STUART — Human sex and labor trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that occurs in every state, even Nebraska. It is real and can affect anyone, anywhere.
Since 2016, human trafficking has been reported in almost 30 communities across the state including Ainsworth, Atkinson, Bartlett, O'Neill and Royal.
Most recently special agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security raided O'Neill in August executing a series of criminal arrest warrants for numerous individuals connected to an alleged criminal conspiracy to exploit illegal alien laborers for profit among several other charges.
Juan "Pablo" Sanchez Delgado, an illegal alien and longtime O'Neill business owner, required his illegal alien employees through his companies to convert their paychecks into U.S. currency. He then withheld the proceeds for harboring the aliens. Delgado also supposedly told the alien workers he was withholding federal taxes that would be submitted to the federal government when he was in fact retaining those withholdings as illegal proceeds.
The "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child" committee based in Stuart hosted a presentation last Thursday night at the Stuart Public High School gymnasium with more than 50 people in attendance. Topics included human trafficking, digital citizenship and the opioid crisis. Information also was presented to students throughout the day.
Presenting the information was Suzanne Gage, director of communications at the Nebraska Attorney General's Office (NAGO.) She has served in this capacity the last four years.
"The internet obviously is a very beneficial tool that your children and grandchildren have grown up with. We are all still figuring it out, but there is literally a dark web," Gage said.
The dark web is the part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable. It poses new challenges for law enforcement agencies around the world.
"There are items sold and deeds done on there that are very dark. One of the largest operations for child pornography was actually chased down to a home in Omaha," she said.
Internet social media apps such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Kik were highlighted.
"There are apps that are dangerous and where people do violent or illegal acts and broadcast them," Gage said.
Examples given included both violent crimes and suicides being live streamed on Facebook, individuals taking nude photos or videos with Snapchat and predators moving communications from a networking site like Facebook to a private messaging app like Kik to solicit nude photos.
"Sadly that tool (Snapchat) can be fun, but kids often use it wrongly to send nude or other inappropriate pictures with people they know," she said.
Many social apps are often used by sexual predators, traffickers or for blackmail.
"It doesn't have to be, but it can all be related to sextortion and human trafficking," Gage said.
Sextortion is a form of sexual exploitation that employs non-physical forms of coercion to extort sexual favors from the victim and later used for blackmail.
"It is something that can happen in a lot of different ways. It happened to one of our state senators. A woman enticed him to participate in a sexual act with her through a video chat. He complied. She then said he needed to give her this many dollars or she was going to send the items to his entire list of contacts."
Former State Senator Ron Sandack resigned after the incident with a woman in the Philippines in 2016.
Human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. Only a small number of victims are truly abducted, most are lured.
According to Gage, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, before taking office, voiced his commitment to fighting human trafficking by finding better ways to discover and stop the traffickers, helping those trapped and preventing it from happening.
Thanks to a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Justice grant in 2015, Peterson and the Salvation Army started working together to form the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force (NHTTF). It focuses on helping victims and survivors, stoping trafficking and eliminating the market. The task force is establishing a statewide, victim-centered system. Members include law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers, advocates and community partners.
In 2017 the state legislature approved a harsher law that dramatically increased the penalties for those who create the supply and demand for human trafficking. The law holds buyers responsible as well. No votes were cast against Legislative Bill 289.
"Not just the trafficker, not just the pimp, but also those who purchase sex with minors," Gage said. "We are basically saying not here, not in our state, not on our watch."
In January 2018 the state launched "Demand an End," a trafficking awareness campaign which included posters being displayed in rest stops all along Interstate 80. The campaign was started by former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and was shared with Nebraska at no cost.
According to Gage, traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to reel in their victims.
"Often times pimps and traffickers look for vulnerable individuals. Maybe somebody in a foster situation, a runaway or a single parent," Gage said.
Most often the trafficker will sexually, physically or verbally abuse the victim or threaten the victim, their family and friends. The predator pretends to be the victim's friend or significant other as well as promises money or other gifts.
Traffickers can be disguised as a pretender, provider, punisher, promiser or protector. "What does a trafficker look like? It can be anyone," Gage said.
Traffickers often pretend to be someone they are not such as a boyfriend, provide offers to take care of the victim's needs, use violence and threats to gain control, promise great gifts or offer to protect the victim but use their power to control them.
"If you see something you think is not right, report it," Gage said. "If you think someone is in harms way 911 is always your best option. The hotline does work. There is a system where it comes down locally."
According to the National Human Trafficking hotline, since 2007 the organization has received a total of 760 human trafficking related calls in Nebraska. So far this year 220 calls have been received with 63 human trafficking cases reported.
The type of cases included 50 sex trafficking, eight labor trafficking, four were not specified and the rest were listed as both sex and labor trafficking.
Top venues for sex trafficking were escort services, hotel/motel based, online ads, truck stops and illicit massage/spa businesses. For labor trafficking, top venues include illicit activities, restaurant or food service, peddling rings, transportation and factories.
Victims included 58 females and four males, 50 who were adults and 11 minors. Eighteen were U.S. citizens and four were from another country.
For more information visit the following websites: Nebraska Attorney General’s Office at ago.nebraska.gov/combating-human-trafficking; National Human Trafficking Hotline at humantraffickinghotline.org/state/nebraska or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security at www.ice.gov/tips.