In Chicago, human trafficking is a growing problem that hides in plain sight.
On the night of January 27, a thin teen dressed in skinny blue jeans and a white jacket walks west then south, east then north, circling the same two-block stretch on Chicago’s West Side.
In quick time, a black Dodge Durango stops at her side. The teen approaches the window. She strolls around the SUV and enters the passenger seat. The car travels a half-mile before the driver, a man in his 60s, steps out, opens the rear driver’s side door and lays the back seat flat. He returns to the wheel and slithers away. A half-mile later, he settles into an alley with a lone working streetlight. The nose of his SUV faces a dumpster; the girl disappears from view.
Sitting in a minivan, Chicago Police Officer Hope McKeown watches the scene unfold. She wishes she could say this was a new experience for her, an event she was tracking with her eyes and soul for the first time rather than the thousandth.
But she cannot.
For nearly 20 months, nights like these consumed Ms. McKeown, a 42-year-old native Chicagoan who pairs a wide, warm smile with sincere eyes.
Though many see human trafficking – the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation – as an international issue, one only making guest appearances on the Chicago area stage, reality tells otherwise.
Human trafficking thrives in The Second City, largely driven by Chicago’s status as a transportation hub, tourism and convention business, hefty immigrant population, already thriving commercial sex industry and entrenched gangs with an entrepreneurial bent. The U.S. Department of Justice lists Chicago as a “high intensity” area for human trafficking, while Illinois sits among the top 10 states reporting calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
While firm numbers are difficult to grasp given the underground nature of the trade, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates that more than 6,000 at-risk children are trafficked each year in Cook County; in metropolitan Chicago, an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls are involved in the commercial sex trade annually. One third of those girls enter prostitution at age 15, and 62 percent by the age of 18, according to a 2008 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and DePaul University College of Law.
“The public needs to accept this reality and be aware that human trafficking is a local issue,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez confirms.
A Thriving Enterprise
Human trafficking, particularly of the sexual exploitation variety, is growing in the Chicago area, as pimps and even older female prostitutes – who curry favor with the pimp by bringing a new recruit into the stable – target high schools, malls and the streets, preying on vulnerable girls.
“The pimps have their fishing holes and know where the susceptible girls are,” says Nick Roti, head of the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) Organized Crime Division.
Many girls have a history of sexual abuse, unstable home lives and uninvolved parents. Many carry long-neglected mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Nearly all desire attention. Often, the pimp is the girl’s first lover – a bond he can later exploit.
“We frequently see young women develop these relationships because this is the only man caring for them,” Ms. Alvarez says.
Human trafficking happens throughout Chicagoland. It extends into tree-lined suburban streets and middle-class neighborhoods, where the Internet and social media provide the dirty business a sliver of professionalism, a slice of discretion.
In Chicago’s most downtrodden areas, however, human trafficking resides in plain view.
Standing under viaducts or at bus stops, walking down streets with darkened factories and boarded-up homes, a girl rarely escapes her pimp’s sight. Action intensifies after midnight, when the girls and their suitors both rise in number. It lasts, Ms. McKeown says, “until the sun comes up.”
The girls are trained, by mental coercion if not physical force, on how to act. If approached by law enforcement, the girls know the script. The pimps prey on the girls’ insecurities, sometimes hooking them to drugs to enact further control.
“It’s classic brainwashing,” Mr. Roti says. “One day, this guy loves his girl; the next, he’s threatening her with pit bulls.”
Among Chicago’s increasingly sophisticated street gangs, sex trafficking is a lucrative business and a safer play than the drug trade. Frequently running girls through underground social clubs – main street storefronts that serve as denizens for the sex trade – some gangs will even share girls and profits.
“You can sell a pack of dope and it’s gone, but you can sell a girl over and over,” says Sergeant Traci Walker, supervisor of the CPD’s Human Trafficking Task Force.
Operation Little Girl Lost
In the Chicago Police world, where every day can seize a piece of an officer’s soul, Operation Little Girl Lost threatened to take a chunk.
Little Girl Lost began in January 2010 when a 14-year-old Chicago girl unloaded her misery upon a Chicago Police patrol officer. A habitual runaway, the girl was pulled into the life as a 13-year-old and encountered abuse, discord and danger on a daily basis. The officer, unsure where to turn, contacted Ms. McKeown, his former colleague who was now working vice.
Though Ms. McKeown had encountered her share of unsavory characters dabbling in the sex trade throughout seven years on the job, her first meeting with the teen was something different. The teen recounted her recruitment, her daily, despair-ridden routine. She offered names and relayed experiences unfit for any 14-year-old to hear, let alone live.
“This was the first time I had ever been exposed to a young girl forced into the life,” Ms. McKeown says. “I was numb.”
The more Ms. McKeown learned about the local human trafficking landscape, the more she urged Brian Hawkins, her sergeant in vice control, to open a formal investigation. They did, soon realizing the depth of the issue and politicking for additional CPD resources.
In April 2011, with the help of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, various suburban police agencies and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the team began recording conversations. The investigation accelerated.
When Little Girl Lost concluded in August 2011, 10 offenders were charged with Involuntary Sexual Servitude of a Minor and Trafficking in Persons for Forced Labor. Now in the courts, the felony cases carry prison sentences of six to 30 years.
According to many involved, however, Operation Little Girl Lost merely touches the surface.
“This runs deep,” Mr. Hawkins says. “Real deep.”
Upon her election in 2008, Anita Alvarez identified human trafficking, and specifically the sex trafficking of children, as a priority. It marked a decided turn for the office, which had never previously charged a human trafficking case.
Within a year, Ms. Alvarez formed a first-of-its-kind Human Trafficking Initiative and drafted the Illinois Safe Children’s Act. The legislation defines any minor’s participation in the commercial sex trade as an act of human trafficking. Furthermore, the law views the children as victims rather than criminals and assesses more significant penalties to human traffickers.
“What good did it do us to charge the teenage girl with prostitution, when the person pimping her wasn’t getting convicted?” Ms. Alvarez asks. “We had to get the bad guy.”
The legislation also grants law enforcement better tools to combat human trafficking, specifically the ability to use wiretaps, such as those employed in Little Girl Lost.
In just over two years, the State’s Attorney’s Office has charged 51 defendants across 31 cases with human trafficking-related offenses. Ms. Alvarez’s team earned its first conviction last July when Troy Bonaparte of Chicago was sentenced to 18 years for forcing women to prostitute themselves.
Criminals, however, are but one side of the human trafficking landscape.
The Salvation Army’s STOP-IT program is the area’s foremost advocate for human trafficking victims. The agency helps individuals escape the life of exploitation and fulfils needs for housing, education, job training or medical and legal services.
Unfortunately, few of the human trafficking subjects consider themselves victims, STOP-IT program manager Erin Knowles notes. While STOP-IT handled 70 cases in 2011, another 108 individuals declined services or eluded follow-up.
“With the psychology of trafficking being what it is, not all of the victims are ready to leave the life or talk about what’s happening,” Ms. Knowles says.
Ms. Alvarez, in fact, recalls one girl refusing to testify against her pimp because he regularly purchased her Subway sandwiches.
In spite of the challenges, many embrace an unrelenting spirit to battle human trafficking’s rise.
In that West Side alley on that January night, her CPD colleagues confronting the john, Ms. McKeown ushers the blue jean-wearing teen to the side of the covert police vehicle. She looks the teen in the eye; she flashes a smile.
“Hello,” Ms. McKeown says, “I’m Hope. What’s your name?”