Southern Utah ‘ideal’ for sex traffickers to find victims, AG’s office says

Stock image by Favor of God/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Human trafficking is a top priory for law enforcement and task force agents across Utah, but even as efforts increase, the Southern Utah corridor remains an area of great concern, the Utah Attorney General’s Office said in a recent statement.

Traffickers use fear, violence, intimidation or threats to subdue their victims. | Image courtesy of Shared Hope International, St. George News

Every year, millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, including the United States. Many victims are used for sex trafficking, which is an estimated $150 billion per year industry, second only to drug trafficking, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The sex trafficking industry thrives “because there is serious demand,” Shared Hope International states.

In Southern Utah, sex trafficking is a concern primarily due to its proximity to major cities like Las Vegas, as well as the area’s moderate climate, which makes it an ideal area for traffickers’ primary targets — the homeless and runaways, according to the statement.

Human trafficking is part and parcel with the narcotics pipeline problem that is prevalent across Southern Utah, Dixie State University Department of Public Safety Police Chief Blair Barfuss said.

In addition to their duties at the university, campus police work with Internet Crimes Against Children — also known as ICAC — a multi-jurisdictional task force that investigates and prosecutes individuals who use the internet to exploit children. Before becoming the police chief at Dixie State, Barfuss worked with ICAC for more than seven years.

Utah, because of its location, makes it an important transit area for illicit goods, such as narcotics, destined for areas throughout the U.S., Barfuss said.

“Interstate 15 is a major distribution corridor, and human trafficking follows the same routes,” he said.

Several investigations conducted over the last few years between ICAC and the FBI have resulted in a number of arrests involving undercover online chat room operations where investigators found “people in St. George that pay and fund human trafficking,” Barfuss said, adding that child sex abuse and human trafficking arrests have been on the rise because of enhanced law enforcement activity.

Due to social stigma and misinformation, victims are often misidentified or unidentified. | Image courtesy of Shared Hope International, St. George News

According to the Attorney General’s Office, traffickers find victims at malls, parks and schools, and once a victim is targeted, the trafficker often enslaves them by getting them addicted to drugs. The victims are then rotated every seven to eight months, with young women being trafficked from Las Vegas to St. George, Salt Lake City, Washington state, California and then back again.

Law enforcement agencies actively investigate human trafficking by conducting sting operations several times per year.

In 2018 alone, the Attorney General’s Office conducted 49 human trafficking investigations, prosecuted 8 cases and served 44 victims.

This year, one bust exceeded all of last year’s arrests. In July, more than 70 were arrested and charged with human trafficking and child sex exploitation crimes. Additionally, at least six children between the ages of 5 and 12 were rescued during the sting operation and are now getting assistance from a victim advocate.

A number of the arrests sprang from investigations conducted by “Operation Broken Heart III,” a national multi-agency task force. The cases involved victims who were primarily trafficked inside Utah, while in other cases they were taken across state lines.

Sex trafficking crimes have not always been a top priority for the beehive state. That cultural shift began in 2012 when Salt Lake City was targeted for an in-depth study conducted by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization launched to prevent sex trafficking and help victims.

Sex trafficked children are often treated for drug/alcohol abuse, delinquency and other issues. | Image courtesy of Shared Hope International, St. George News

The study revealed that victims of sex trafficking were being held like juvenile delinquents, that buyers of sex acts from minors were not being punished and that minimal training was provided to law enforcement agents to identify sex trafficking victims. The study also found that weak laws resulted in few arrests statewide.

After the findings were released, Utah launched an aggressive fight against human trafficking.

Cases that would have been processed as prostitution prior to the report were instead being handled as human trafficking cases, largely due to better training and advanced identification tools. The state also formed the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force and prosecutors of the Utah SECURE Strike Force.

The state of Utah has made several changes to the criminal code over the last several years, including prohibiting the prosecution of children engaged in prostitution. Instead, these children are referred to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. Legislation now also defines child trafficking as child abuse subject to protections and intervention in juvenile court and other agencies. Facilitators and beneficiaries of child trafficking are punished the same as direct offenders, and victims are now allowed to sue their traffickers for civil damages.

To report tips regarding human trafficking, contact the Utah Attorney General’s Office by calling the Utah Human Trafficking Tipline at 801-200-3443 or the Internet Crimes Against Children Tipline at 801-281-1211.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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