Women and girls are the greatest victims of human trafficking. Increasingly, however, they’re also becoming the traffickers themselves, luring both males and females into what’s been called modern-day slavery, a recent global report the issue said.
Authorities in Miami-Dade County say a 20-year-old woman was caught last month training a 16-year-old Vero Beach girl how to become a prostitute. The woman, at the behest of a male pimp, taught the girl “how to dress and how to sell her body for sex” and showed her the way around Miami Beach, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
Last fall, authorities in Pinellas County charged a 33-year-old woman with prostituting a 14-year-old girl, advertising her on the website Backpage.com, known for its classified ads placed by people looking for sex partners, according to published reports.
Public perception is that human trafficking is a male-dominated industry, but according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, about four in 10 human traffickers around the globe are female.
“This is not a gender problem. This is a heart problem,” said Becky McDonald, the founder of the Michigan-based nonprofit Women At Risk International, while recently speaking to an audience at the World Affairs Council of Palm Beach.
“The face of trafficking, often the actual trafficker who is doing the sale of that person against their will, is a female”
McDonald, who spoke as part of the World Affairs Council’s Distinguished Speaker Series, described human trafficking – a multi-billion dollar criminal industry — as the as fastest growing arm of crime, ahead of guns and drugs.
“It’s about money. It’s not about sex,” she said. “It just happens that sex sells and free labor sells.”
The United Nations report estimates that about 70 percent of all human trafficking victims are women and girls, although some officials say trafficking statistics for males — who are trafficked for manual labor as well as for sex — tend to be underreported.
The UN report also examined prosecutions and convictions for traffickers by region for more than 60 countries, the most recent figures dating back to 2014 for many countries. Figures for the United States were not broken down by gender. However, overall figures for Canada, Mexico and South America were in line overall statistics. Convictions for men were slightly above 60 percent and convictions for women were slightly below 40 percent.
In Central America and the Caribbean, the numbers were nearly equal between the genders, the UN found. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, women made up 55 percent of convictions.
While declining to discuss specific cases, local advocates for victims said the trend of women trafficking girls and other women is in line with what they know. They said the approach female traffickers use can vary with the nation and with the type of person they are attempting to lure.
“Overseas, a lot of times the women are the ones that go and do the scamming because, whose guard is up when,” McDonald said. “Some little old lady with a silver bun comes into a remote village and offers your daughter a job? You don’t know that the job is a scam.”
Cases in the United States often follow a path like the 2006 case of Shauna Newell, a Pensacola teen whom a female classmate abducted and trafficked after inviting her to a sleepover at her house. Newell was held against her will for four days in a home belonging the classmate’s pimp, according to published reports.
Bonnie Jo Daniels, the program director for Hope For Freedom in Palm Beach Gardens, said it is important for parents to teach their children to exercise caution in their daily interactions.
“We teach the kids to be careful of quick invites,” she said. “If you have a girl and she invites you to a party and you don’t know her that well, you shouldn’t go to that party.”
In many cases, women who turn to human trafficking were victims themselves.
“Generally, the girls that are being trafficked the longest by that person become what’s known as a bottom (girl). What happens is that individual becomes almost like a manager for the trafficker and becomes very loyal,” said Detective Zac Aldridge of the North Palm Beach police, who was recognized this month during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week for his work in a case involving the trafficking of a 16-year-old girl.
North Palm Beach was the initial agency investigating in a case that later was turned over to the FBI. Two people, Daniel Macias and the girl’s mother, were arrested on federal charges. Macias, whom authorities say transported the teen to other states and forced her into prostitution, was convicted of child pornography.
The girl’s mother pleaded guilty in October 2015 to conspiracy to the sex trafficking on a minor. According to court records, the woman told investigators Macias forced her and her daughter into prostitution. However, authorities said the woman knowingly conspired with Macias as he drove the teen to Georgia and Texas to engage in prostitution. The Palm Beach Post is not naming the woman because of her relationship to the victim, but Aldridge disclosed one aspect of her identity.
“She at one point herself was a victim,” Aldridge said. “And within the scope (of the investigation) it was (discovered) she did some stuff that a reasonable adult shouldn’t have done.“
At the state court level, Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes said the agency has seen a small number of cases related to human trafficking and he was not aware of any involving a female suspect. However, recent news stories around the state and the nation highlight examples of younger and older women who have been accused of human trafficking.
In Indiana, three women pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution and other charges after authorities charged them with felonies related to the trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, according to published reports.
One of the women was the girl’s court-appointed guardian, the Indianapolis Star reported.
In March, an 18-year-old Kansas woman pleaded guilty to aggravated human trafficking after she attempted to lure a 14-year-old girl into a sex trafficking scheme, according to published reports.
Daniels said parents of school-age children should closely monitor their child’s communications online and who they interact with.
“Parents have the right to know what their kids are doing,” she said. “The more open communication you can you have with your child, the better.”
Advocates point to several signs that a person may be a victim of human trafficking. They include:
— Signs of poor health.
— Signs of physical abuse or restraint.
— Lack of control over personal documents.
— A person denying them the ability to speak for themselves.
Anyone who sees a person they think may be a victim of human trafficking can call one of two telephone numbers:
— Palm Beach County Human Trafficking Hotline, 561-598-9848
— National Human Trafficking Hotline, 888-373-7888