CRIME

Events like the All-Star Game can bring in human traffickers

Feb 17, 2023, 6:28 PM | Updated: 10:47 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Along with all the excitement during the NBA All-Star weekend, a dark problem comes that most people won’t even realize is happening alongside all of the events.

As tens of thousands flood Utah, behind the scenes, people like Candace Rivera and Amber Kehl are paying attention to an under-the-radar issue.

“All-Star weekend is meant to be fun, and there’s going to be a lot of great events. And a lot of these places are going to be extremely safe for the majority of Utahns and their visitors,” said Kehl. But on the flip side, “There’s going to be a population that’s going to be exploited during this time.”

“This is their ultimate marketplace,” Rivera said, talking about human traffickers.

Both women are with the anti-trafficking, survivor-focused organization Exitus. Rivera is the founder and CEO, and Kehl is the Team Lead Survivor Advocate. Trafficking in Utah has kept them busy the of past couple years, but during big events like Sundance and the NBA All-Star weekend, they say the numbers go up.

“We expect to see an uptick in cases, and phone calls and exiting, and resources, and hospital calls,” Kehl explained. “We may not be hearing about these big busts, but they’re absolutely taking place.”

A quick online search pulls up trafficking busts and arrests during past All-Star weekends. In Cleveland last year, an anti-human trafficking operation led to eight arrests. Police arrested 30 people in New Orleans during the 2014 All-Star weekend. Even without a big bust in the headlines, police have put out public warnings about the problem.

Rivera explained that it’s got nothing to do with the NBA game, and everything to do with traffickers capitalizing on an opportunity.

“It’s because it’s a large event that attracts a lot of money, and a lot of people,” Rivera said. “And if we understand that human trafficking is an economy. It’s a way for exploiters and traffickers to make money.”

This weekend, the two women are focused on training, awareness, education, and offering resources.

“It’s exploitation of a vulnerable population– so think about those in socioeconomic difficulties, our foster care system,” Rivera said. “Children who are 17, 18, 19 who just recently aged out and are looking for jobs, are often enticed to come along to events like this.”

The Utah Attorney General’s office put out a list of resources Friday and explained that the Utah Trafficking in Persons (UTIP) Task Force and tip lines are ready for reports.

“All of us that are working against human trafficking, are working together and independently to create a sheath of resources that people can use,” said Richard Piatt, Communications Director for the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Piatt, like Kehl and Rivera, pointed out that human trafficking in Utah is always an issue– but could be more prevalent this weekend simply because of the number of people traveling to Utah.

The AG’s Office and Exitus both urged people to pay attention to their surroundings and to say something if they see something. They said signs a person is being trafficked may include someone looking uncomfortable with the situation, looking like they don’t belong with the person or people they’re with, not answering for themselves, or acting intimidated, controlled, or miserable.

If a situation doesn’t feel right, they suggest people alert local law enforcement, call the AG’s Office SECURE tip line at 801-200-3443, or visit utiptaskforce.org and fill out a form.

The focus for Exitus is not just on those reports that come in, but what happens afterward.

“I do know personally what some of these survivors are about to go through, if exiting over the weekend. And it’s a long road,” Kehl said.

A survivor of human trafficking herself, Kehl explained she was rescued by law enforcement in 2016. She explained that anyone who exits trafficking during All-Star weekend will need at least 10 months of ongoing support, or longer.

“Healing from these experiences takes a very, very long time,” Kehl said.

That’s why she indicated Exitus is prepared and will help anyone who needs it, long after All-Star weekend is over.

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Events like the All-Star Game can bring in human traffickers