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Officials target sex trade

Forty-five dollars can't buy a pair of designer jeans or a Nintendo Wii, but it almost bought one man a 12-year-old child on Fremont Street just over a year ago.

The minor, who admitted she was selling the man sex for the cash, was arrested.

The 47-year-old would-be customer, who had the cash hanging out of his pocket, was given a citation.

"The real crime is we're not prosecuting the adults that are preying on these children," said Clark County Deputy Public Defender Susan Roske.

Roske met with other officials Friday to discuss the growing demand for sex with minors in Las Vegas and worldwide, and to review a report and documentary by Shared Hope International, a Virginia-based nonprofit group working to prevent sex tourism and provide support for boys and girls in the industry.

The report, titled "Demand," looked at the business side of sex tourism and the roles played by buyers, recruiters and facilitators that sustain and fuel the demand for illegal sex with minors.

"To stop trafficking, buyers must stop buying," said Linda Smith, president and founder of Shared Hope.

An estimated 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States each year, the report states. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country each year is between 100,000 and 300,000, according to the report.

Researchers focused on Las Vegas, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., because they are destinations for U.S. and international tourists and have commercial sex markets that cater to a broad clientele.

In Las Vegas, there is a culture of tolerance toward sex work, said Terri Miller, director of the Anti-Trafficking League Against Slavery, or ATLAS, a Metropolitan Police Department program.

It's an environment that makes it OK to view pornography, attend a bachelor party where customers receive lap dances, and go to a strip club for lunch, Smith said.

Las Vegas' reputation as Sin City is also part of the problem, Miller said. With ample strip clubs, escort services and legal prostitution in neighboring counties, visitors "come to this city to exploit women for their pleasure and walk away unscathed," she said.

Girls of all races and ages can be brought home, delivered or consumed on the spot with little risk to the Las Vegas customer, Smith said.

The people purchasing trafficked women aren't necessarily pedophiles, Smith said; they're opportunistic buyers "shaped by the intensified sex market and increased normalization of sex in our society."

According to the report, Las Vegas police arrested 153 minors for prostitution last year. No buyers and only two pimps were arrested in connection with those cases.

The number of people arrested by Las Vegas police for being involved in the selling or buying of minors increased from 209 in 2005 to 501 so far this year, Las Vegas police Lt. Brian Evans said.

When girls are taken into custody for prostitution they are strip searched, forced to change into used clothes and paper underwear and left to sleep in cells, Roske said.

They wear shackles, belly chains and irons on their feet for an average of 20 days, she added.

"It's a dehumanizing process that re-victimizes them," Miller said.

Las Vegas has no services other than youth detention centers for victims of sex trafficking who are taken into custody during the middle of the night.

"What do you do when you have a juvenile victim in your custody from South Carolina who was picked up outside of Mandalay Bay?" Evans asked. "What do you do with her at 2 a.m.?"

As soon as authorities identify a sex worker as a juvenile, a detective investigates. But, Evans said, without the juvenile's help, it's often hard to identify and arrest the person who facilitated her sale. Young girls are often in a controlled relationship with their seller and they want to protect them, he said.

"The hardest part about these interviews with the juveniles is convincing them they are a victim," said Evans.

Besides the girl, authorities have to work hard to convince the judges, district attorneys and other authorities that these people are victims and not criminals, Evans said.

"We don't hold drugs or guns responsible for the crime, nor should we hold these victims," Miller said.

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