In the wake of four Vancouver Island residents being arrested and charged with offences related to human trafficking in Saskatchewan, Black Press Media sat down with two officers from the Victoria Police Department’s Special Victims Unit — who investigate all sexual related offences including human trafficking — to understand how big this problem really is.
The officers have asked not to be named to protect themselves and the victims in the cases they work on.
Human trafficking is happening more than we think in Victoria explains one of the officers, but police struggle to investigate the issue due to the lack of reporting. The officers call human trafficking the “new drug trafficking” as the crime becomes more appealing due to the lack of awareness, the lack of physical product and the lack of hierarchy for a would-be trafficker to be indebted to.
According to the officers, traffickers typically work a “circuit,” meaning they’ll hit various cities with large events — such as the Calgary Stampede, the Grey Cup or Victoria’s cruise ship season — moving from east to west and spending from a couple of nights to a week in each place before moving on.
How are girls recruited?
Girls between the ages of 12 to 18 are the most common targets.
They’re recruited through a number of ways, but the officers stress how useful social media can be for a trafficker.
Thanks to open social media pages on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, traffickers look for any vulnerability a young girl may have and use that to build a “relationship.”
“Traffickers will prey on females who may appear on social media to be in a vulnerable or emotional state, lacking support or open to responding to random, unknown males.”
In some cases, traffickers will get young girls hooked on drugs — most commonly heroin, meth or cocaine — to ensure their control.
Traffickers will provide victims with makeup, handbags and clothes, but all with the condition they pay it back by doing what the trafficker wants — something police call “debt bondage.” In addition, young girls can be branded or tattooed to show loyalty to a trafficker.
The officers say the marking is typically an initial or a small symbol such as a crown that is usually placed on the hand, wrist or areas that are covered by underwear.
According to the officers, traffickers are able to get girls to become loyal to them through fear, isolation, debt bondage, guilt, religious beliefs, threats of harm to their loved ones or shaming them by threatening to release pornographic pictures or videos.
They also say the process of grooming a girl to be trafficked can be immediate or can take months.
Who is doing the trafficking?
While the officers say there isn’t a “typical” trafficker, they’re usually male and can be defined as either a “Romeo” — a pimp that makes the girl feel special, loved, similar to a girlfriend, who slowly inserts fear, threats and debt bondage to make the victim feel helpless to escape — or a “gorilla” — a trafficker who goes straight to physical or sexual abuse to control her.
Pimps will use online sites, such as Leolist, Craigslist or Secret Benefit, to advertise girls or to reach out to potential clients.
A quick skim of Leolist shows dozens of ads posted within the last week from the Island that advertise “sensual massages” or female escorts.
The officers say traffickers will use words like “young,” “fresh” or “new in town” to advertise their victims.
In some cases, a woman can be a trafficker, but the officers say this is usually someone who’s bought into the operation, fears for their own safety and usually also involved in prostitution.
How are police responding?
“Everybody counts or nobody counts,” is an SVU motto that relates to how police feel about the victims they work to support.
The officers explain that their primary goal is always to help victims first, charges and arrests are secondary.
It’s hard for police to investigate human trafficking when the victims are so entrenched in fear, shame and guilt but officers work to make sure they know it’s not their fault and create lines of communication to support them if they choose to be witnesses in court.
The investigations can be difficult without victim cooperation.
The officers say that some feel responsible for their situation or even feel their current situation is better than other alternatives.
Investigations often involve multiple jurisdictions as traffickers hit various cities on their circuit, which can make them time-consuming.
Currently, police are working to train their own members to become more knowledgeable about human trafficking, along with educating the public through the media and in meetings with schools, youth groups, churches, hotels, AirBnBs and VRBOs.How can the public help?
Because the issue is so under-reported, police need the help of the public to identify suspicious behavior. Those working in the restaurant industry, in hotels or Airbnb and VRBO operators are the most likely to witness signs of human trafficking.
The officers say some of the signs to look for that could indicate human trafficking include the man doing all the talking or the girl looking to the man when answering.
The girl will typically have no identification, or the man she’s with will have it.
She could be wearing new clothes, have designer shoes or handbags and have her nails or hair done recently. Other signs could be paying for things in large amounts of cash, a lack of knowledge about the area, being deprived of food or medical care and her freedom of movement being restricted.
The officers understand that the public can be hesitant in reporting suspicious behavior, but ask that people note the licence plate, any physical descriptors of the people or vehicle and the time of anything that gives you a “funny feeling.”
Both officers stress protecting young girls online.