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Activists and law enforcement working to stop sex trafficking during Super Bowl week


Big events typically bring in influx of the crime

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Big sporting events bring in travelers with plenty of money to spend and that can attract sex traffickers who are looking to exploit young women, activists say.

In addition to law enforcement working to stop the crime, activists are heading to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

What are people doing?

One of the activists against human sex trafficking is doing her part to clean it up one bar of soap at a time.

Theresa Flores, founder of the S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) is distributing small bars of soap that are packaged with a message that says: “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted? Call this number: 1-888-373-7888."

Volunteers attach the labels on the packets, which are placed in bathrooms in hotels and other businesses, the Atlanta Journal- Constitution reported. The hope is that potential victims and others will see the message and call the hotline number.

“This is our eighth Super Bowl," Flores told the Journal-Constitution. “We've given away 1 million bars."

Flores was pulled into trafficking in the 1980s, while she was a high school freshman, according to the report. It happened after her family moved to an affluent Detroit suburb and “a guy she had a crush on offered her a ride after school." But, she said, he took her to his home, and drugged Flores with a spiked glass of soda.

He and two other males reportedly took nude photos of her while she was drugged and blackmailed her into prostitution. She told the paper that she would sneak out at night to meet her "captors," saying they threatened to kill her family if she said anything.

What are local authorities doing?

In addition to Flores' effort, the city of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are holding the ATL End Human Trafficking Summit on Tuesday at the Georgia International Convention Center.

“The city of Atlanta is committed to ending human trafficking of all people," Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement.

Mary Frances Bowley, founder and executive director of Wellspring Living, is another activist targeting the Super Bowl, according to the report. Her organization offers residential programs for girls and young women, along with jobs training and life skills workshops.

“There will be more opportunity for trafficking to happen," Bowley told the news outlet. “The traffickers know that. A lot of times, because there's so much mind coercion, girls don't always walk away."

What evidence is there?

Whether the Super Bowl should be viewed as a major sex trafficking event is questioned by some. There are no definitive statistics on the problem; it's mostly anecdotal.

But police said that their training ahead of the Super Bowl has already led to at least one arrest. Gwinnett County officials are prosecuting a Riverdale woman who allegedly ran "a sex trafficking operation involving 14- and 15-year-old girls," the Journal-Constitution reported.

Also, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds sued a Masters Inn under Georgia's public nuisance law for alleged sex-trafficking activity. The motel has since "agreed to add armed guards, confirm guests with photo IDs and hang posters warning against sex trafficking," according to the report.

Last year, four people were arrested after a 15-year-old girl told police she was forced to have sex with numerous men at a Marietta Days Inn, according to the Journal-Constitution.

In 2018, the anti-slavery group Polaris added more staff to its anti-trafficking hotline during the Super Bowl. But chief executive Bradley Myles said at the time that caution should be used in casting the sporting event as a major sex trafficking magnet, Reuters reported.

"All this is, is a one-day snapshot into what otherwise is a 365-day problem," Myles told Reuters last year.

Lauren Martin, a University of Minnesota trafficking expert, reviewed "55 academic papers and more than 100 media stories about prostitution and the Super Bowl," according to the report. Martin said the spike in sex trafficking connected to the Super Bowl likely caused because "5 to 20 percent of sex workers are trafficking victims."

"The same traffickers that are committing trafficking ... during the Super Bowl, they're going to wake up in the morning on Monday and do the same thing," she told the news outlet.

"The commercial sex market grows modestly during Super Bowls," but the same thing happens during other big events, such as the Las Vegas consumer electronics show, for example, Martin said.

What can people watch for?

Some warning signs can be a young girl or woman with an older male who appears very controlling, a group of young women who are with an older man (or woman). Super Bowl attendees who are looking out for trafficking victims can use a gut instinct approach, Bowley told the news outlet.

“If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't right," Bowley said, noting that it's best to call authorities rather than intervene.

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