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Human trafficking in Utah happens daily and local police are under equipped, investigators say

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Jun 22, 2024

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How prevalent is human trafficking in Utah?

"It happens in Utah on a daily basis," said Nate Mudder with the Utah Attorney General's Office. "We're constantly investigating this particular crime."

Mudder, the deputy chief of investigations at the Attorney General's Office, presented to lawmakers Monday during the first ever Legislative Subcommittee on Organized Crime, which touched on issues like immigration, retail theft and gangs in Salt Lake County.

On the topic of human trafficking, Mudder said it's an increasing problem in Utah, sometimes fueled by the state's growth and the Interstate 15 corridor, a well-traveled route for both human and drug trafficking.

"There was a time here in Utah where there was a belief there was no human trafficking. That has since come and gone. We've arrested and investigated many, many people for human trafficking, whether that's sex trafficking or labor trafficking," he told lawmakers.

According to most law enforcement sources, there are two kinds of human trafficking -- labor and sex. Sex trafficking is typically defined as coercing someone to engage in commercial sex acts, whether by extortion, physical intimidation or manipulation. Traffickers can prey on a person's limited English skills, immigration status or financial insecurity.

Labor trafficking often involves undocumented immigrants, Mudder said. For them, exploitation can look like dismal living conditions, withholding food or taking documents so they feel trapped. It's most common in the construction, agriculture and hospitality industries.

"They don't have anyone to turn to, they don't know the area, they don't speak the language. They're reliant upon those people that are trafficking them for their existence," he said.

Mudder said sex trafficking in Utah is mostly domestic, while labor trafficking is international.

The investigations are long and drawn out, Mudder said, which means local law enforcement agencies have a hard time pursuing trafficking cases because they're so "resource intensive."

"They're very unique and you need some expertise in the investigation," he said. Local departments in Utah often rely on the SECURE Strike Force, a task force consisting of investigators with the state attorney general, Utah Department of Public Safety, and county, federal and city law enforcement agencies.

The task force opened 69 sex and human trafficking investigations in 2023, according to state data -- during that year, there were 24 human trafficking prosecutions, including 12 that involved child victims. Three investigations revolved around labor trafficking, and the task force currently has more than 12 active investigations.

Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, said by his estimate 98% of Utah's law enforcement agencies are "not equipped" to handle trafficking cases, so they mostly rely on the Attorney General's Office, which in turn deals with a high caseload.

"They're working so many of these cases across the state so they actually have to prioritize which cases and which victims they're going to address. And the municipalities are just there sitting and waiting," Gwynn said.

Gwynn said communities should be aware of the types of businesses that are often complicit in labor trafficking, or sex trafficking through legitimate business like a massage parlor, although lawmakers didn't offer any concrete solutions on Monday.

"We need to let these communities know what is actually going on in their cities, so they can be more cognizant of these types of illicit businesses and they can proactively do things to keep them out of their city," he said. "If we can teach them the ways in which they can vet these types of businesses, they can actually be at the frontline of this, combatting it administratively and legislatively."

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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