(FOX 9) - Two leading federal officials in Minnesota say human trafficking isn’t something happening in a far away locale, it’s happening across Minnesota every singe day.
“I’ve prosecuted cases that happened in Eagan and in affluent areas,” said U.S. Attorney Erica McDonald.
For McDonald and Tracy Cormier, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations, the approach is focused on the victim survivors.
“You will see someone who is terrified, and they don’t want to talk to law enforcement,” said Cormier. “And they don’t even consider themselves victims sometimes.”
The Twin Cities office for HSI - a division of Immigration, Customs & Enforcement that covers Minnesota, North and South Dakota - has arrested 558 people since 2016 for human trafficking. Among those who were arrested, 392 people were convicted for human trafficking offenses.
Previous federal efforts to confront and prevent sex trafficking have focused on educating workers in the sex and hospitality industries, but those efforts will be expanding to include hospitals and airports.
It was at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that federal investigators got a tip that three years ago unraveled one of the largest sex trafficking operations in the U.S.
Operation Bangkok Dark Nights led to the indictment of 38 people in a dozen cities around the country. The criminal network had seven locations in the Twin Cities where the woman worked under horrific conditions.
“These women were having sex with 12 men a night, and then forced to sleep in the same bed. How many women would make that choice voluntarily,” asked U.S. Attorney McDonald.
Investigators and prosecutors said sex trafficking is not just a new name for the oldest profession, but a form of modern slavery.
“It’s force, fraud and coercion. They’re not free to leave, and they have no choice in what’s going on. Those are the women we want to target with help,” said SAC Cormier.
Investigators said opioid addiction and homelessness have offered new ways for predators to control their victims.
Addionally, a recent survey by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health found as many as 5,000 Minnesota high school students had traded sex for food, drugs, money, or a place to stay.
HSI has a toll free tip line for human trafficking, staffed with investigators 24/7. The number is (866) 347-2493.