Special Agent Bryan Covington of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Division chates with participants at recent Fire & Ice EMS Conference at UNM-LA. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Note: The content of this story may be disturbing to some readers.
Bryan Covington is a special agent with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Division. The unit he currently works with has statewide jurisdiction and focuses primarily on human trafficking, particularly sex and labor trafficking.
Under New Mexico Law, human trafficking is defined as:
- recruiting, soliciting, enticing, transporting or obtaining by any means another person with the intent or knowledge that force, fraud or coercion will be used to subject the person to labor, services or commercial sexual activity;
- recruiting, soliciting, enticing, transporting or obtaining by any means a person under the age of 18 years with the intent or knowledge that the person will be caused to engage in commercial sexual activity; or
- benefiting, financially or by receiving anything of value, from the labor, services or commercial sexual activity of another person with the knowledge that force, fraud or coercion was used to obtain the labor, services or commercial sexual activity.
In a recent lecture for the Fire and Ice EMS Conference at UNM-LA, Covington told attendees that the biggest thing they would learn is that human trafficking victims are not just prostitutes or people involved in sex.
“A lot of times they are caught up and forced to do what they’re doing, not by choice,” he said.
Covington said a lot of people have a misconception that human trafficking is like in the movie “Taken”.
“A guy has a daughter, she gets kidnapped and sent to another country and Liam Neeson comes along and kicks doors down,” he said.
He said the reason training on the issue of human trafficking is important for fire, police, EMS and nurses is that they’re all out there dealing with people and they have to write reports and document what they see using sound judgment.
“You guys are out there on the street monitoring calls, interviewing victims and talking to people. That’s one of the biggest helps we have in finding traffickers,” Covington said.
Human trafficking is estimated at $32 billion business worldwide. An estimated 27 million people are trafficking victims worldwide.
“There’s really no way to tell that – that’s just estimates from multiple organizations. You can’t quantify the unknown. We don’t know they’re victims until we find out they are. It’s not only in foreign countries. There’s trafficking right here in the United States, in New Mexico, in rural areas and big cities,” Covington said. “Human trafficking is second to drug trafficking. There’s only one criminal act with higher revenue than human trafficking and that’s drug trafficking.”
Covington told the law enforcement officers in the class that the biggest reason that human trafficking is growing is that in a case where an officer pulls over a driver and they have a bag of methamphetamine in their car, they can be arrested for possession of a controlled substance.
“However, if you pull over a guy and his ‘girlfriend’ and there’s nothing in the car – no dope, no gun – you just do a routine stop. ‘Hey, you were speeding, you need to slow down, here’s your ticket’. Or you respond to that domestic call – a guy and his girlfriend. He hit her in the face. All you see there is domestic violence or as in the traffic stop – a man and his girlfriend. What you might not see is the underlying story here in that that girl, that person is being trafficked,” he said.
Covington spoke of the labor trafficking that exists in Southern New Mexico where for example an immigrant might come across the border and is forced to work on a farm where documents are taken away.
“They tell the worker, ‘If you’re going to work for me, I’m not going to pay you what I told you I was going to pay you, but by the way, give me your passport, give me your visa, give me all that and if you try to leave I’m going to call immigration’”, he said.
Covington explained the myth that human trafficking involves some form of transportation or movement across national borders
“This is a myth – it’s totally false. What we see right now is that trafficking and human smuggling are constantly confused. Human smuggling is simply the taking of a person across a border. It’s a crime against a border, not a person. Many times that person chose to be smuggled. They probably paid a large sum of money. Trafficking is not the same. Smuggling is something that could lead to trafficking but it is not the same. Trafficking is where a person is actually forced into either sex or labor or whatever,” he said.
Covington referred to the force, fraud or coercion terms in the law.
“Force Is a lot of times pretty obvious at least for the victim. Force is like when a trafficker points a gun at a person and tells them they are going to make money for them. They can hold them in a room, not allow them to leave. We see fraud in a lot of fraudulent job offers. There are times in other countries where there will be postings like, “Harvest season coming up. Get your work visa and come over. You’ll make $15 an hour. They might start like that for a week and then the person that is running the farm or the harvest takes all their documents and then they force them to work long hours. They tell them is they leave, they will call immigration,” he said.
Covington said thankfully in New Mexico if someone who is out there having sex for money with someone under the age of 18, that person by definition is automatically trafficking.
“The way the law reads is that if you’re under 18 and you’re doing that you’re automatically a victim. We don’t have to have your cooperation or consent. They can’t agree to have sex so that’s a huge help for us,” he said. “So what we like about that is if a person meets someone under 18 for sex and that person may know they’re under 18 or they’re being forced, I can charge the guy that met them with human trafficking. The demand is what fuels human trafficking. If nobody wanted to pay for sex or have sex with people like that we wouldn’t have human trafficking,” he said.
Under the law, Covington said his division can ultimately help a victim of human trafficking with legal charges and compensation, get them immediate or long-term housing and get them into school.
“It’s actually in the law that we must help them – we can’t just leave them out there. We are seeing a positive shift. It’s no longer just a vice team in a local department running around arresting prostitutes. We are actually seeing now where victims do want to come forward because they know that if they cooperate they can actually be helped,” he said.
Covington said crimes people see may have a human trafficking connection but people might just not know that it’s that.
