Experts explore drug factors in human trafficking

W. Va. — The definition of coercion gets murky when human trafficking is coupled with the drug epidemic.

Karen Haring, executive director of Liberia Inc., said in her work to empower women and girls in the state, she comes across those who have been trafficked with drugs involved.

“I’ve actually worked with some women who have not just recently come out of trafficking but have been trafficked in the past. So, I am aware of women who have been trafficked in this state,” Haring said. …“So, I think when you go back to the trafficking definition, and there is force, fraud or coercion, in a situation like that, there was force. They were unable to fight back. I also think at times drugs can be used as the force, fraud or coercion in a different way if for instance, someone gets a woman or a girl hooked on drugs, and then they need the drug in some ways to keep going, that’s creating a dependency. That’s the force, fraud or coercion talked about in the definition.”

Alison Bass, WVU assistant journalism professor and author of “Getting Screwed: sex workers and the law,” said the drug problem contributes to prostitution, not trafficking.

“The problem here is that in West Virginia you have a drug epidemic,” she said. “You have a lot of people who are addicted to drugs. They are selling sex to feed that addiction. That’s what’s going on in Westover, Morgantown, Granville and also Charleston and Huntington.

“These are by-and-large women over the age of 18, and they are doing it by choice. You could argue do they really have a choice, but it is a choice. It’s not that they are being coerced or physically forced to sell sex. The legal definition of trafficking is force or coercion. … There’s a strong difference between necessity and coercion.”

Westover Police Chief Richard Panico said the people working to get sex for drugs were being manipulated by drugs, but not trafficked.

“I think it has to do with drugs,” he said. “Trafficking. I’ve worked in human trafficking for the UN in Macedonia, Russia. We don’t have a human trafficking problem here. We have a person who is addicted to drugs and might be being manipulated by that. But that’s not what we consider human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is where I caught a guy coming through a pass one night with 10 women tied up in his boat with ropes around their necks. He was Turkish. We brought him in because all these girls were from Romania. He was using them for prostitution. That’s human trafficking.”

Panico said root cause analysis would say the involved party’s drug habit is the problem.

“If a girl gets high or strung out on drugs, and this guy says, ‘Hey, I want you to take care of my buddies over here.’ That’s not human trafficking, that’s a drug issue,” he said. “I try not to cross this over because we do root cause analysis. Root cause analysis says what? These girls are, or some cases might be specifically hooked on a drug for prostitution. That’s a girl that has come under the influence of drugs.”

“What they are trying to do is overreact to something, saying, if I throw this human trafficking on top of this, this will make it seem worse because everyone will be like, ‘Oh my God, trafficking as well as drugs.’ No. We call that discrediting.”

Panico said trafficking those who want charges in West Virginia are trying to emphasize the situation by involving trafficking.

“What we are doing is, we are tagging this trafficking on top of something innocuous as opposed to trafficking,” he said. “We are trying to emphasis the problem by saying that with drugs, you potentially have trafficking. But, it’s not in the content of what we consider, truly, and if you go by standards, you have to go by the federal standards of trafficking.

“The federal standard is that you have to have a premeditated plan that you actually go out and you promote this business and you use these avenues consistently over and over again and that would be human trafficking. But for me to have a girlfriend that I hooked on heroin and she throws tricks for me? That’s not a human trafficking. I mean I’m sorry. It’s a manipulation using the drugs.”

Nnenna Minimah, executive director of the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC) in Morgantown said there is correlation between the drug problem and coercive behavior, but that she couldn’t call it causal.

“We can’t say that it’s a causal thing, but there is a correlation,” she said. “I would say we could say that it is correlated because otherwise, you know, you would have law enforcement standing outside of every bar — I mean we are in Morgantown. They’d be down on High Street, and outside of every pharmacy or anything.

“I mean, it’s not only use of — alcohol is a legal drug that people might or might not think of, but as well as people who are prescribed drugs legally that could be either used by a perpetrator of coercive violence to maybe force — we’ve seen where people have told us they were forced to use drugs to get them forced on it.”

Minimah said some survivors will “seek out drugs to cope with the trauma and violence that’s going on. So, I mean it could be either way.

“Some survivors have said they may have used drugs, either legal or illegal prior to the violence or abuse going on in their relationship and then, like I said, they may begin using it more as a coping mechanism, or their partner may coerce them or encourage them to use more as a way to control.”

Assistant US Attorney General Andy Cogar said legally, drugs can play a part in trafficking, but are not always considered trafficking.

“If you have a situation where a john, a customer, a solicitor for commercial sex offers drugs to an addicted person in exchange for sex, that arguably is not trafficking,” he said. “It’s a fair assessment for some I think to consider it trafficking because you have to ask that question, ‘But for the offer of drugs, would that person engage in commercial sex?’ That’s where the compulsion element comes in.”

Cogar said when a trafficker uses drugs as “a pressure point or a tool for leverage to induce someone into prostitution who otherwise wouldn’t have been involved” then the situation is more clearly adult trafficking and has been prosecuted as such.

“One of the groundbreaking cases in that area was in a Tampa, Fla., area four to five years ago,” he said. “I attended training years ago with one of the prosecutors on that case. She described one of the adult victims in the trial as testifying, which actually started for purposes of background with this rough-looking biker guy who befriended some women in a strip club.

“They had kind of sorted backgrounds, but they weren’t known to be prostitutes, and they may have had some drug use, but they weren’t know to be addicted to opioids. He changed that. He eventually gave them a place to live in his trailer. He started a relationship with a dirty doctor. Got cheap pills from him. Gave the pills to the girls. Got them hooked on opioids. When they started having withdraw symptoms, he used that addiction to induce them into prostitution and profit from that, and also for his own personal sexual satisfaction.”

Cogar said in this instance, the man acted as a catalyst for adult commercial sex.

“Traffickers do that,” he said. “Drug dealers do that. And what’s interesting is… that a lot of criminal organizations, from street gangs, to MS13 and other multinational gangs are diversifying their business models and engaging in a lot more human trafficking because of its profitability. And, they are using their power and their threats and their weapons as gangs to maintain that business aspect of what they are doing.”

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