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Human trafficking a local problem, DHS agent says

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Updated: December 8, 2012 6:38AM



ELGIN — One of the most egregious examples of human trafficking that Department of Homeland Security Special Agent Peter Wilt has ever seen occurred in a Cook County massage parlor, not 25 minutes from Elgin, he told an audience here Monday night.

In that case, a federal jury found Alex “Daddy” Campbell guilty on Jan. 20 of three counts each of forced labor, harboring illegal immigrants for financial gain, and confiscating passports and other immigration documents to force the victims to work. He also was convicted of sex-trafficking by force and extortion, according to a Sun-Times Media story after the conviction.

Four victims, all foreign-born women, were forced to work and live at the massage parlors and made to perform sexual acts for clients. He also branded the women on the neck with a horseshoe tattoo — marking them as his property, Wilt said.

Wilt, who supervises the DHS’ human trafficking unit for the Chicago area, spoke at Elgin’s Family Life Church. For a little more than a year, a local coalition of activists has met there each month to learn more about the problem of human trafficking in the U.S. and across the world, said Jennifer Benson, one of the group’s organizers.

“There are a bunch of the churches in the area that are more aware of it through missionaries and groups working in the States,” Benson said. The group’s purpose, Benson said, was to educate local residents about the issue.

“People know about (trafficking in) Thailand, eastern Europe, but also there is a lot of human trafficking in the States, and Chicago … a lot of people get transitioned back and forth” through this area, she said.

Developing leads

Wilt makes his presentation throughout Chicago and the suburbs to inform residents about the issue — and help Homeland Security generate leads and develop cases, he said.

Human trafficking is defined as “the act of holding someone against their will for forced labor or commercial sex,” Wilt said.

Finding the perpetrators is difficult because the victims are hidden away and often too afraid to seek help, he said.

“Victims don’t come forward on their own — it is the nature of the crime that they are subject to,” Wilt said.

Often, these women and girls believe they are “part of the scheme. They are convinced that it is something they want to do, and presented to them that they have no other choice … until presented (to them) that there is a life outside that,” Wilt said.

There are indicators that can give residents notice that something might not be right, and that someone might be a trafficking victim, Wilt said.

Those indicators involve questions such as:

Is the victim in possession of ID and travel documents? If not, who has control of them?

Was the victim coached on what to say to law enforcement and immigration officials?

Has the victim been threatened with deportation or law enforcement action?

Does the victim have freedom of movement, or is the victim allowed to socialize or attend religious services?

Call in details

If residents suspect something is wrong, they should contact local police or the human trafficking hotline, Wilt said. But just reporting suspicions is not enough, he said. They need details.

“Leads all go through our tip line, but we only have so many investigators,” Wilt said. “That is why it is important — what we need is identifiable facts. We need the address, the time frame. When did you see cars? Write down the plates and a description. What did you see happen? The more verifiable facts … the higher the level of veracity.” Each tip will be checked, he said, but ones with more information rise to the top.

Areas such as Elgin, with large immigrant populations, are ripe for trafficking, he added.

“A large immigrant population creates a readily available pool” of potential victims, he said.

American citizens can be trafficked as well, he said. “It is more difficult … but it does frequently occur,” he said.

Agents like himself — and people who are aware of the problem and willing to report suspicions — are often the only way traffickers can be stopped, Wilt said.

“Trafficking victims are really voiceless, for a number or reasons,” Wilt said. “You can keep our eyes out … the reports that you provide are key to our ability to do our job.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 888-373-7888.



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