“Kidnapping, of course, that’s going to be your more serious case where they just grab somebody, throw them in a car and make them work as a prostitute or something. False imprisonment, sexual exploitation of children or prostitution, or criminal sexual penetration, any rape that you run into, any illegal sexual battery or anything like that I would be very, very aware that it might be more than what’s on the surface. I know we’ve all been to those calls. We’ve all been to rape or something like that. We’ve all responded to sexual crimes or domestic violence or something like that. I can say now looking back there’s been some calls I went to and now I think back, what was really going on there,” he said.
He said a lot of traffickers utilize electronics.
“Traffickers will find that 15-16 year old girl that constantly posts that she hates her parents, her boyfriend sucks. He might reach out to that person and say, ‘Hey I’m sorry’. They start talking and now she feels appreciated. She feels this person likes me and that may go on for a couple of days or a couple of months. Later there will be a meeting. Like, ‘We’ve never met. Let’s go grab coffee’. And from there on it’s just a downhill slope,” Covington said.
He said a lot of sexual assaults and rape are connected to trafficking.
“A trafficker will often times rape their victim first. What that does is it takes down that moral wall. It takes down their self-worth. They can make that person feel absolutely worthless and if you ever responded to a sex crime, that person may feel dirty, they may feel worthless, that they have no value. A trafficker just expounds on that. He takes that feeling and uses it to his advantage. In the same sense as someone selling drugs. They’re going to sell to someone who’d already addicted because that person needs that drug. So the trafficker does the same thing. They give that person love, they give them affection and there comes that point where that the decision comes. He’s going to say, ‘You need to make me some money. Look, I bought you all this stuff. I need you to meet this guy who wants to have sex’ or something like that,” he said.
Covington said last year, his division did a search warrant on a house where they found a girl locked in a dog cage.
“How demoralizing is that? How absolutely crude that is to do that to somebody. Isolation is something we may come across out in the field. A boyfriend and a girlfriend or a husband and wife where she may never be allowed to call her family or talk to her family,” he said.
Fraudulent job offers are also a major issue. An employer may offer $20 an hour and when a person gets there, they find out they are making $1 an hour and forced to work 20 hours a day.
“Just because someone is not making the money they were promised does not automatically mean they are a trafficking victim. They might be a terrible worker. Keep in mind it’s not always just fraud or human trafficking,” Covington said.
He said coercion is the most popular way to get someone to do what you want them to do as far as trafficking goes. He said he is working a case where a girl let them “dump” her cell phone but while they were doing it, she said she needed the phone back or the trafficker would hurt her kids.
“She was so well coerced that she knew if she didn’t check in within a 30 minutes to an hour span, that he was going to hurt her kids and that only comes from him telling her that over and over and over or actually doing it. So we gave her the phone back. We let her text the trafficker and we went from there,” he said.
In New Mexico often someone is smuggled over the border from Mexico and forced to pay back that cost. The smuggler might have said it costs $2,000 to get them across, Covington said, and then when they get to New Mexico, they’re told it was a little more expensive than they thought and that they have to pay $10,000.
“They’re told there’s a place they can work it off. Out in the field you find someone that’s holding someone. A guy that has two or three girls in a car, what you might see are two or three illegal immigrants in a car and that person has all their passports – all their documentation That’s going to be someone you want to look at,” he said. “People out on the street are going to be the bread and butter of these investigations. You’re the ones that are going to come across this in your daily routine and see this.”
Covington said traffickers love getting their victims addicted to heroin I, that it’s the nightmare drug. He said once you’re addicted to heroin, you’ll do anything in the world to get that high. He said poor physical health, lack of identification and sexual abuse are big warning signs.
“So much sexual abuse can be connected to trafficking. Sometimes it’s just sexual abuse. The rapport you build in the beginning is going to be the foundation for the rest of the investigation. Lots of times EMS personnel introduce us to the victim later on because they are building that trust with the victim who feels that they are going to help them and starts to talk about what is going on with them,” he said. “Who are trafficking victims? Prostitutes – yes they are engaging in prostitution but so many times that person is not just engaging in prostitution, they’re not just a sex worker, they’re not just a meth addict, they’re actually being forced to participate in those sexual activities.”
Runaway children – there’s a statistic floating around that one in six children that are homeless are runaways and will engage in survival sex. Having sex for money or someone will come along and say I will buy you McDonalds but you have to do something for me first. When they get to that point it’s not that they’re being forced physically but mentally and psychologically.
Covington said the homeless population in Albuquerque are very susceptible to trafficking. He said the majority of victims he has come across are homeless – “living in hotels, shacking up with people. sleeping on the street”. He said other signs of trafficking include someone with a lot of cash but that person says they are homeless and they have drugs. Having a lot of hotel room keys is another sign. He said a lot of traffickers put their victims in hotels throughout the area.
“They might put the victim next door and they might monitor the people coming in to pay for sex with them. Pre-paid credit cards are another sign. Multiple cell phones,” Covington said. “Branding – I’ve seem this a couple of times. A girl with the guy’s pimp name tattooed on her with a crown above it. So she actually had a brand on her,” he said.
Resources available include the National Human Trafficking Hotline which works closely with service providers, law enforcement, and other professionals in New Mexico to serve victims and survivors of trafficking, respond to human trafficking cases, and share information and resources. The hotline number is 1.888.373.7888 or text 233733.
Further resources on human trafficking are available from the following websites:
https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/otip/new_mexico_profile_efforts_to_combat_human_trafficking.pdf – Information on New Mexico: Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking.
The Life Link, New Mexico’s only 24-hour crisis, resource and tipline dedicated to addressing instances of human trafficking, may be reached at 505.438.3733.