Tracy Frank, Published March 07 2013
'The darkest evil' | Fargo residents work to bring awareness to modern slavery crisis
What: Screening of “Nefarious, Merchant of Souls” documentary
Where: Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive, Fargo.
When: 4 to 6 p.m. March 17.
Info: Open to the public.
How to help
To report a tip, connect with anti-trafficking services, or request information, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at: 1-888-373-7888.
FARGO - After Lisa Hanson learned about human trafficking, she couldn’t sleep at night.
She would sit at her computer and cry, reading about the children who are beaten and tormented so they can be primed for a life of horror in child brothels.
“For me it’s just the darkest evil of all evils,” Hanson, of Fargo, said.
Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery where women, children and men are forced into prostitution, sexual exploitation, debt bondage or forced labor. It’s the second largest criminal industry in the world today, according to U.S. State Department. Yet, many people have no idea it is going on.
“I don’t know if people really understand human trafficking,” Hanson said. “So many people don’t even understand that slavery still exists.”
The U.S. Department of State estimates that 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. That means more people are being held in slavery now than at any point in human history, according to the website for the documentary, “Nefarious, Merchant of Souls,” which exposes the underworld of sex trafficking.
Human trafficking is considered one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world. Every year, traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits, according to Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking.
While Tanya Martineau was teaching English in South Korea a few years ago, she did photography work for orphanages and worked at a shelter that rescued trafficked women.
“It was very difficult, but I think they more changed me than I changed them,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t photograph the same way and continue living the same way.”
She and Than Baardson later founded the Fargo-based nonprofit Unseen Ministries to help groups that fight human trafficking, work to end hunger, and support orphans communicate their message.
“There are actually state-run orphanages selling girls at 16-years-old to the sex trade and then systematically murdering them at 18 and harvesting their organs,” Baardson said. “That’s the reality that the groups that we’re supporting are up against.”
While working with the organization, Help Save the Kids, which runs two orphanages on the border between Burma and Thailand, they witnessed children being saved from prostitution before poverty forced their parents to sell them into slavery.
“What we’ve found is hope lives,” Baardson said. “These are horrible atrocities committed against kids, the worst things imaginable, but there are people doing everything to save those kids.”
But it’s not just a problem that happens across the ocean.
There are hundreds of thousands of human trafficking victims in the United States, and an estimated 100,000 children in the sex trade in this country, according to Polaris Project.
It typically happens within street prostitution, online escort services, strip clubs, residential brothels and brothels disguised as massage businesses, Polaris Project states.
In North Dakota, the United States Attorney’s Office implemented a Human Trafficking Working Group at Fort Berthold Reservation as part of its Anti-Violence Strategy for Tribal Communities in June of 2011. The group was established to address the abuse of women and children through prostitution on the reservation, located between Minot and Williston in western North Dakota.
Because of the group, last April a New Town man was convicted on 16 counts of sex trafficking, sexual abuse, drug trafficking, and witness tampering.
“The concern that I have is that we certainly in western North Dakota have seen an increase in prostitution arrests,” North Dakota U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said. “Where you have prostitution, certainly you have the idea that some of those prostitutes are being trafficked.”
Increasing crime out west is overtaxing law enforcement resources to the point where they have to be reactive to crime and are not able to focus on organized criminal activity like human trafficking, he said.
“There’s a growing risk of this sort of activity in North Dakota in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” Purdon said.
Every month, Exodus Cry, a Missouri-based group dedicated to ending human trafficking through prayer, awareness, outreach and legislative reform, asks people to pray for a specific area where slavery persists. Western North Dakota was the focus in October.
Closer to home, both Fargo and Grand Forks police have made arrests related to human trafficking crimes in the past year.
Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said while Fargo has not had a strong history of human trafficking, there has been an increase in the past several years because of the opportunity websites such as Backpage and Craigslist give traffickers to advertise their victims online.
“We know it’s happening in our area, and we’re certainly keeping an eye on that,” Vettel said.
The department’s prostitution sting operations are an example of how they’re working to combat human trafficking, he said.
“People often say prostitution is a victimless crime. That is, in our opinion, incorrect,” Vettel said. “Not only is prostitution a crime, but it also promotes and breeds other crimes.”
Even children have been exploited for sex trafficking in the community, he said.
“We know we need to continue to be diligent because if we’re not, it’s going to continue to happen and become more prolific,” Vettel said. “It’s atrocious, and we’ve made it very clear we’re not going to tolerate it here in Fargo.”
According to Polaris Project, North Dakota has had 7 tip and crisis calls and 83 National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline calls since Dec. 7 of 2007.
Minnesota has had 85 tip and crisis calls and 458 hotline calls in the same timeframe.
Hanson is the director of family and women’s ministry for Atonement Lutheran Church in Fargo. She coordinates monthly speakers for the women’s group and first heard about human trafficking during one of those talks.
A congregation member’s niece, who works in Nepal and Minneapolis helping run safe houses and rescuing women and children out of human trafficking, spoke to the group about what she’s seen.
“It broke my heart into a million pieces, her photographs of these children behind bars and the men standing around them and her stories of rescued women,” Hanson said. “It changed me forever.”
Hanson knew she had to do something about it, so she spent a lot of time researching human trafficking and has made it her mission to raise awareness about the issue in her church and community, she said.
“It’s draining, emotionally,” said Hanson, who has two adolescent children of her own. “Sometimes, my husband tells me I have to pull away from it because it gets to be too much for me.”
The average age of a trafficked victim is 12 years old, and in some countries, infants are sold into trafficking for as little as $25, Hanson said.
Because corruption among border guards, police, soldiers and government officials helps sustain human trafficking, rescues are almost impossible, she said.
And people who are able to leave a trafficking situation are at risk of being trafficked again, according to the World Health Organization.
Victims are often tricked, lied to, threatened, assaulted, raped and confined, according to the State Department. They also may be forced to use drugs or alcohol, the World Health Organization states.
Traffickers routinely threaten to harm or kill the victims or their families if the victims ever report what is happening to law enforcement.
And a considerable number of prostituted minors and other trafficking victims are arrested every year in many countries, including the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The Fargo Police Department has sent investigators to training dealing with human trafficking so they can better identify when someone working as a prostitute is actually the victim of trafficking, Vettel said.
Safe Harbor laws define sexually exploited children as victims of abuse, help them find protection and support, and grant them immunity from prosecution for prostitution while they are younger than 18. Minnesota has safe harbor laws, but North Dakota does not, according to Polaris Project’s 2012 state ratings report.
Minnesota is among 21 states in Tier One of the report for passing significant laws to combat human trafficking. North Dakota is in Tier Three, the second to the lowest group.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526.