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Human Trafficking in Our Backyard. Poster: <a href="<br />">John Eng Cheng, Inheritance Magazine</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Human Trafficking in Our Backyard. Poster: John Eng Cheng, Inheritance Magazine, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Four kinds of human trafficking in the North Country

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More than 40 agencies across the North Country are coming together to fight some of the darkest underground crimes. The North Country Human Trafficking task force says smuggling rings funnel vulnerable people into forced prostitution, indentured servitude, and debt bondage. And while it's not common, it is happening here in the North Country.

The task force is holding trainings to help law enforcement, not-for-profits, and churches learn to identify victims of human trafficking. David Sommerstein attended one in Canton.

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David Sommerstein
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At the training, North Country Human Trafficking Task Force organizer Gonzalo Martínez de Vedia tells about 40 people - a very mixed audience including domestic violence prevention and church volunteers, an Ogdensburg city police officer,  and federal Homeland Security agents from the border in Massena - a real story about human trafficking in Upstate New York.

There was a woman working on a farm in New York State, an undocumented immigrant. She arranged for “coyotes” to smuggle her brother across the Mexican border and join her.

But neither she nor her brother had the money to pay up front. So smugglers, working with the “coyotes” in Mexico, offered her a job cleaning houses. "She was told, I have jobs that will allow you to make more money per hour," says Martínez de Vedia. "So you can start at least paying some of the money so that they don’t hurt your brother.

Martinez de Vedia, a human trafficking specialist with the Worker Justice Center of New York, says at first, the woman was actually brought to clean houses for $25 a hour.

But eventually, the traffickers warned they needed the money quicker, or else they would hurt her brother. She was introduced to men – and prostitution – and threatened if she told anyone. "'Why don’t you go along with us?'" Martinez de Vedia says the traffickers threaten, "'because if you don’t, we wouldn’t want to tell your husband about this cheating, would we? What if we told your family? What would they think, that you got yourself into a situation like that?' They're playing into the self-blame."

This kind of coercion is one of the signature signs of human trafficking, a range of crimes that occur in the shadows all around the U.S. Martinez de Vedia and law enforcement agree that human trafficking is not exactly "common" in the North Country. But it definitely does exist.

Here are four kinds of human trafficking that occur in the North Country:

1. Farm worker abuse & other labor trafficking - Martinez de Vedia says this is the most common form of trafficking in the North Country. It most often involves undocumented farm workers, particularly on the region’s dairy farms.

For many of these mostly Hispanic dairy workers, their employment is just a business relationship with the farmer. But because they’re in the country illegally, they’re vulnerable – to the traffickers who drove them here from the Mexican border, to the person who sold them false social security cards and drivers licenses, even to the farmers themselves.

The workers can become indebted to the smugglers or contractor middlemen, known as "contratistas", and then coerced into unsafe work environments or forced to accept low wages. And if there’s a problem, Martinez de Vedia says, many of the victims can’t explain it in English, or they’re fearful of reaching out to the police.

"They might think if they cooperate with the law, they might be the ones who are victimized by the system," says Martínez de Vedia. "They might end up in deportation proceedings. They might think that even if they bring to light a trafficking situation and cooperate with an investigation, law enforcement still wouldn’t be able to protect them from retaliation from the traffickers."

2. Pass-through smuggling - State trooper Lieutenant Scott Heggelke, the state police's Northern border coodinator, says his team recently cracked a case of people being smuggled into Canada through the North Country from the Pennsylvania line.

Heggelke and other members of the task force says many trafficking crimes are cross-border. The New York border with Canada, along with that along the Washington State border, are widely considered the most susceptible to smuggling and trafficking.

3. Forced prostitution involving local "Johns" in the North Country - Martinez de Vedia says the task force is dealing with active cases involving prostitutes from cities like Montreal being trafficked to “Johns” in the North Country. He says mostly women or girls are trafficking to prostitute in various places. He says the traffickers move them around frequently so they don't have the time to develop local relationships and escape the ring.

Lieutenant Heggelke says these are not very common in the North Country, "but then again, if we have one victim, that’s one too many."

4. Foreign women kept against their will - Ilene Burke, director of Renewal House in Canton - a refuge for women fleeing domestic abuse - says she encounters women who might be considered so-called “mail order brides.”

The women are foreign nationals. Their partners may have taken their passports, or may be forcing them to stay in the house. "They aren’t able to do what they want to do or that they would be able to live here freely," Burke says. "So they have come to us through friends or someone that they know and then we’ve been able to help them get on to that right path and get documentation for immigration and everything for them."

These cases may not be part of a smuggling ring, but what they share with trafficking is coercion and an imbalance of power.

Martinez de Vedia says the task force has already helped “a few” victims get out of a trafficking situation. "Escaping the ring, prosecuting their traffickers and, ultimately, becoming survivors," Martínez de Vedia says, "so that’s definitely been a positive experience."

Martinez de Vedia says with more agencies coming on board, he hopes the North Country Human Trafficking Task Force will help more victims take that brave first step of emerging from the darkness.

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