Some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk of becoming a casualty of a disturbing crime.
It could start as innocently as a young person befriending a stranger on the Internet, or a teenager feeling entrapped and looking for a way out.
The criminals might use flirtation, or psychological manipulation, to recruit boys and girls into a tangled and tormented lifestyle.
Human traffickers generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profits by trapping millions of people in horrific situations around the world. It’s being called a form of “modern slavery” in which a person is forced to perform acts through force, coercion and intimidation.
In the United States alone, nearly 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The problem is, most people don’t even realize it is happening.
“I can’t think of another crime that is more shrouded in misperception,” said Detective Guy Baker with the Missoula Police Department and FBI Violent Crime Task Force.
“Everyone seems to think this doesn’t happen in Montana. It happens in other countries ... it happens in big cities,” Baker said.
But, he said, sex trafficking is not only a problem in cities like Billings, Bozeman and Missoula, it is occurring in Kalispell and throughout the Flathead Valley.
Runaways are particularly vulnerable to the crime.
“When kids run away, they don’t think ahead, and they quickly realize they don’t have food, shelter and other things they need to survive,” Baker said. “This makes them a prime target for exploitation.”
In 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex-trafficking victims.
It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but it’s a growing problem.
“People don’t realize human trafficking is the second leading criminal industry on earth today,” Baker said.
Human trafficking crimes are second only to drug-related crimes, Detective Baker told the Inter Lake. Illegal arms and weapons dealing comes behind human trafficking.
The driving force behind human trafficking is supply and demand.
“Humans are a reusable commodity,” Baker said.
Federal and state law-enforcement agencies have been working with regional and local officers to combat human trafficking. Leif Johnson, first assistant for the U.S. attorney in Montana, told the Inter Lake tackling this crime is a priority for their office.
“Our main priority is to deal with the interstate trafficking, particularly of minors,” Johnson said.
Baker said he has trained hundreds of law enforcement officers throughout Montana, including in the Flathead Valley, to recognize, investigate and prosecute human trafficking offenders.
“These are very difficult cases to work, but this is a very serious problem,” Baker said.
Human Traffickers have created a network to literally “make a business model from prostitution,” Johnson said.
The perpetrators use Internet sites to shop for clients. They advertise services like massages, escorts or companions, Baker reports. Human traffickers usually plan ahead, making appointments along a route and traveling with their victims from city to city in an attempt to remain anonymous.
Trafficking victims may become romantically involved with a person who persuades or manipulates them to engage in prostitution. Others are lured through false promises of employment, or a drug-addicted partner might persuade someone to make money for them to support the drug habit, the detective said.
“Pimps are very astute at finding vulnerable women and forcing them to engage in prostitution,” Baker said.
The traffickers often have “rules” they give their victims, so they don’t give themselves away to law enforcement. But law enforcement officers also have techniques they use to spot a human trafficker and make an arrest.
“We look for certain things in advertisements and mannerisms by the girls that indicate there is a pimp involved or she is a victim,” Baker said.
Flathead Valley law enforcement personnel have been involved in joint operations to combat human trafficking.
Local detectives have been taking part in statewide trainings designed to help them recognize and investigate trafficking incidents — and ultimately bring offenders to justice.
A man accused of orchestrating a prostitution scheme was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Billings last month.
Tyrell Edwards is facing charges of sex trafficking by force and a slew of other crimes, after allegedly forcing women into prostitution and transporting them through Montana, Utah and Washington state.
Among the long list of allegations against Edwards is that he kidnapped a 22-year-old Polson woman and held her against her will for 11 days.
Last spring, criminal charges were filed against seven people for soliciting prostitution in the Kalispell area following a sting operation. These arrests were the result of a joint community effort to reduce the growing problem of sex trafficking in the Flathead Valley, according to Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry.
While there are women and girls who engage in prostitution willingly, many of them of are victims of sex trafficking.
“You see human trafficking cases anywhere you see prostitution,” Johnson said.
People commonly confuse prostitution with human trafficking, according to Baker. “Prostitution is when someone engages in sex acts by their choice. Sex trafficking is when someone compels another through force, fraud or coercion to engage in commercial sex acts — and someone else benefits from it.”