Missouri among top states for prosecution of human-trafficking cases

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown Friday, July 17, 2020. Dustin Honken, an Iowa meth kingpin who kidnapped and killed five people, including two young girls, to thwart his prosecution for drug trafficking in 1993 is set to become the third federal inmate to be executed this week. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown Friday, July 17, 2020. Dustin Honken, an Iowa meth kingpin who kidnapped and killed five people, including two young girls, to thwart his prosecution for drug trafficking in 1993 is set to become the third federal inmate to be executed this week. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Missouri was among the top 10 states last year for the number of defendants it prosecuted in human-trafficking cases, according to an annual report.

The Human Trafficking Institute's 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report looks at data from every federal human trafficking case U.S. courts handle each year. Its findings provide a summary of how the federal system holds traffickers accountable for exploitative conduct, according to its authors.

Missouri is fortunate, said Nanette Ward, a co-founder of the Central Missouri Human Trafficking Coalition, in that prosecutors here decided several years ago to focus on disrupting human trafficking in Missouri. There was a time, Ward said, when Missouri led the nation in the number of federal cases being processed.

In more ways than one, Missouri acts as a crossroads in the center of the country, she said.

"We have conditions that occur everywhere," she said, "such as child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and hits on the child welfare system."

On top of that, the state has multiple north/south and east/west highways that pass through.

"We have all the makings of trafficking being possible," Ward said.

Trafficking happens everywhere, she pointed out, but added that agricultural and tourism industries are major supporters of Missouri's economy. Either industry could lead to instances of forced labor.

In 2018, Missouri lawmakers approved House Bill 1246, which combats human trafficking by requiring placement of posters containing resources to assist victims in many public buildings statewide.

The posters contain a national hotline number, 888-373-3888. Victims can also text 233733 (BEFREE) to the number or visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center website at traffickingresourcecenter.org.

The hotline is available 24 hours per day, confidential and accessible in 170 languages.

The posters are to be displayed in hotels, motels, or other establishments that have been cited as a public nuisance for prostitution, strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses, private clubs that have liquor permits for on-premises consumption and are not food service establishments, airports, train stations, emergency rooms, urgent care centers and other locations.

Any major activity, event or convention that draws tourists could potentially attract sex traffickers, Ward said.

"People of all ages, all backgrounds are exploited," she said. "There is such a high profit and such a low risk for traffickers. There is such a high demand, in terms of sex traffickers, to buy people for sex. Any opportunity that traffickers can take advantage of, they do."

The general public has to get over its resistance to talking about human trafficking.

Ward said she often meets with leaders in the hotel/motel industry. They don't want traffickers in their businesses, she said, and they don't want people being victimized in their businesses.

Authors wrote the federal report in two sections - the first of which offers an overview of federal human trafficking case profiles, with data about defendants, victims, types of recruitment and methods of coercion. The second section analyzes criminal investigations and prosecutions in 2019.

Nationally, federal courts housed 606 active cases during the year, 145 that were newly filed.

Of those newly filed cases, seven were in Missouri. That was the fifth-most among the states. Additionally, Missouri had 18 active cases in federal courts, ninth-most among the states.

Courts convicted nine human-trafficking defendants in Missouri, the 10th-most in the nation. Two of the convicted defendants were ordered to pay restitution to their victims, according to the report.

While some states have seen human trafficking for forced labor - in which workers are compelled to provide domestic work or labor at a restaurant or on a farm - all of the human-trafficking cases in the state over the past five years have involved sex trafficking.

Data show there is no single profile for defendants in human-trafficking cases. They are males (79 percent) and females (21 percent); their age range spans more than six decades; and they represent a variety of races, ethnicities and nationalities, including U.S. citizens.

Within forced-labor cases, 58.5 percent of defendants were males, while 42.5 percent were females. The average age of defendants in 2019 was 35. The oldest was an 80-year-old woman charged in a forced-labor case. Several defendants were 18 years old.

Because much of the information about victims is redacted for protection, little data is available about victims in human-trafficking cases. Some 1,592 people were identified as victims in the 606 cases in federal courts last year. About 92 percent of the victims (1,462) were in sex-trafficking cases. The remaining 130 were victims in forced-labor cases.

"Notably, though forced-labor cases were far fewer than sex-trafficking cases, forced-labor cases named almost twice as many victims per case," the report found.

As in years past, most victims in sex-trafficking cases (about 95 percent) were females in 2019, according to the report. However, in forced-labor cases, about 51 percent (42) were males and 49 percent (41) were females.

"As these numbers show, federal law enforcement and prosecutors identify far fewer male victims in human trafficking cases than female victims," the report states. "However, this is likely an under-representation of male victims exploited by human traffickers."

Data show children accounted for 828 victims (about 52 percent), slightly more than half of the victims in active human-trafficking cases in 2019. The youngest was 1 year old. Children made up about 15 percent (20 children) of victims in forced-labor cases.

Defendants controlled their victims through coercive means. In cases with adult victims, defendants generally used physical abuse, withheld pay, threatened physical abuse, exploited substance dependency or physically isolated victims to control them. In cases involving child victims, defendants withheld pay, physically abused, exploited substance dependency, threatened physical abuse or used sexual violence to control victims, according to the report.

"In 2019, defendants used the internet as their primary method of soliciting buyers in 83.7 percent (390) of the active sex-trafficking cases," according to the report. Defendants in sex-trafficking cases also solicited buyers at brothels, through pre-existing relationships, at massage parlors, in bars, clubs and cantinas, or at truck stops.

Only 31 cases (5.1 percent) of federal human trafficking prosecutions in 2019 were forced-labor cases, according to the report.

"Forced-labor cases often look much different than sex-trafficking cases and may be harder to detect because the labor takes place in many otherwise lawful industries," the report states. "Moreover, the top methods of recruitment and coercion that defendants used in forced-labor cases differed from the top methods in sex-trafficking cases."

Of forced-labor cases active in 2019, nine place in domestic work industry, five in agriculture, five in the restaurant or food industry, two in bars, clubs and cantinas, and two in construction. Others involved the health and beauty industry, hospitality industry, manufacturing and sales.

Defendants recruited the workers through fraudulent job offers, fraudulent drug rehabilitation programs and pre-existing relationships.

Oftentimes, the forced-labor cases involved foreign nationals, and defendants coerced them into labor by threatening deportation, withholding immigration documents or exploiting language barriers, the report states.