Modern Slavery

Sex trafficking research aims to educate public on identifying victims

The stories that Jill tells are horrifying.

She recalls she was just 17 years old when she finished her basic military training and was preparing to enter active duty.

It wasn't until her boyfriend at the time—whom she once believed was the "love of her life"—kidnapped her that she learned he was a human trafficker, and she had just become his next commodity.

She spent the next 17 years as a victim of the global industry that profits from the exploitation of people for sex or labor.

"It's kind of like real estate," Jill said last week, asking that we not use her real name. "If they think that they can sell you, they're going to do it."

For Jill, it began as she was transported to a run-down apartment. When she walked in, there were many other girls, women and men already there. She said the youngest person there was about 14 years old. She was then drugged and locked in a room for several days, only to wake up to chaos.

"Everything was locked," she said. "There was never any chance to get away, and if you tried you got assaulted, beat up, tortured—a whole bunch of different things happened. But you never really had a chance because you were always drugged. I was, anyway. I was a fighter."

From then on, she was forced into the world of sex trafficking for nearly two decades, which included being transported across the country in crates, dog kennels and boxes. She said people's dialects were the only way she could guess what area of the country she was in because no one ever told them where they were or where they were going.

One of the places she was trafficked was Phoenix, where she said her daily quota she had to make for her trafficker by selling sex was $1,500 to $2,000.

"I'd have it before noon," she said.

The clients could be violent. One pulled a gun on her. Others beat or tortured her.

She said the traffickers were so physically, emotionally and mentally manipulative that she and the other victims felt they had lost all knowledge of any other way of life.

"I've been sold, I've been auctioned, I've been given away, traded, and if they decide they don't want to deal with you anymore or you have a chance to go away, you don't run where it's safe," she said. "You run right back to where you think you need to be."

Today, she has four children, all of which were fathered by either a trafficker or a pimp. Child Protective Services took them away from her, but she now has a relationship with her 19-year-old who found her through Facebook.

A Systematic Crime

Tucson Police Department and CODAC Health, Recovery and Wellness each received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to research sex trafficking in Southern Arizona. Sally Stevens, executive director of the University of Arizona's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, and Candace Black, senior research specialist for SIROW are working with these agencies as well. The collaborative research project is called the Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network, or SAATURN.

"In our understanding of the work and what trafficking means, there is no distinction between a pimp and a trafficker," Black said. "Both are coercing victims to sell sex for money."

Sally Stevens, executive director of the University of Arizona's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, said half of the money is funding the Tucson Police Department's efforts to look into the criminal activity surrounding human trafficking, as well as the training on outreach necessary to recognize and educate others on the issue. She said CODAC is also using grant money for training and outreach, and providing victim services.

Stevens and Candace Black, senior research specialist for SIROW, said as part of the education training they want hotel employees to receive through SAATURN is being able to recognize the signs of human trafficking, such as if a young person is accompanied by much older people, has visible bruises or branding, or if there are many male visitors to the room. They said they want emergency rooms, family services, bus stations and other institutions to receive this training in recognition as well.

To dig into the scope of trafficking in Southern Arizona, on Jan. 28, 2015, the research team of Dominique Roe-Sepowitz under Arizona State University's Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research placed two sex-selling advertisements on, a known commercial "date"-selling venue posted by third-party contributors.

By recording the responses these advertisements received within 24 hours, Roe-Sepowitz and her team estimated about 1,601 people in Tucson were looking to buy sex on that given day. In addition, the research team found street-based prostitution is often on Oracle Road and Craycroft Road corridors, and 85 percent of the sex-selling market in Tucson is online, specifically on

At the Tricked documentary showing and panel discussion at the Loft Cinema on Jan. 30, Tammy Breitzke of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said while has been legally challenged since its creation in 2004, as of today the site as a whole has not yet been shut down. The former controlling shareholders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin (former founders and owners of the Phoenix New Times), argued government interference with Backpage was a First Amendment violation. Breitzke said while the "escort" or "adult classifieds" section of the site was terminated last month, similar ads were posted in the "dating" section of Backpage days later.

