SALT LAKE CITY — “There are more slaves in the world today than at the time of Abraham Lincoln.”
Meet Fernando Rivero. A veteran fire captain with a master's degree in public health, Rivero serves as chairman of the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force’s education committee and is a member of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Salt Lake Sexual Assault Response Team.
In a lecture sponsored by the University of Utah’s global justice center and the social justice student initiative, Rivero spoke to a packed auditorium of S.J. Quinney law students about sex and labor trafficking on Thursday afternoon.
“Human trafficking, put simply, is modern-day slavery,” he said.
Rivero titled his lecture “The Invisible Crime,” a reference to trafficking’s dangerously inconspicuous nature.
“We call human trafficking the invisible crime because it’s all around us, but a lot of us don’t see it. We don’t know the red flags,” he said.
Thursday’s address covered the basics of both labor and sex trafficking before narrowing to focus on red risk factors and warning signs for child sex trafficking.
According to Rivero, human trafficking is a $36 billion industry. In terms of black market value, it is second only to the illegal drug trade, which analysts say it will soon surpass. An estimated 30 million people worldwide are exploited by sex traffickers every year; 200,000 of them are underage girls in the United States.
Although the name may suggest otherwise, Rivero said human trafficking does not necessarily include movement of a person. Unlike smuggling, which is typically consensual, trafficking is the exploitation of another through force, fraud or coercion. As Rivero put it, “trafficking is exploitation-based, smuggling is transportation-based.”
Rivero also clarified several misconceptions about trafficking, noting that it is neither just the problem of immigrants or the developing world.
“One of the biggest myths about human trafficking is that it only happens in third-world countries,” he said. “That is a myth. It happens right here in our backyard.”
Rivero said it is not uncommon to unknowingly see and interact with victims of labor exploitation, who often work in industries as diverse as housekeeping and childcare, agriculture, mall kiosks and door-to-door sales, construction, etc.
“What do you see in common here?” Rivero asked, before answering his own question: “Nothing. Victims could be anywhere. We always need to have our eyes open.”
In contrast, businesses harboring victims of sex trafficking are often relatively easy to identify. Massage parlors, escort services, strip clubs, even seedy motels — “Any business we associate with sex work can potentially be a front for human trafficking,” Rivero said.
His lecture focused most specifically on child sex trafficking, which makes up far too large a portion of the industry, Rivero said. The average underage victim in the U.S. will enter prostitution or pornography between ages 12 to 14, and is typically sold for sex 10 to 15 times per day. In contrast to adult women, who earn an average of $20 to $50 per hour, children can make up to $400 per hour for their pimp or trafficker.
Although anyone can be a victim of trafficking, Rivero identified several potential risk factors. Traffickers tend to target vulnerable populations like homeless youth and victims of prior abuse by offering to meet the children’s basic needs for food, money and affection.
“It’s not always a snatch and grab,” he said of children’s initiation into sex work. “(Traffickers) are very, very good at recognizing and manipulating vulnerabilities.”
Rivero gave his audience of aspiring legal professionals several pointers on talking to clients that they suspect or know have been victims of human trafficking, telling the students to isolate the potential victim from their intimidator before asking probing questions about the client’s situation.
“Are you free to contact your friends and family?” “Are you in charge of your own documents and finances?” “Does he attempt to physically control or discipline you?”
Rivero said future policy must include efforts to eliminate the demand for illicit sex work and prosecute traffickers, but should ultimately be a “victim-centered approach,” including access to job retraining and physical and mental health services.
“We need to be spending just as much time helping the victim as we do prosecuting the trafficker,” he said. “When we talk about ‘rescue,’ it needs to be an all-inclusive thing that goes all the way from removing the victim (from exploitative situations) to rehabilitating them.”
Rivero said vigilance and awareness are critical to reducing and eliminating human trafficking in Utah. He encouraged anyone with concerns or suspicions about potential exploitation to speak up.
“Each one of us in here can make a difference on this problem,” he said. “Many victims feel they have no voice or that no one will speak for them, so that’s what we need to do. We need to be their voice. We need to speak for them and get them help.”