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Human trafficking: With new laws in place, officials prepare for crackdown

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Human trafficking is a growth industry, according to speakers at a forum Saturday at Belin Memorial United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Mike Alexander, church pastor, said victims are “modern day slaves” caught in a system using coercion, manipulation, dependency and violence to force people into jobs ranging from nail salons and slaughterhouses to brothels and strip clubs during Saturday’s forum titled “Red Light – An effort to Stop Human Trafficking.”

“It’s a breach of freedom and a crime against humanity,” said Betty Houbion of Murrells Inlet, an advocate specializing in trafficking awareness and prevention. Worldwide, she said, human trafficking is a $150 billion industry.

Jimmy Richardson, solicitor of the 15th Circuit that includes Horry and Georgetown counties, said human trafficking is a bigger problem on the Grand Strand than in most other jurisdictions in the state. “There are not as many places to get lost in Marion or Colleton counties than on the Grand Strand,” he said. “We’ve got more than our share of human trafficking.”

Since traffickers cross state lines, Richardson said, the crime is a federal issue. “Strip clubs pop up here or there,” he said. “People will not be in Myrtle Beach very long, and the federal government is not doing a lot.”

Richardson said he is trying to change the culture of law enforcement to recognize people being arrested for low level crimes like trespass and simple assault as possible victims of human trafficking. “Prosecutors view victims of human trafficking as criminals,” he said. “We’ve got to be prepared to dig a little deeper to find what is causing a person to do what they are doing. Most of the time it’s drugs.”

He is encouraging police officers to ask people arrested for minor crimes how they are supported, who pays the bills. “Those lead to who is trafficking this person,” Richardson said. “It’s an easy fix but a cultural change for police officers.”

Richardson said he closed a number of strip clubs in Myrtle Beach after undercover officers found prostitution and drugs. He said he was accused of trying to shut down the golf industry. “This was full blown debauchery,” he said. Once a club promoter was arrested on federal conspiracy charges carrying a maximum of 2,500 years in prison, the criticism died down, Richardson said.

Victims of human trafficking don’t often see themselves as victims, he said. Pimps provide prostitutes with drugs. “It doesn’t click with them that they are selling their bodies,” Richardson said. Heroin has replaced cocaine and crack cocaine as the drug of choice in prostitution rings, he said. “Cocaine is something you binge and get off,” he said. “Heroin is something you do every day or you get violently ill. A prostitute addicted to heroin has many reasons to work. It’s a hard thing to break away from.”

State assistant Attorney General Marie Sazehn, said she expects human trafficking to surpass the drug and arms trades because of its profit potential. “For traffickers, people are a reusable commodity,” she said. “Drug sellers have a product. They sell out. A human being can be sold over and over again without a lot of overhead.”

She said 300,000 children are trafficked in the U.S. each year, starting as young as age 12. “Runaways get caught in the sex trafficking industry,” she said. The crime has many faces: mothers trafficking daughters; husbands trafficking wives. “You can traffic someone from inside your own home,” Sazehn said. “It’s not limited to being controlled by violence. A lot of time victims think they love their trafficker. It’s a very complicated crime of mental abuse and manipulation.”

South Carolina passed a comprehensive human trafficking law in 2012. “I’ve got a lot of power to go after these bad guys,” Sazehn said.

A first offense carries a 15-year prison sentence and trafficking a minor adds 15 more years, she said. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has launched a human trafficking task force. Sazehn said its first cases are expected to come to court this fall.

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