropriate resources immediately," he said.

However, despite claims that trafficking is higher during big sporting events like the World Cup and World Series, there aren't many hard numbers on the problem.

In 2011, when Texas hosted the Super Bowl, State Attorney General Greg Abbott said the game was known as the "single largest human trafficking incident in the United States."

The Dallas Police Department, however, didn't make any human trafficking or underage prostitution arrests when the game came there.

Lt. Richard Kivett, who leads the Indianapolis Police Department's Human Trafficking Unit, said his officers saw a modest uptick in prostitution arrests when the Super Bowl came there in 2012. Authorities, focusing on out-of-towners, discovered two cases of trafficking, including one involving a 17-year-old girl from Cleveland, he said.

Kivett's department spoke to officials at past Super Bowl host cities who warned that thousands of prostitutes and trafficking victims might be brought in for the game. Now, he thinks officials may have been exaggerating.

"We did not see what Dallas or Miami told us," Kivett said. "We were expecting a huge number like 500 or 600. We didn't see those numbers. Even though we made more arrests than prior years, we still had a low number."

He added that some 129 suggestive ads were posted on Backpage.com, a site where sex is often sold. In the months surrounding Super Bowl Sunday, 113 prostitution arrests - mainly women in their 20s - were made.

The national human trafficking hotline didn't see any significant increase in callers during the past four Super Bowls.

"There's not an enormous amount of data that tells the story that there's a giant spike in trafficking around the Super Bowl," said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, which runs the national human trafficking hotline. "From our perspective, this is really a 365-day-a-year problem, and we want to make sure people's focus is on all 365 days."

Focusing on the crime during the Super Bowl can be an important way to get people trained and raise awareness, Myles said. But focusing solely on the problem for a weekend won't help victims whose traffickers may keep them away during the Big Game only to sell them once the public's attention moves elsewhere, he said.

The lack of arrests might not properly illustrate the underworld of sex traffickers, Ryan said.

"We know most of these cases go unreported," he said. "So the level of activity reported is at best a snapshot."

Ryan also offered that years of scrutiny might be deterring criminals. It's an argument that resonates as authorities from this year's game continue to talk about the issue.

Last week, as law enforcement officials gathered at MetLife Stadium to explain security and potential terrorism attacks during the game, trafficking was included.

"We are presently engaging in several investigative techniques where we try to spot the precursor activity of human trafficking," said Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. "We are looking to interrupt this activity where and when it occurs."

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