MINNEAPOLIS — In an unusual but effective partnership aimed at helping end the horrors of sex trafficking, federal law enforcement and the adult entertainment industry teamed up Monday to educate Minnesotans who may be most likely to encounter this form of modern-day slavery.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota are working with a national organization called “Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking” (COAST). The goal of this partnership is to inform adult entertainment industry club operators and employees how they can help to recognize and rescue human trafficking victims. HSI special agents and COAST members have made similar presentations in other cities around the U.S. since 2010.
What started as an unlikely alliance between law enforcement and the adult entertainment industry has since morphed into a successful program that directly reaches the people who may be among the first to see the shadowy, tell-tale signs of a sex trafficking victim – those working in adult entertainment clubs.
Since 2010, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota has won guilty verdicts in five trials and secured 14 guilty pleas of sex traffickers who were responsible for harming dozens of juvenile and adult victims. These convicted offenders have each been sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison for sex trafficking.
“Human trafficking will not be tolerated anywhere in our state,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino, human trafficking coordinator for the District of Minnesota. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is proud to support innovative partnerships, like the one between COAST and Homeland Security Investigations, to help get our message out. Traffickers in our schools, shopping malls, hotels, clubs – wherever they are – will be found and prosecuted.”
Human trafficking has been compared to modern-day slavery. The victims are paid little or nothing, and are forced or coerced into working for others in the sex industry. Frequently they are drugged or beaten into submission, and routinely threatened with beatings. In some cases the victims are minors. Some are foreigners who respond to ads for work overseas, and they learn too late that there is no work in the traditional sense. Foreigners who are trafficked may not know the language, and they are conditioned to be fearful of law enforcement, leaving them few options for escape. They find themselves surrounded by predators and pedophiles, often without identification documents, fearing for their lives and the lives of their families.
The severe toll and trauma of human trafficking can continue, even after the victims are rescued. And because of the trauma and the conditioning they experience, it can be difficult for victims to testify against their traffickers. HSI’s Victim Assistance Program helps coordinate services to help human trafficking victims, such as providing crisis intervention counseling and emotional support.
Mike Ocello, COAST founder and chairman, began the organization in 2010 following law enforcement inquiries he dealt with as a club owner. He worked directly with authorities who were seeking information about a victim he may have seen or encountered. As a result of that interaction, Ocello sought more ways he could help and he founded COAST to help educate others in his industry, and to provide law enforcement an additional resource in identifying victims.
Founded by volunteers in 1974, Women’s Advocates was the first shelter in the United States for victims of domestic violence and continues as a leader in victim advocacy. Artika Roller, Women’s Advocates’ Program Director states, “although domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking are different forms of victimization, the harms are interconnected through violence which reinforces the vulnerability of the women and increases their risk of additional victimization. Strips clubs are venues used to recruit women into trafficking.” Women’s Advocates programs incorporate trauma-informed, client-centered, and strength-based practices in all aspects of our service delivery model and harm reduction strategies when appropriate to minimize re-victimization, and facilitate long-term recovery and empowerment for women victimized by violence and control. More information is available at: www.wadvocates.org.
Minneapolis was selected by the leaders from the departments of Justice, Labor, and Homeland Security as one of six nationwide Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (ACT) sites. These teams are leading Phase II of the ACTeam Initiative, an interagency effort to streamline federal criminal investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking offenses. Over the next two years, teams are expected to develop high-impact federal investigations and prosecutions, dismantle human-trafficking networks, vindicate the rights of human-trafficking victims and bring traffickers to justice.
HSI arrested more than 1,400 human traffickers in 2015 and identified nearly 400 victims across the United States. Since 2010, HSI has arrested more than 7,000 individuals on human trafficking offenses.
HSI encourages the public to report suspected criminal and suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. From outside the U.S. and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users can call TTY 802-872-6196.
For more information about the Department of Homeland Security’s overall efforts to increase public awareness of human trafficking, visit http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign.