Human trafficking: A network of crime hidden across a vast American landscape

When Bekah Charleston was first targeted as a human trafficking victim, there were no whips, chains or white vans — just a kind face and a fake name who offered her a safe place to stay.

As a 17-year-old Texas runaway, Charleston thought she was finding safe haven from drug dealers she had gotten involved with — at least until the exploitation began. She recalled fantasizing about suicide every day, sure that she would never make it to 21.

But even then, Charleston didn't know she had become a trafficking victim.

“I remember one of my best friends was telling me, ‘Bekah, we were trafficked,’ and I started laughing at her," Charleston told USA TODAY.

Human trafficking - sometimes called "modern slavery" - is one of America's toughest problems to tackle. While millions of people are victimized by it, many others are painfully unaware and ignorant of the problems involved in the human trafficking tragedy.

Traffickers exploit more than 25 million people annually - more than the entire population of Texas - and rake in illegal profits of $150 billion, according to the Disrupt Human Trafficking nonprofit organization.

In the United States, traffickers compel victims to engage in commercial sex and to work in both legal and illicit industries, including hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, janitorial services, construction, landscaping, restaurants, factories, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, massage parlors, retail services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, drug smuggling and distribution, religious institutions, child care, and domestic work, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Like many, Charleston found the trafficking industry a tough one to escape. A couple months after she was first trafficked, Charleston managed to escape by way of a charming California man 20 years her senior who offered her a safe haven from the man exploiting her body — until he began to do the same thing.

For the decade after meeting her second trafficker in a strip club parking lot, Charleston was sold for sex alongside dozens of other girls — some who she believes remain under the trafficker’s thumb until this day.

Charleston remembers turning over a handwritten list of all the things her trafficker had beat her for, thinking if she just did everything right, she wouldn’t get hit. But before the abuse began, Charleston remembered him acting as a mentor and encouraging her to quit drinking and drugs.

“In reality, I know now that he was only making me the most profitable he could, but that felt like genuine love to me,” Charleston, 41, said. “It felt like he wanted me to be a better person, and he was helping me elevate myself from the street to become a business owner one day.”

Like many trafficking survivors, the reality of what Charleston underwent didn’t sink in until much after the fact. And like so many U.S. trafficking victims, she was a hidden casualty, because most Americans don't know what trafficking is and how it ensnares people.

Who is targeted?

Charleston founded Bekah Speaks Out in 2013, an anti-trafficking organization that provides training and consultancy to law enforcement, social workers, medical providers and advocates nationwide. Her recollections of how she was victimized are key to understanding the problem of trafficking victimization.

She says she began showing warning signs of a trafficker’s target years before she was first exploited.

It began with school absences, drinking and drugs at 14 years old. Instead of receiving support, Charleston was reprimanded at school. She was also sexually assaulted as a young teenager.

“We can look at those kids and we can put them in this . . . juvenile delinquent category, that they have behavior problems, when in reality, most of these kids are sounding alarm bells about trauma they’ve experienced with their behavior,” Charleston said.

A Polaris January 2023 National Survivor Study found that 84% of survivors were sexually abused as children, 96% experienced some type of abuse and 93% faced drug use or mental health issues. A 2020 global analysis of 233 trafficking victims in persons court cases by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that majority of survivors were reportedly in a “condition of economic need,” characterized by lack of food, shelter or healthcare.

Charleston’s second trafficker ran a more sophisticated operation and owned multiple legitimate businesses alongside his trafficking ring, including a pizza shop, clothing line and custom dog bed company. The trafficker coerced her into commercial sex acts by telling her she’d eventually be “rich and famous” when the other businesses took off.

“And that was always the dream that was sold to me. It wasn’t that I was going to have to be in prostitution for the rest of my life,” Charleston said.

During that time, Charleston said she was arrested 10 times and spent 13 months in prison for a federal felony, conspiracy to commit tax evasion, since the trafficker and his victims didn’t pay federal taxes on the “income he’d collected off our bodies.”

Financial instability made Charleston, like many, vulnerable to exploitation.

“There’s always some type of coercion and dream that’s sold when trafficking occurs,” Charleston said.

Former Dodgers GM left baseball to join the fight against trafficking

Kevin Malone, former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, changed career paths nine years ago to fight human trafficking after a unique encounter. On a trip to Thailand in 2009, Malone said he met children around 4 to 6 years old who had been sold into sex slavery.

“It broke my heart,” Malone, 65, said.

When he returned home, Malone began to research whether trafficking was also a problem in the US. He began volunteering before going full time and cofounded the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking in 2016.

The institute offers training to educate the general public, medical professionals, law enforcement and educators on the dangers of trafficking.

“It’s a huge problem. It’s overwhelming at times, but everyone can do something,” Malone said.

Money problems are a key target for traffickers

Cristian Eduardo, a gay Mexican immigrant who fled sex and labor trafficking in his home country and Canada, was exploited for his financial instability, immigrant status and sexuality upon arrival to New York in 2015.

