by Chris Ramirez, KOB TV
July 13, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It’s never easy to admit the place you call home has a problem.

But when it comes to child well-being in New Mexico, the numbers back it up—and they show young New Mexicans are susceptible to becoming victims of sex trafficking. But there is a team that travels around the state, looking for those victims, rescuing them and holding their captors criminally responsible.

On one warm summer night, Anthony Maez, a special agent with the Office of the Attorney General, leads a team of trained agents, victims’ advocates, and police officers. In a hotel room, the team responds to ads on social media advertising sex for cash.

In a nearby room, an undercover agent waits for the sex worker to come in.

“What we have found is the ads that are being run, the person may look younger than they really are, or they are actually a young child,” Maez said. “Once they arrive, we actually will talk to the girls or, if it’s a male, the male who is responding to the ad. We’ll try to determine if they are being trafficked.”

On the night KOB’s cameras were with the team, there were immediate complications. Once the undercover agent revealed his true identity, the woman told him her five children were in a car outside the hotel.

The young kids in the back of the car were in bad shape. One was naked, the others had dirty clothes on — evidence they too may be victims of sex trafficking, but in an indirect way.

Paramedics were called in to check their health.

“It was 100-degree weather, (the kids were) unclothed (and had) soiled diapers,” Maez said. “Definitely some concerns. The AG’s mission is to save all children in New Mexico. So we immediately had CYFD on standby.”

CYFD officials were contacted immediately so they could respond, a 48-hour hold was placed on the children and safehouse interviews were scheduled for the next day.

According to Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking organization, the largest group of sexually exploited children are African American and Latino.

That’s followed by kids who have been in and out of the child welfare system, refugee and migrant children, LGBTQ youth, and homeless kids.

And there are the kinds of kids like who we found with the AG’s office sex trafficking unit. It’s never easy to admit that our home has a problem. Just look at the latest KIDS COUNT report released by New Mexico Voices for Children. New Mexico ranks dead last in overall child well-being. The factors in the report make kids in our state susceptible to becoming victims of sex trafficking.

The kids’ mother told agents she is, in fact, a victim of sex trafficking, controlled by her pimp. Once agents and child psychologists conduct the interviews with the children, it can be determined if they have been exploited too.

From there, the sting turned into a full-time operation to get the kids help, beginning with baths, new clothes and a safe place to sleep. Victims’ advocates, police, special agents, CYFD caseworkers—they all worked to help the children.

“People are important,” Special Agent Maez said. “We know women are being trafficked in our state and many people think it’s international or over borders, but it is domestic and it’s happening right here in our state. We have seen it firsthand with women and children, so it’s important to rescue those individuals.”

This team doesn’t view sex workers as criminals. Instead, in this situation, they see a mother and a victim—once forced into sex work against her will. And through their mother, the children found in the car are thrown into the lifestyle too.

It’s a change in attitude on how prostitutes are viewed, something that mirrors the law enforcement community at large. More and more, police are focusing on the puppetmasters — the pimps.

In the four years, this team has existed, it has investigated more than 100 cases of human trafficking in New Mexico, indicted 27 people on human trafficking-related charges, and rescued six kids, 21 women and five men.

Meanwhile, agents with the AG’s office are actively looking for the man who the mother on this night identified as her trafficker.

“I think human trafficking is in plain sight,” Maez said, “and we’re missing it.”

While this particular mission helped one family, the team knows there are so many more sex slaves across the streets and hotels of New Mexico, a state where small populations and so much open space between them can make the victims difficult to find.