On Jan. 9, Lacey and Larkin released a statement on their First Amendment defense of the site. The two men stated when they were arrested in Oct. 2016, former California Attorney General Kamala Harris charged them with conspiracy to pimp due to nine adult advertisements placed by users over a three-year period.

Lacey and Larkin stated Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman "held that federal law immunizes websites from liability for these third-party posts." The men wrote Harris had "no basis in law" when she brought about the arrest and prosecution charges. In addition, the men wrote "Congress wisely declined the invitation to make websites liable for user-generated content." Lacey and Larkin mention that in 2011, former FBI Director Robert Mueller commended Backpage with an award for "outstanding cooperation and assistance in the fight against child sex trafficking."

"Today the censors have prevailed," they wrote. "We get it ... We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future."

Roe-Sepowitz said human trafficking could increase even more during large events, such as the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show or sporting events, for a number of reasons. Some of them being that people attending events will have time and money, be away from home and their responsibilities, and possibly detached from their family or spouses.

"Money, men, time," she said.

Help From The Community

Senior director of forensic services for CODAC Myrna Garcia works with the population in criminal processes, including both criminal and civil courts. She said CODAC employees can accompany survivors to court, should they decide to try to appeal their criminal records from their time being arrested while trafficked.

The criminal records of prostitution charges that victims of trafficking acquire poses a monumental threat to employment once free. As of this month, the National Employment Law Project estimates 70 million U.S. adults have arrests or convictions. A study by Devah Pager, Harvard University professor of sociology and public policy, found a criminal record reduces the chances of a callback for a job by about 50 percent for white people. The study also found that it is 40 percent larger for African-Americans compared to whites.

"While the ratio of callbacks for non-offenders relative to ex-offenders for whites is 2:1, this same ratio for blacks is nearly 3:1," Pager wrote in the study.

Garcia said safety, mental health, family services and substance abuse are the biggest concerns trafficking survivors have once they come to CODAC. She said working together with TPD allows CODAC to be the first contact for survivors once law enforcement has identified a victim.

The trafficking survivor from above said she has been free for about seven years, but still has to learn to cope with post–traumatic stress disorder.

Garcia said CODAC provides psychiatric and medical care for survivors, as well as therapy for trauma. The SAATURN grant money helps cover the cost of these services, according to Garcia.

"When a member says, 'Thank you, I've gotten to a place in my life where I'm grounded, I feel safe and I feel my life is changing,' that's probably the most amazing part of it all," Garcia said.

Ward 6 Council member Steve Kozachik has also created Project RAISE, or Responsible Alternatives to Incarceration for the Sexually Exploited. He said the project aims to offer trafficking victims an alternative to jail through a diversion program that requires that they complete counseling instead. Kozachik said the first victim they helped through RAISE was a young transgender boy.

"Our girls are not for sale," Kozachik said at the Tricked documentary showing and discussion panel.

What Now?

"I feel a whole lot better now that I'm able to talk about it," Jill said.

A former trafficker, one of at least five she's had, she said, freed her about seven and a half years ago when he was no longer interested in that lifestyle. She said she still didn't go by her real name for about five years post-freedom, and constantly dyes her hair different colors to this day in an effort to discover who she really is.

Despite the recovery Jill is pursuing, she said employment and forging trusting relationships with others are challenges she is working to overcome. She said she wants to work in a field that allows her to help girls who are still trapped in the situation she was in for 17 years, but her criminal record from what she estimates to be over 150 arrests while being trafficked makes that near impossible. She said she is in the process of appealing charges.

"It's a huge problem, and it's a problem that everyone can be a part of and help out with," she said. "It's huge to the point that young girls really need to be careful about who they speak to."

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