MISSOULA — It's a billion-dollar industry worldwide, but human trafficking also occurs right here in Montana.
The Montana Department of Justice reports the state saw an 871% increase in cases from seven in 2015 to 68 in 2021.
And as MTN News reported last month, it's a problem state officials are trying to address.
“They think that he's the only person in the world that cares about them," noted Missoula Police Det. Guy Baker.
It is something that can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere — with manipulation and pain at the center of it all.
“A majority of trafficking victims become romantically involved with a person who persuades or manipulates them into commercial sex,” said Baker.
These cases typically start with traffickers praying on vulnerable girls, as they pose as their boyfriends.
“[For] Most boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, the boy does not set up dates for her to be with other men,” Baker told MTN News.
Force, fraud and coercion are words that Baker — who is spearheading the crackdown of human trafficking in Montana — know all too well.
“When she is isolated by the person who is going to exploit her, and then she engages in shameful behavior that really cuts off her connection with her family,” said Baker.
The fear is always there, as victims of traffickers find themselves in an impossible situation that they didn’t ask to be in.
“I like to say that modern-day slavery is not about chains being on the wrists and the ankles," Baker told MTN News. "It's about chains being on the mind because the people that exploit these women are master manipulators.”
And they are master manipulators because they have one goal in mind — money. The exploitation of these young women, men and children ranks second, behind illegal drug trade, in international crime.
Baker says it is estimated that the illegal industry rakes in over $33 billion annually. About $9.5 billion of that is estimated to be generated in the Unted States.
“With a human, they're reusable," Baker explained. "So you have a reusable commodity in a supply and demand-driven economy that's never going to go out of demand. But the people that exploit females are going to try to exploit as many females as they can for as long as they can.”
How does this happen? And how easy is it for buyers to access human trafficking victims? The answer is right at your fingertips.
“Advertisements are posted on websites and then customers who are seeking commercial sex will get into contact with the female or the person exploiting her through these advertisements. They meet up in hotels. Sometimes she will go to them,” said Baker.
Since his first human trafficking case in 2015, Baker has worked nearly 60 cases in Montana. The rise in trafficking cases comes as pimps realize how “safer” tracking humans can be for them, over drugs.
“Traditionally, it's easier to traffic a girl than it is to traffic drugs because you don't have to be looking over your shoulder for rivals," Baker said. "The police aren't kicking in your door. Patrol officers and troopers aren't as keen on the indicators of trafficking humans as they are on trafficking dope.”
Baker says that you could be looking right at a trafficking situation and not know it so it is important to be aware of the signs of a victim.
Signs to look for in a human trafficking victim:
- They have no personal possessions
- A minor with an unrelated and non-age appropriate looking male or an over-controlling “boyfriend” and sometimes another female, as they can recruit other females to become slaves.
- Minors at hotels, strip clubs or truck stops.
- Appearance of lack of sleep or nutrition.
- Unexplained injuries.
You can help stop human trafficking. If it's an emergency, call 9-1-1. For a non-emergency, you can call 1-833-406-STOP.