Human Trafficking on the Rez: a Closer Look at Life for Females in New Mexico

By Ariel Niforatos, GlobeMed at The University of Notre Dame

Human trafficking is an ancient yet persistent and very real current global issue that has now created a global health dilemma. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) define trafficking as “modern-day slavery” and sex trafficking as the use of people under eighteen for commercial sex acts. Due to a lack of awareness, many Americans assume that it is a problem only in other countries, but the unfortunate reality is that sex trafficking has severe consequences for women in the United States as well. Every year, between 14,500 and 17,500 victims of trafficking come from the United States (1). In 2015 alone, 29.9% of the potential victims around the world had their origin in the US, more than every other country listed, and 91.4% of the US victims were female (2). The 2015 States Report on human trafficking includes a map that highlights some of the regions all over the US where trafficking cases were uncovered. As a case study, I will discuss the situation in New Mexico.

The economy of New Mexico is severely recessed, thus making its inhabitants especially vulnerable to traffickers. Between 2009 and 2011, there were six times as many calls reporting sex trafficking in New Mexico for human trafficking as there have been in previous years (3). Concerning the city of Albuquerque, officials have said that while the traffickers have largely been individuals so far, they think that organizations of traffickers are spreading (4). Trafficking is even more prevalent in Albuquerque during and perhaps because of the annual Balloon Fiesta every fall because of all the people traveling to the state. Out of the twenty-nine high to moderate potential risk for human trafficking cases in 2013 in New Mexico, seventeen of them were sex trafficking (5). In one case last year, a man in Albuquerque was convicted and sentenced to ninety-seven years in jail for trafficking (6).

Especially vulnerable to trafficking are Native American women, whether on reservations or in more urban areas of the state. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has stressed the problem of trafficking in the Southwest and pointed to homelessness and poverty as predisposing risks (7), something that plagues many New Mexicans.

Numerous factors contribute to Native women’s vulnerability to trafficking (8). First, because of the history of Native women being one of the most frequently sexually abused groups of women in the United States, “generational trauma” in families, a complicated but well-documented phenomenon, contributes to increased poverty, which increases their risk of falling into the trafficking industry because of previous victimization and promises of independence and success, creating a brutal cycle of poverty and enslavement. Many traffickers target Native women because they suffer some of the severest poverty in America. These predators especially target women who are mentally challenged or who struggle with substance abuse because such women have reduced capacity to counteract their enslavement and many come from reservations. Native women are, therefore, at higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking.

Sex trafficking also has important global health implications because the business of sex into which these women are forced enhances the spread of disease. Moreover, these victimized women do not have adequate access to health care at any time, whether during their being used in the sex slave trade or, for those fortunate enough to escape without being murdered, in their attempt to return to healthy, non-enslaved lives. The grave threat of trafficking to health care is a critical aspect of the problem that demands attention as it poses a serious challenge to global health. At its root, of course, there is the underlying use for which these women are procured in sex trafficking as well as the staggering poverty of the victims, rendering them unable to afford the health care they need. Perhaps the very real threat of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and infections beyond the victims can serve to awaken the largely unconcerned masses who flippantly dismiss the reality of this social cancer. Thus, not only social workers but global health professionals should also be addressing the problem of human trafficking, both globally and in the United States, even if they are unmoved by the plight of untold numbers of girls and women whose lives and bodies are forever destroyed through one of humanity’s greatest vices.

While human trafficking is a global issue, it is also a critical problem in the United States, especially in places like New Mexico where the lack of resources makes uncovering all the cases and convicting all the traffickers unusually difficult, where unimaginable poverty and limited options makes girls and women uniquely vulnerable, and where sometimes it is a family member or a respected community leader who sells or facilitates the enslavement of the girl or woman.

In order to fight this violation of fundamental human rights, there need to be more resources and funding available to go after suspected rings, to rescue current victims of slavery, to facilitate the health of those girls and women who are rescued and to address the issues that made them vulnerable in the first place, and to address the multifarious health issues of everyone impacted. Obviously, one of the first changes that needs to happen is for people to view the victims of sex trafficking differently than they have been viewed.   Lucia Estrada from Five Stone International accurately summarizes the situation: “These girls are just seen as whores or it’s their own choice. They’re categorized, yet they’re not seen as individuals who, a lot of times, are being forced and manipulated and coerced into doing this.” (9).

As the Navajo Times pointed out, human trafficking is not synonymous with prostitution because trafficked women are not given any power over their own actions. These women are, quite literally, slaves. And action must be immediately taken to end this slavery.


Works Cited

  1. Child Victims of Human Trafficking, Department of Health and Human Services, USA and the U.S. Department of State
  2. 2015 States Report, page 6:
  3. Indicator’s Report: A Statistical Resource Guide to Women and Girls in New Mexico, page 30:
  7. Navajo Times:
  8. New language, old problem: Sex trafficking of American Indian women and children:
  10. Photo: Getty Images