By Deepti Govind
Earlier this month, there were reports of a 12-state human trafficking, joint undercover sting, called Operation United Front, that led to the arrests of 102 people. Through the operation, 47 victims were rescued, including two minors. As part of Operation United Front, undercover officers would either arrange to meet with potential victims or pose as victims themselves in order to arrest buyers or traffickers. One of the anti-sex trafficking operations under this larger sting took place at a casino, where the undercover officers contacted and rescued two women. It’s a reminder that crimes can occur at any legitimate business, and that, often, criminals devise ways to ensure such activities go unnoticed by those who own or run the business.
In Nebraska, even before casinos were scheduled to open in the state after a vote to legalize them, a bill advanced by lawmakers in March sought to mandate the display of human trafficking informational posters at the soon-to-be-opened casinos. The state already mandates such posters at rest stops and strip clubs, both places that advocates have identified as spots where human trafficking might take place. There have been other recent examples of how casinos could unknowingly become part of the narrative in such cases.
For instance, in early October, a search-and-rescue nonprofit was combing through a wooded area in the eastern part of Florida’s Hillsborough County, in a community known as Keysville, for 21-year-old Kelly Vazquez, whose family has not seen her since May 23. Kelly had returned home to her grandmother’s house around 9 a.m. on May 23, saying she’d gone to a casino in Tampa the night before.
She picked up some clothes, said she’d be back in a few hours, and left again with a man she was dating, her grandmother Maria Vazquez said. A friend who had seen Kelly in the afternoon on the same day said Kelly mentioned that she may visit the casino again. Kelly’s grandmother said they’ve heard of all kinds of stories as a possible cause — from overdose to trafficking. But for the moment, detectives say it’s all hearsay. Per one report, though, three women of color (including Kelly) went missing around the same area, around the same time and each case has similar, yet peculiar, details.
But why does the human trafficking system target casinos as venues for their illicit activities?
First, though, what exactly is the definition of human trafficking? As we mentioned in our earlier piece on the non-profit Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), it is widely considered to be a form of slavery, where people — mostly but not exclusively young girls and women — are traded like commodities for various purposes like manual labor, “working” as household servants, or being forced into commercial sex work. Per the International Labor Organisation, the “industry” makes around $150 billion a year for criminals, and it is estimated that there are more than 40 million people worldwide who are victims of human trafficking.
Human trafficking occurs throughout the United States. In 2015, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a non-governmental organization that operates a hotline to receive reports or provide information about human trafficking, received multiple reports concerning human trafficking in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to a 2017 report published by the Department of Justice. In that report, the DOJ adds that “pimps often target children at bus stops and train stations, schools, strip clubs, casinos, group homes, truck stops, and through social networking and escort websites.”
Human Trafficking In The Legitimate Travel Industry
According to the Colorado-based TAT, there have been instances where sex trafficking survivors reported that casinos were used as a meeting place for buyers, some of whom were solicited online, or as a venue to solicit prospective buyers. But, on the other hand, casinos can also become a refuge for victims and offer them a secure location from where they can seek help or try and escape their situation. It’s this intersection of the two that uniquely positions casinos, like it does truckers, as another crucial aspect of the fight against human trafficking.
To begin with a simple example, drivers of buses that carry patrons to and from casinos could — again, like truck drivers — come into contact with trafficking victims who are being transported. Or these victims may be trying to use these buses as a way to run away from their situations. In the next part of this piece, we will further explore how human trafficking can occur at legitimate casinos without anyone’s knowledge.
Globally, not just in the U.S., the travel industry is an unknowing conduit for human trafficking, says a training document for front-line staff published by MPI (Meeting Professionals International), a meeting and event thought-leader. Traffickers are known to exploit legitimate businesses to their advantage.
When it comes to hotels and casinos, traffickers also tend to use them as venues since buyers most likely already have a room there. And traffickers are always looking to cut costs. When operating at a casino or hotel-casino, the traffickers may be with their victims, or on the premises, or may send their victims to the casinos to find buyers on their own, the TAT guidelines for casinos and bus operators (Busing on the Lookout) says.
If they are on the premises, while their victims are working, traffickers may go to a hang-out area and entertain themselves with drinks and play games. Even when victims are on the premises without their trafficker, there may be a strong trauma-bond (powerful emotional attachments that occur as a result of cycles of abuse), which makes it more likely that victims will stick to a scripted story, refuse to cooperate, or claim they are there by “choice,” the TAT guideline adds.
Sex trafficking in casinos tends to have its own set of rules that the traffickers and victims will follow based, in part, on the operations and culture of the casino itself, the TAT toolkit says. Given that, there tend to be two categories of victims: those who are new to being trafficked at casinos and may have a harder time approaching buyers and are, consequently, easier to spot; and those who already have experience at casinos and are more likely to know the casino floor plan, work hours of staff members, etc.
Per the MPI document, if a trafficker plans to use a casino as a meeting venue, the individual will learn the hours and operations of the casinos, as well as the schedules of the head of security and pit bosses. In contrast, the same traffickers will want to avoid businesses whose staff have the reputation of being trained to recognize human trafficking and are willing to report it to law enforcement. That’s where the role of casinos in fighting human trafficking really starts, with training employees on identifying and reporting it.
Buyers of commercial sex work at casinos, too, tend to fall into two main categories, per the TAT report. There are the repeat buyers who have been to casinos to purchase prostituted people before and have returned with the intention of purchasing sex again. And then there are the new or “opportunistic” buyers, who have either not purchased sex before or who did not come to the casino with a plan or the intention of purchasing sex. Warning signs and posters are said to be an effective deterrent for opportunistic buyers.
At hotels and casinos, it’s the busier seasons that tend to both increase patronage to the casinos and the illicit demand for purchasing sex at them. According to TAT, studies have also found a correlation between major events and increases in sex trafficking, because of increases in demand for commercial sex during those events, especially for those in which there are large numbers of men visiting from out of town. These spikes occur during sports events, concerts or music festivals, trade shows, and conferences.
There is no standard outfit of choice to identify victims of human trafficking at casinos. They will be dressed based on what they think will appeal to buyers in that location, but will also try not to dress in a way that stands out as inappropriate for the season or their age. There have even been some instances where rogue casino or hotel staff have been reported as acting as middlemen in setting up prostituted people with buyers. This is where background screenings of employees plays a crucial role.
“When I was being trafficked, people assumed I was a prostitute. My trafficking was hidden in plain sight, in the middle of casinos on the
Las Vegas strip around thousands of people a day […]. My life was in danger if I didn’t make money for my trafficker. Everyone thought they knew what I was, so no one asked; but if someone stopped to talk to me maybe they would have found out what was happening to me,” survivor-leader Annika Huff says in the TAT toolkit, which she created.
In the next part of this mini series, we will explore the various red flags that casinos can look for to identify possible human trafficking at their venues, and what they can do in those circumstances.
Anyone wanting to report potential trafficking or victims in need of help can call 911 for emergencies or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
In addition, Truckers Against Trafficking can be contacted for help or getting certified at 612-888-2050.