Operation Cross Country makes arrests

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation executed Operation Cross Country XI between Oct. 12 and 15 in Indianapolis.   According to the FBI press release, the operation involved more than 55 FBI field offices along with 78 state and local task forces that recovered 84 juveniles and arrested 120 traffickers nationwide in the iteration, or repeated operation. The youngest victim recovered was a 3-month-old from Denver, but, according to the FBI, the average age of the human trafficking victims was 15.

FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gregory Massa has worked on OCC during five iterations, including the most recent iteration. The majority of the operations that were executed in Indiana were in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. Massa said two human traffickers were arrested in the most recent iteration. According to Massa, the goal of OCC is to recover juveniles around the state who are victims of sex trafficking, and 97 juveniles have been recovered in Indiana over the past three years.

In the past year alone, he said there have been 36 individual cases in which juvenile victims of human trafficking were recovered in Indiana.

“It is hard work. It is nasty. It’s roll up your sleeves and get dirty work,” Massa said.  “It wears on you, yes, but at the end of the day, we make a difference…. We have specialists that are working [on] this day in and day out.”

Working for the FBI shows agents the darker side of humanity, Massa said.  Seeing individuals physically and mentally forced to do things against their will and sold affects the agents’ personal lives.

“Not that it would stop us, but I will say [that] when you become an FBI agent, you don’t do it for the money, to drive a fancy car and live in a big house,” Massa said. “You do it to make a difference. You want to make an impact. You want to make a difference. You want to do good. And this is a program where you can directly impact lives.”

Massa said that there are big misconceptions regarding human trafficking. He said many people think that human trafficking doesn’t take place in Indiana, or that it is even a problem.

“[People think] it only becomes a problem during major special events,” he said. “And those are both fallacies.”

Diane Good is the communication director of Ascent 121, a nonprofit, faith-based organization that caters to underage victims of sex trafficking. According to Good, a majority of the girls they help are from the United States, which sharply contrasts with what most people believe.

“I still have people say to me, ‘Are these foreign girls?’ To which I answer, ‘Absolutely not. None of our girls are foreign.’ All of our girls are all American born, and that is a major shock factor for people,” Good said.

While Ascent 121 primarily serving Americans, human trafficking is something that affects people in every country, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s website.

Victims of sex trafficking usually become romantically involved with their traffickers, who then use force and manipulation to coerce their victims into prostitution, according to the Polaris Project website.

Homeless youth, runaways and victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are usually the most vulnerable to sex trafficking. Victims may be lured into sex trafficking through fake massage businesses, via online ads or escort services, in residential brothels, on the street, at truck stops, or at hotels and motels.

Massa also said abductions happen, but not frequently. In the five years he has worked on OCC, he said he can recall only one human trafficking case in which a forced abduction happened. The abduction occurred on the east side of Indianapolis, and the victim was taken through Ohio and Tennessee before being recovered, he said.

Graphic by Alexis Stella

Graphic by Alexis Stella

After victims are recovered, the FBI must find a safe place for the victims to recover. Many victims are helped out by nonprofit organizations that specifically focus on rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking, such as Ascent 121 and the Hope Center.

Good dedicates her time to raising awareness about human trafficking and cautions the community about potential signs of sex trafficking.

“We typically tell people to look for signs of depression, obviously,” Good said. “Runaways are a big sign [typically]. Within 24 to 48 hours, statistically, [runaways] are potential victims of human trafficking.”

According to Good, other signs include new clothing and accessories that might be unusual for the individual to wear.  Some traffickers actually mark their victims with tattoos.

“Another big sign are tattoos that resemble a bar code, or a man’s name on their chest, or the name ‘daddy,’ things like that. The chest tattoo is the most frequent place we see on a trafficked girl. We tend to also see them on the neck. And that is just a way for the trafficker to own ‘their property.’ That is their words, obviously. Those are the main signs that we tell people to look for.”

Ascent 121 works along with the state to provide victims of sex trafficking the therapy they will need to re-enter society. Good said that raising awareness of human trafficking is vital to the community. She said Ascent 121 serves approximately 100 girls and boys each year, providing them with the necessary skills and therapy they may need.

“A lot of people think that we can hug and love them into recovery. But we have found…that it takes a very controlled environment to get that accomplished,” Good said. “So what we have our volunteers do is raise awareness. There are several other agencies that do that in the communities. Letting them [the community] know that it [human trafficking] is still a problem. . .but helping raise awareness is probably the best way for people to get involved.”

Ascent 121 offers a prayer journey for those who want to get involved in raising awareness of human trafficking. Providing a map of locations, the agency  personnel will take volunteers step-by step from how an individual may fall victim to those wishing to exploit him or her at that location to where the victim will go after being recovered by the FBI. The prayer journey also make stops at where the victim attends court to get the help he or she needs and eventually back to Ascent 121, which welcomes the victim back into the community.

Massa said that human trafficking happens 365 days a year. Victims can reach out to several organizations throughout Indiana that specialize in human trafficking. Requests for help or reports of suspected human trafficking, can be directed to the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888. Or by texting HELP to: BeFree (233733).

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