Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Discussion about human trafficking can conjure up images of young women being kidnapped so they can be sold as sexual slaves in another country. The imagined scenes are framed in darkness, with muffled screams and futile struggling.
In Las Vegas, human trafficking plays out in far more insidious ways, right beneath the eyes of mothers and fathers: a young daughter sits on her bed and, setting aside her homework, taps on her keyboard, responding to a flattering message from a friend of a friend.
This is how pimps frequently cast their lure, says Sam Martinez, and in Las Vegas, “it’s an absolute plague.” Martinez knows; he is Clark County’s chief deputy district attorney overseeing the special victims unit. He sends pimps to prison.
Martinez says the path of seducing girls and young women into a life of prostitution and coerced loyalty to a pimp traverses the same territory where we find irresistible video clips of puppies learning how to swim and daredevil motorcyclists tumbling through the air. The trafficking of a child into the sex trade frequently starts with an innocuous Facebook message from a stranger to a teenage girl who so loves the banter and unscripted interaction in social media that she has not used any privacy filters. Her page can be viewed by strangers, including criminals.
The stranger sending the message might offer a friendly remark on something he found on the girl’s page, or insinuate that they have common friends, or offer a compliment that might secretly prey on the girl’s poor self-esteem or social insecurities. They resume the virtual conversation a few days later and, as the relationship builds unbeknownst to her parents, there comes a time when the girl meets her new friend.
One thing leads to another, as the pimp explores her vulnerabilities and promises a lifestyle that, he says persuasively, she deserves and would enjoy. She would get men’s attention, make money, live in the fast lane and have a friend, a close friend, in him.
Once the teen is ensnared, Martinez says, the seduction turns into enslavement. The girl is wiser now and likely yearns for home, but her pimp wields too much emotional if not physical control over her. He threatens to harm her or her family if she bolts. Or, in the alternative, in a world of sex, money and drugs, she has lost her orientation entirely and has turned into a young woman we no longer recognize who thinks she has fallen in love with this man.
“Social media is a huge recruiting tool for pimps, and parents need to be aware of their kids’ social media accounts and track them,” Martinez advises. “It’s through social media that they make their initial contact and start the process of recruiting, by making promises. They give their victims compliments and build a relationship of trust, and then the victim is in a black hole and can’t get out.”
Martinez admonishes parents to educate their children about people who will prey on them — not just the old notion of someone offering a child candy or to help look for a lost puppy, but who will connivingly and manipulatively worm their way into their social lives. Children, especially those yearning for a friend, are easily duped. Matinez has prosecuted cases in which the victims were as young as 12.
Awareness of the problem has increased in recent years, thanks in part to then-Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s success in the 2013 Legislature to establish the crime of sex trafficking in Nevada. The strengthened law made it easier to prosecute pimps, expanded the sex offender registry and gave victims the right to sue their captors.
There are law enforcement efforts nationwide, starting with the FBI, to stem human trafficking, which includes snaring teenage girls — and boys — for sex. But the front line of that battle frequently plays out in our own homes.
Martinez advises parents to be much more active in their children’s social media engagement. Parents must frankly teach their children the need for personal security, physically and virtually. Failing that, parents need to monitor their children’s activities in social media, as closely as they would keep an eye on their youngsters at a park or at the mall.
The bottom line: Children have to be on guard for the perils of online relationships, especially when messages come from people other than their known circle of friends. Their default reaction should be one of concern and suspicion. And then they should have the confidence and trust to share these incidents with their parents.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Let this serve as a trigger for parents to talk to their children about identifying and ignoring strangers making appearances on their social media pages. Don’t lose a child in her own bedroom.