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Super Bowl not the culprit in human trafficking, advocate says

Super Bowl 58 is expected to draw an estimated 300,000-plus fans to visit Las Vegas this week.

Among the hordes of people descending on Las Vegas, a small percentage will be in town for a different reason — to prey upon vulnerable people, including children and young adults.

This year, those predators are up against a formidable coalition of local law enforcement officials, the state attorney general, the NFL, and anti-trafficking nonprofit agencies and organizations as well as other stakeholders. Efforts will focus on preventing human trafficking as well as raising awareness about it.

“It’s deeply troubling and utterly unacceptable that Las Vegas is on the top of cities in the United States for human trafficking, including the horrendous crime of child sexual exploitation trafficking,” Las Vegas Councilwoman Victoria Seaman said last month during a City Hall forum on human trafficking dubbed Rallying Resources to Fight Human Trafficking — How You Can Get Involved.”

The importance of raising awareness about human trafficking was underscored during the Formula 1 race in November when a police crackdown led to the arrest of 67 people and police contact with 215 potential victims, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Nevada has the third-highest rate in the country of trafficked people, behind just Mississippi and the District of Columbia, with 6.26 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the World Population Review, a California for-profit demographics analysis organization.

The event last month at the Las Vegas City Hall brought together nonprofit advocates and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies who discussed trafficking prevention among vulnerable youth, and the resources available for those who have fallen victim to it.

Susan Feneck, the CEO and founder of Juvenile Justice Impact, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and underserved families, said that members of those populations are “easy targets for traffickers who prey upon their vulnerability and lack of social protection.”

“Human trafficking is a grave violation of human rights targeting the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said. “It’s a modern day form of slavery that exploits the hopes and dreams of men, women (and) children; robbing them of their freedom, dignity and future.”

Making a difference

In Our Backyard, a Bend, Oregon-based nonprofit that works to raise awareness to prevent human trafficking, partners with law enforcement to discourage trafficking and identify and save victims and missing children. On Saturday, organizers spent the day training volunteers and then sending them out to convenience stores to raise awareness about the issues by posting signs with information such as how to get help.

Executive director Cheryl Csiky, a victim of trafficking herself at age 10, said the primary goal of In Our Backyard is to use the nation’s focus on the Super Bowl to educate people about the existence of human trafficking throughout America.

When the organization started 15 years ago, she said, members of In Our Backyard asked themselves, “What’s the one thing that everyone pays attention to in America to grab attention? And everyone watches the Super Bowl, so it was a natural fit,” Csiky said.

“It’s not that we discovered there’s any direct connection that human trafficking just increases because of the big game,” she said. “It’s more of a money-driven opportunity that traffickers also identify with.”

Csiky stressed that “we need folks to know that human trafficking is happening here in our backyard in the United States every single day.”

Among the places trafficked people visit, under the watch of their captors, are convenience stores and gas stations where they are steered to use the restroom and then are bought drinks and food before being exploited again, often sexually, Csiky said.

Her organization has registered more than 100 volunteers to visit local convenience stores and gas stations to urge store employees to report possible trafficking victims and to give permission for volunteers to place stickers in restrooms with the phone number of a national hotline for victims to call for help.

They also bring photos of missing children to the stores and ask employees if they have seen them, she said.

“They’re in that store all day long compared to you and I who might be grabbing whatever it is, cigarettes or snacks, gas. We’re in and out,” she said. “But those team members see people and every year we have instant identification, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that child in this area,’ and we take that right to law enforcement.”

Csiky and her volunteers in the valley work in collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement agencies using online resources to “identify children in the local area that we feel might be in a dangerous situation.”

She said she also keeps an eye on eight specific websites that solicit customers using trafficking victims to meet them, for instance, at a motel.

When she was trafficked at age 10, her first recruiter was her age, Csiky said.

“We have to make sure that the youth understand a trafficker will use another, your child, to gain the trust,” she said. “And the minute that isolation happens where you’re not really feeling able to talk to the safe adults in your life, that’s the largest red flag.”

Teaming up

Las Vegas Super Bowl Host Committee Charities and the NFL have joined forces to help combat the issue of human trafficking by giving financial support to Signs of HOPE, a nonprofit that helps people affected by sexual violence and exploitation, and four other nonprofit agencies, according to a release.

The Metropolitan Police Department, its Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force and nonprofit agencies have long dealt with human trafficking issues, offering programs providing aid to victims and prevention efforts.

The Human Trafficking Task Force last year selected Signs of HOPE and its RISE human trafficking program as the lead human trafficking nongovernmental organization for the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix, which took place in November, and for Super Bowl 58, the release said.

Signs of HOPE identified four other nonprofits to receive financial support from the Las Vegas Super Bowl Host Committee Charities and the NFL, bringing the total to five organizations to support ongoing efforts in Southern Nevada to reduce demand and protect vulnerable individuals, the release said.

Agape International Missions, a California-based organization aiming to end human trafficking, last month wrote an article on its website that touches on whether the Super Bowl itself necessarily brings more trafficking to its host city.

“The true answer is this – it’s hard to say,” the article states.

“It really comes down to basic numbers – where there are people the possibility of crime and trafficking increases. As the Super Bowl draws thousands of people to one location, this holds true.” it says. “Traffickers (and other criminals, for that matter) see that these events increase the number of potential victims and potential buyers. Therefore, the Super Bowl, along with every other major sporting event has the possibility of becoming a hotspot for human trafficking.”

Contact Jeff Burbank at jburbank@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0382. Follow him @JeffBurbank2 on X. Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com.

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