Eagle County enforcement tackles labor trafficking on the Western Slope

Ash Lohmann
Vail Daily

WESTERN SLOPE — January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Nationwide, law enforcement agencies strategize year-round to combat human trafficking. Locally, agencies do the same, but the focus is on labor trafficking, a subset of human trafficking most prevalent in and around Eagle County. 

Detective Thomas Wright, with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, sits on the board for Battlement to the Bells, an anti-trafficking task force made up of law enforcement officials across the state. He explained that western Colorado is no stranger to human trafficking. 

The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking is a national nonprofit that works alongside law enforcement agencies to fight trafficking cases. Wright said that the lab reported that throughout Colorado there is not a single county that hasn’t had some report of human trafficking.

Wright said the numbers for the Western Slope indicate a lower trend of trafficking in the area compared to the Front Range, likely due to population differences between the areas.

Demographic differences may also present a difference in the type of trafficking seen in rural Colorado compared to metropolitan areas, said Vail Police Detective Sargent Lachlan Crawford. 

“The whole white van pulling up and snatching kids or snatching people—it’s extremely rare here,” Crawford said. 

However, Wright explained that popular notions of what trafficking looks like may make more locally common trafficking, like labor trafficking, all the more difficult to recognize. 

“Everyone at this point has heard about human trafficking, but we always think about the movie ‘Taken,’ we always think about sex trafficking and there’s these girls and different things like that,” Wright said. “Human trafficking is so much broader.”

Wright said a goal of his at the Battlement to the Bells coalition is to make more people aware of what labor trafficking is and the fact that it could be happening right under their noses. 

Every January, Battlement to the Bells hosts a training for law enforcement officials to better recognize signs of human trafficking and prepare for working with agencies like the Department of Human Services and the FBI. This year, the training summit was held on Jan. 12 in Rifle at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. 

Typically, the summit also involves a public awareness training course. However, due to lack of public interest this year, Wright said the 2023 Battlement to the Bells training was held solely for law enforcement. 

“Right now, the buzzword of human trafficking is not being talked about a whole lot for whatever reason,” Wright said. “It kind of goes in cycles.”

However, with human trafficking—especially labor trafficking—public awareness is a big factor in prevention. If victims and bystanders aren’t aware of trafficking, they likely won’t be able to report the situation and help with prevention. 

Without proper understanding of labor trafficking, Wright said victims of these crimes are oftentimes not even aware that they are being trafficked. 

“At the end of our [Battlement to the Bells] training, we had an officer that worked with a neighboring county that attended the training,” Wright said. “At the end of the day, she came up to me and said, ‘It wasn’t until I had this training that I realized that my own parents were trafficked by my family whenever they first came to the United States.’ There was a debt bondage and she said, ‘I never realized what was going on.”’

Because I-70 cuts through Eagle County, officials see it as a vessel bringing human trafficking to and through the area. 

“It’s something we’re definitely aware of,” Crawford said. “You know, I-70 is used a lot for moving drugs. So, along with that, sometimes we see trafficking as well.”

However, factors like labor shortages and housing limitations that are big in Eagle County may also be elements that coincide with more labor trafficking. 

“We do have that corridor where people come and go through our state, but our county specifically has a tendency and propensity to attract human trafficking, especially the labor part of human trafficking,” Wright said. 

The industries that thrive in Eagle County, like hospitality and construction, are industries that often depend highly on immigrant workers for much of their labor force, Wright explained. However, upon arrival, workers may not be welcomed with all they were originally promised—a first indication of labor trafficking. 

Human trafficking can also have other indicators, Crawford said. Even if just completing a routine traffic stop, he said officers can look out for clues that something isn’t quite right. Sometimes, these clues uncover human trafficking. 

“They say they’re going on a trip somewhere, but there’s no luggage in the car or the kids seem like they aren’t interacting with the adults in the car like they should be,” Crawford said. 

Indicators of human trafficking can pop up in several scenarios, Crawford said. If on a call for service, officers may observe clues within a household that indicate something isn’t right.

Other members of the community, like healthcare workers and hospitality employees may also be in positions, like law enforcement, to see clues of human trafficking more than others might.

“In the community, we actually do a training with the hotels in Vail on trafficking and things,” Crawford said. “It’s the same kind of things to look out for when people stay at hotels … We just kind of train them on what to look out for, how to report things like that.”

If someone is unsure of whether they’re being trafficked themselves, Crawford said reaching out to law enforcement and making a report is always a good idea. However, further indication of labor trafficking may be with physical and communication barriers placed on individuals. Perhaps the person is unable to leave where they are, or they do not have access to their own transportation. Perhaps an employer restricts individuals’ access to phones or the internet. These are major indicators of trafficking, Crawford said. 

Wright said another major indicator of trafficking is control. If someone tries to control another person’s identification, documentation, what they do, who they see, et cetera, there very well may be a trafficking situation underway. 

“You know, I kind of closely relate it to almost like domestic violence,” Wright said. “So, there’s a lot of things happening that can be very similar to what happens in a domestic violence relationship that is really closely associated with human trafficking.”

Wright said that with labor trafficking, unfortunately the people who are often the ones taking advantage of and trafficking individuals are members of their own family. 

“You’ll have a cousin that lives in the United States that is promising, ‘Hey, if you come help me, you know maybe on my farm where we’re herding sheep or doing whatever, you know, I’ll help you get residential status and different things like that,” Wright said. 

In that situation, Wright said it can be hard for law enforcement to get victims to cooperate with the investigation because they don’t want their family member to get in trouble.

“It’s hard for people to recognize that they’re a victim of a crime that’s occurring,” Wright said. 

Wright explained that much of law enforcement’s job is to establish a good and trusting relationship with the community. He said that it is important for people to know that law enforcement is here to help, regardless of someone’s immigration status. 

“There’s a lot of fear in general with any law enforcement or governmental agency,” Wright said. “You know, they’re told before they even come into our country not to trust government officials, don’t trust law enforcement. That’s part of the scare tactics and part of the control and coercion and fear in order to take control of them. Even though we have people who are aware that they’re in these situations, they’re so fearful to report it.”

Ensuring victims know that law enforcement is there to help them is crucial in order for the trafficking to be reported and stopped, Wright said. 

Community members can report trafficking or even what they believe to be indicators of trafficking to local police departments, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Human Services or by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.

“It’s always worth reporting (indicators of trafficking) to the police just in case,” Crawford said. “You never know.”

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