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Valley agencies fight to stop human trafficking year-round, not just during big events

MCSO and the Phoenix Dream Center are tracking the sex trafficking threat closely, and say reported cases do increase, but not much with more people in the Valley.
Credit: Jen Wahl

PHOENIX — The Valley is officially full of sports fans enjoying the WM Phoenix Open and pre-Super Bowl parties. But along with the festivities also come dark threats that multiple law enforcement agencies are tracking closely right now.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office's preparation to fight human trafficking started months ago with training. Now they’re putting that training to use on our Valley streets. While that’s happening, the Phoenix Dream Center has also increased awareness around the sex trafficking issue.

Shauna Sexton is trying to help rescue victims in the Valley and recently shared her painful experience of being caught in human trafficking herself.

"I knew I was in danger when it really started happening but I had no way out,” Sexton said. 

Believing she had no way out, a gun malfunction unexpectedly saved her life.

“I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger and the gun backfired," Sexton said. "He tackled me and when the gun hit the ground, the gun went off. And so a gun going off at a hotel room. Police show up.”

Police rescued Sexton that day. Now, she directs human trafficking programs at the Phoenix Dream Center. She said big events like the Super Bowl start up human trafficking activity some, simply because there are more buyers in town.

“But the amount of human trafficking, I wouldn’t say changes much," Sexton said. "Other than there’s a more frequent buyer presence here.”

Lt. Dmitrius Whelan-Gonzales with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said the agency started training more than 100 officers prior to the Big Game. They're learning to recognize signs of sex trafficking and MCSO is just one agency with boots on the ground around this week’s Valley sporting events.

“Law enforcement will be running ads and responding to ads as a deterrent," Whelan-Gonzales said. "Most of the traffickers know this so it’s a game of cat and mouse.”

Sex trafficking is a problem 365 days a year in the Valley. While Whelan-Gonzales and his team are on high alert especially with all of the big sporting events, he also said the numbers of reported cases don’t change much.

“Overall number stays relatively the same," Whelan-Gonzales said. "It increases a little bit. But the instances of juvenile victims being offered for sex, unfortunately it does increase.”

A 2011 study by Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women also revealed there’s, “no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.” While there’s not a large spike in sex trafficking cases around large sporting events, the Phoenix Dream Center said they served about 200 victims in the past year. The center adds it’s hard to put a number on the number of people trafficked every year because most cases are not reported.

And there are signs we can all watch out for. 

“Women that are having a little bit of lower self-esteem, maybe not giving eye contact, it's bruising's, it's brandings, it's markings," Sexton said. 

She adds it’s important not to approach anyone you might think could be a trafficking victim because it can be dangerous for both you and them.

Instead of approaching someone you think might be a victim, Sexton recommends calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline to make a report. The number is 1-888-373-7888.

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