HAMPDEN – There’s a crime that doesn’t get a lot of attention, one that can thrive in secrecy in city neighborhoods as well as rural areas.
“It is a crime that has lurked beneath the surface,” Larry Gilbert, associate director of the Maine Institute for Public Safety Innovations, said Friday about the smuggling and sale of people, whether they are used for prostitution, domestic help or farm labor.
Gilbert, a former top federal law enforcement agent in Maine, headed up a daylong seminar in Hampden Friday to increase awareness about the problem that he said is second only to drug trafficking and tied with illegal gun sales and organized crime in the country.
While larger metropolitan areas, such as New York, figure more prominently in the people trafficking operations, Gilbert said it has spread throughout the country, even in Maine.
“No state is immune,” Gilbert said by telephone after the conference. Illegal massage parlors have been uncovered next to a Subway restaurant in a strip mall in Lisbon while similar facilities were operating in a neighborhood in Old Orchard Beach and on Hammond Street in Bangor.
And it’s not just an illegal alien issue. Gilbert said teenage runaways in Maine could become entrapped and forced into prostitution, trading their bodies for money or drugs.
Despite the prominence of people trafficking as a crime, Gilbert said that in his 33 years of law enforcement, including eight years as the U.S. Marshal in Maine, he’s never investigated a human trafficking case. He said that very few have been investigated.
Part of the problem has been that those smuggled into this country, whether on promises of a better life, other false pretenses or coercion, have largely been treated as criminals themselves, he said. The victims have faced prostitution charges and in the case of them being here illegally, face deportation back to their own country where living conditions could be equally bad or worse.
The image of the victim as criminal seems to be changing, largely prompted by a federal law change in 2000 that Gilbert said establishes provisions for treating the victims as refugees. The provisions include the possibility of a special trafficking visa and the prospects of housing and employment assistance and medical and mental health services, if needed.
The idea is to take a new approach to an old problem by bringing in social services and law enforcement on the ground level, identifying indicators of possible trafficking so that the traffickers can be caught and those that they smuggled in can be helped.
It could be a municipal code enforcement officer or fire inspector who notices the unusual living conditions of able bodied women shuttered inside homes. It could be a police officer or hospital emergency room nurse who questions deeper the root behind an injury, Hampden Sgt. Dan Stewart said by telephone.
“This is trying to be a wake up call, that there may be another angle to what they are investigating,” Stewart said. “This opens your eyes, that there may be more going on than what you’re originally seeing.”
Similar programs like the one held in Hampden have been held elsewhere in Maine and more will be held by the institute, a federally funded program that operates out of the University of Maine at Augusta.