Human rights advocates coordinated an education seminar at Memorial Auditorium in McCook Saturday, in an attempt to raise awareness of the issues and help find answers.
"Getting people to believe the situation is real is our biggest problem," said State Sen. Mark Christensen, one of six speakers who shared time speaking to those in attendance.
Al Riskowski of the Nebraska Family Council said Christensen is the most helpful senator for his group at the state level and echoed the sentiment that "our biggest difficulty is disbelief," said Riskowski.
Riskowski addressed the forced labor side of the human trafficking issue, citing Hispanic men working for Nebraska farmers without pay and in unacceptable conditions.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has investigated a number of labor cases involving human trafficking and the FBI has started the "Innocence Lost" program in Omaha that attempts to rescue minors out of the sex trade, Riskowski said.
"It's occurring enough in the Omaha area that the FBI is targeting it. Every statistic shows us there are more slaves in the U.S. now than there were in 1850," he said.
Riskowski described Nebraska's human trafficking laws as outdated and said his group had been working for more than four years on one bill in particular.
He gave an example of an offender being sentenced to 25 years in Iowa and said, "That's what I want to happen in Nebraska. If this same individual had been arrested in Nebraska for the same crime, it would have been a misdemeanor."
Christensen said senators did not want to talk about the topic on the legislative floor. "It is an embarrassing topic and some simply don't believe it. I was once one of them."
Christensen said Interstate 80 is one of the main sex trafficking corridors in the nation right now and noted how difficult it was for local law enforcement to address the issue when the girls involved are typically in the state for less than a week.
"We need to tighten up our laws," said Christensen, who added that doing so was not an easy task.
Christensen introduced a bill in January, LB 513, that created a permit structure for escort agencies that would be implemented by local governing bodies. The fee structure of the bill was such that it would have been self-sufficient from a budgeting standpoint and yet it was met with much resistance.
Christensen said he was heart broken on several occasions to witness other senators working to prevent the bill from reaching the floor for open discussion. The pinnacle when Gov. Dave Heineman said it was nothing more than Christensen's attempt to legalize prostitution.
Christensen said later that it was a member of Heineman's staff that actually made the comment, but the damage to the bill was the same.
According to the bill's statement of intent, in order for an escort agency to receive a permit, the local governing agency would be required to obtain fingerprints, criminal history and proof that all employees are at least 18 years old, as well as other information.
The permit process could have be an invaluable tool in ending some of the underage forced prostitution incidents that advocates say citizens and senators alike find difficult to discuss.
FBI Special Agent Anna Brewer confirmed that in her opinion, lax Nebraska laws were part of the problem.
Brewer was once the FBI's crimes against children coordinator and she recounted several terrifying scenarios of underage girls being abducted and forced into sex trafficking operations that bounced their victims from one state after another, often using escort services, strip clubs and massage parlors as bases of operation.
The criminal groups moved from one area to the next, usually before local law enforcement was even aware of their presence.
Brewer has been with the FBI since 1995 and said that when she transferred to Nebraska from Nevada in 2009, a fellow-agent commented that sex trafficking crimes such as those that she had worked in other states did not happen in Nebraska.
Brewer was assigned to the Nebraska violent crime squad and she quickly applied her expertise, starting a child prostitution task force with the Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, police departments.
With the assistance of the task force officers Brewer was able to address a crime problem that was not being addressed as aggressively in previous years. The results have confirmed that even in Nebraska there is a human trafficking crime problem.
Brewer conducted a sting operation in Council Bluffs involving an Omaha couple, that led to four offenders receiving prison sentences. Mary Crane-Horton, 32, was sentenced in February 2011 to 171⁄2 years in prison and her husband, 35-year-old Nate Horton, was sentenced to 141⁄2 years. Charges against the couple stemmed from their involvement in the running of a prostitution ring that included several young woman and the coercing of a 15-year-old girl to perform sex acts on multiple occasions.
According to a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney Office for the Southern District of Iowa, the Hortons admitted to physical assaults and threats of physical assaults during coercion of the girls.
Brewer's stories pertaining to the violent nature of the sex trafficking operations were nothing short of frightening to those in attendance, but it was clear the scenarios were distressing even to the experienced FBI agent telling them.
The Lincoln police department conducted a solicitation sting that targeted the men creating such high demand for the illegal activities. The plan was a simple one and sounded like it was straight out of any TV crime show. An undercover officer posed as a prostitute and was positioned at South 11th Street and E Street in Lincoln, the corner where the Nebraska Family Council office is located.
The officers were surprised to see her approached less than five minutes after the operation began.
The man who approached the undercover officer led her to a nearby apartment room, and once inside immediately changed his demeanor. He informed the officer, whom he believed to be a prostitute, that he now "owned her" and that she was going to work for him in another state or he was going to beat her within inches of her life.
Thankfully, the agent was under close surveillance and the man was quickly arrested without incident. Brewer said the scenario was a wake-up call to the violent nature of the trade.
Brewer said the forced-sex trade is typically happening during the work days, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., while the men using prostitutes are at work. "They can tell their secretaries they have errands to run or a lunch meeting to attend," said Brewer, who added that "it's a lot easier for them to get away during the day, then it is in the evenings when they have to return home to their wives."
The Internet is playing a big role in how the criminal groups attract their clients, with Brewer displaying an ad she had found during a cursory search the evening prior. The ad showed a prostitute masked as an escort service and listed availability in North Platte in the coming weeks.
The Internet may be playing just as important a role in law enforcement agencies tracking of the criminals, however. When asked if the Web was to blame, Brewer was quick to point out her distaste for the Internet, but said "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know," and explained that the shutting down of websites involved would just cause the criminal organizations to shift to another means of communicating with their clients, creating a period of time where law enforcement agencies would be in the dark.
Brewer and the other speakers during the seminar all agreed that raising awareness of the activities and lifting the veil of denial from lawmakers was a critical first step towards combating the violent trade.
Citizen awareness that the crimes occur, and asking "that extra question" when out-of-the-norm situations presented themselves, could have a dramatic positive impact. Examples and prevention tactics that were discussed included being watchful of single men traveling with multiple woman of varying ethnic background; hotel employees being educated to report rooms that were found to have trash cans containing a high number of used condoms; as well as monitored and restricted use of the Internet for children.
While advocates admitted there were exceptions to every rule, they stressed the importance of human trafficking being treated similarly to the manner in which we treat domestic violence today, ending the practice of turning away from uncomfortable scenarios, asking the extra questions and working as a community to put a stop to it.