Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004 | 11:06 a.m.
Despite the relatively low numbers of reported cases of human trafficking locally, law enforcement officials say that under the surface this 21st century form of slavery is occurring on a regular basis in Las Vegas and other U.S. cities.
Las Vegas is the home of one of 20 new task forces designed to find the victims who are being forced or coerced into labor or prostitution, said Brad Schlozman, a deputy assistant attorney general with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"These task forces are designed to take the battle into the dark places where victims are being exploited," Schlozman said at a press conference Tuesday to announce the Las Vegas task force that has been working together since July.
Since 2001 the U.S. attorney's office has brought charges in four human trafficking cases in Las Vegas, but Dan Bogden, U.S. attorney for Nevada, said there are more cases out there.
"It's very obvious that we aren't getting all the cases, and we're working to get a better picture of the problem," Bogden said. "The focus of this group will be to uncover and investigate those cases, and ensure that services are provided to victims."
Trafficking in people involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel people to engage in prostitution or sex entertainment, or to work in sweat shops as domestic labor, Bogden said.
Historically, human trafficking in Las Vegas has centered around the sex industry, said Ellen Knowlton, FBI special agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office.
"Locally we have developed intelligence that those involved in human trafficking may have interest in operating in Nevada," Knowlton said. "We're being very aggressive to make sure that does not happen."
Knowlton said she has no knowledge of a specific group wanting to operate in Nevada, just information that Nevada and Las Vegas may be an attractive site for human traffickers.
Nevada Chief Deputy Attorney General Gerald Gardner said Las Vegas has the characteristics that traffickers look for.
"We have all the ingredients they want," Gardner said. "We have a migrant work force and an illegal sex trade."
Las Vegas also has a booming construction industry, which has been an outlet for human trafficking in other cities, though Knowlton said she has seen no evidence of forced labor on construction projects in Las Vegas.
Each year an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are moved across international borders for other people's purposes, according to the State Department. Of those, 14,500 to 17,500 are brought to America.
Human trafficking is the third-fastest growing criminal activity in terms of profit, below only drug and gun trafficking, Schlozman said.
The FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Labor Office of the Inspector General, Metro Police, and the Nevada Office of the Attorney General are all a part of the task force. Also included are the state Division of Family Services, Shade Tree, SAFE House and other organizations.
The task force is scheduled to participate in Justice Department training on human trafficking today. The group had been through previous training sessions in Tampa, Fla., in July.
Among the issues to be discussed today are the difficulties in finding victims of human trafficking because of language barriers and the fear and coercion that these victims face.
"One of the biggest problems we encounter is that many times these victims don't speak English," Schlozman said. "There is also the fear from the victims that if they go to law enforcement they will be deported.
"We have to find these victims, because they aren't likely to pick up the phone and call us."
A federal law passed in 2000 makes it possible for the victims who were brought into the country for sex or other reasons to become residents and citizens if they cooperate with authorities. The law also provides them the paperwork they need to obtain legal jobs and social services and offers them protection from trafficking rings.
Citizens can report suspected incidents of human trafficking to the FBI at 385-1281 or to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 388-6818.
The Justice Department's Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force complaint line can be reached at (800) 428-7581 on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.