“I just wanted to go to a place to start new again, but people took advantage of my vulnerabilities,” Eduardo, 32, said.

Soon after coming to New York, Eduardo was diagnosed with HIV. Some people approached him with offers of medication, food and job support, as well as a sense of community. Eventually, the group that had initially welcomed him used threats and coercion to force him into sex and labor trafficking.

Eduardo recalled working 10-14 hour shifts as a bartender and janitor at New York nightclubs and being sold for sex simultaneously.

“I wasn’t receiving compensation for the (bartending) work that I was doing, but also, I was forced to engage in commercial sex activity with the clients,” Eduardo said.

Eduardo’s traffickers coerced him into sex trafficking, saying that he would be deported if he went to police and wouldn’t have access to HIV medication if he left the group.

“All these components were the real restrictions that kept me in my trafficking situation,” Eduardo said.

Now, Eduardo advocates for sex trafficking survivors and immigrant communities as a member of New Yorkers for the Equality Model and co-founder of the United Immigrants of New York.

A 2021 Polaris analysis of National Human Trafficking Hotline data found that the most common known risk factor for human trafficking was recent migration or relocation, which 54% of victims identified with.

Common myths about trafficking

When Bazzel Baz founded the Association for the Recovery of Children, or ARC, three decades ago, he said police officers responded with a blank stare when he approached them about human trafficking. Now, the term has gained traction across the country, but many myths continue.

While human trafficking, kidnapping and smuggling can intersect, they are three separate crimes that require no overlap. Trafficking is against a person’s consent, based on exploitation, and doesn’t require international movement. On the other hand, smuggling is when a person moves across country borders with that person’s consent in violation of immigration laws. However, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking states that smuggling can turn into trafficking if the smuggler uses force, fraud or coercion to “hold people against their will for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation.”

Kidnapping is a means to acquire a victim for trafficking, said Tina Baz, human trafficking program director at ARC. However, she said in the cases she has seen, only about 10% involved kidnapping.

Hollywood portrayals and skewed media have also led people to believe the US is an exception to the human trafficking industry, or that it always involves physical restraint and abduction. For survivors like Eduardo, only seeing the sensationalized portrayal of trafficking barred him from understanding what was happening to him and reporting it.

“The reality is that it doesn’t happen like in the movies. I wasn’t physically restrained. There were no chains. There was no kidnapping,” Eduardo said.

The forced sexual encounters happened in normal apartments, Eduardo said, sometimes with the door unlocked.

“It’s just that the mechanism is far more sophisticated here,” Baz, the ARC founder and president said, about human trafficking in the US as compared to other countries.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,198 people were referred to U.S. attorneys for human trafficking offenses in fiscal year 2020, a 62% increase from 2011. The number of people prosecuted for human trafficking also increased by 84% to 1,343 people in that timeframe.

More than 90% of those charged with human trafficking offenses were U.S. citizens and male. More than half had no prior convictions.

The International Labour Organization’s report last year said that forced labor was an issue “regardless of a country’s wealth.” In fact, more than half occurred in upper-middle income or high-income countries.

Also, while women and children are often the focus in trafficking discussions, men still make a sizable portion of known victims. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that 43.2% of victims identified in labor trafficking situations in 2020 were male. In sex trafficking, 8.1% of victims identified were male.

Other risk factors include conflict, oppression and natural disasters, all of which displace people and make them vulnerable to trafficking. Also, globalization and consumer demand for lower prices push corporations to source from poorer countries, often with exploited labor, the UN noted.

When it comes to children, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking estimates that 60-70% of those in sex trafficking come from child social services or foster care, and a quarter of them are, on average, between 12-14 years old when initially exploited.

Lack of reporting masks the problem

To Holly Joshi, anti-trafficking advocate and former undercover cop, the national conversation around human trafficking is part of the problem. Most human trafficking, like crimes of domestic abuse and sexual assault, are heavily underreported, she says.

Victims of color receive disproportionate support, Joshi added. “America has a hard time recognizing Black girls and girls of color as vulnerable,” a problem she has seen in the way authorities respond to a missing child of color versus a white child.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline said it received 50,123 "signals" of human trafficking in 2021, including calls, texts and online chats. But the US Institute Against Human Trafficking believes there are more than 100,000 across the country. The US Department of Education says on its website that an “unknown number” of people across the nation are trafficked.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that 40% of trafficked minors arrested for prostitution were viewed as criminals, not victims. In California, Joshi noted that minors who had sex with adults where no money changed hands were viewed as victims, but until recently, minors who had sex with adults and money was involved were considered criminals.

Charleston said she was arrested 10 times during the years that she was trafficked, and yet it wasn’t until her trafficker turned himself in that she was able to escape.

Being aware of common indicators that a person is being trafficked is one tool that can be used to catch trafficking situations early or before they start. The US Department of State offers a list of common indicators of human trafficking online in multiple languages.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be called anytime at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. To submit a tip online, go to An online chat service is also available at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Human trafficking looms as hidden crisis in many U.S. communities