Anna Brewer spent years investigating sex trafficking cases in Omaha and other places. Now she does training and presentations to help educate others about how it happens, working with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force and Women’s Fund of Omaha. We talked with Brewer for our “Sold for Sex” project, which includes a new documentary airing tonight at 8 p.m. CT on NET Television.
The new NET News documentary "Sold for Sex: Trafficking in Nebraska" premieres Thursday, Jan. 5 at p.m. CT on NET Television. For more information (including other air times/dates), as well as additional videos and reporting, visit the project web site: netNebraska.org/soldforsex.
ANNA BREWER, FORMER FBI AGENT: I think our location makes it very opportunistic for those who wish to exploit others on so many levels. Geographically we're located right in the middle of the country. We're located along two different interstates, I-29 and I-80, and so that makes it very appealing to those who want to exploit others. Also, Omaha in general has a lot of events. It has a lot of opportunities for people to come together in large groups whether it's collegiate events, sporting events or commercial events, and when you bring a large group of people for any reason there's going to be people who are going to take advantage of that opportunity to exploit people.
MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS SENIOR PRODUCER AND PRODUCER OF “SOLD FOR SEX”: Talk more about the impact of I-80, especially in terms of trafficking.
BREWER: Trafficking clearly is a mobile industry, so it relies on transportation. It relies on cars, vehicles, trains, buses, airplanes. In this day and age, transportation is so inexpensive, and because of that, people are mobile, and because of that and because of the pressure from law enforcement and from the community, to not have this in your community, people want to be mobile. They want to be mobile on a lot of levels. One is for the person that's being exploited. The person who is exploiting wants to keep that person unstable. They want to keep them disoriented. They want to move them from city to city, state to state, so that the person who's being exploited doesn't know where they are, where they're coming from, where they're going to. When you keep someone unstable like that, you have more control, that's the whole purpose of human trafficking, is to control the mind of the person that you're selling. If you can control their minds, you can control their body. Then, clearly, along those interstates, you have the hotels and the motels and the rest stops, which for most people are used for legitimate reasons, but in the world of human trafficking, they're used for illicit reasons. Those are opportunistic for those who are seeking to exploit, because they can just stop at a rest stop, knowing that they don't have to move, that the business is going to come to them. With those cellphones or with the smartphones, all the buyer has to do is look on his phone for particular city, state, rest stop, exit, and see if there's a person for sale and just make contact through their electronic device. Once that contact is made, the person that's being sold is already there. They don't have to move.
TOBIAS: For the people who are doing the trafficking, what is a typical business model?
BREWER: Well, sadly, if they had taken their abilities and funneled them into a legitimate corporation or a legitimate business they would probably be very, very successful, because (their) business model is going to have everything that a legitimate business has. You're going to have overhead, you're going to have to pay for certain supplies. You're going to have to pay for hotel rooms and you're going to have to pay for clothing. You're going to have to pay for cell phones, you're going to have to pay for advertising, you're going to have to market your product. You're going to have to identify who your buyers are, and you're going to have to appeal to the buyers, so you're going to have to have a strategy to appeal to your buyers without necessarily alerting law enforcement, so you want to be a little bit deceptive and a little bit secretive. Yet at the same time you need to have the ability to reach those who are interested in your product.
TOBIAS: They do this in what way?
BREWER: Word of mouth perpetuates it, but the internet is really the first place for anyone to go to on so many levels. First and foremost it's anonymous, so you can sit in the privacy anywhere in this day and age because you don't need to be in the privacy of your own home with a computer as long as you have an iPhone or a smartphone. You use your phone as your electronic device through which you can identify these advertisements or these businesses or these facilities. Then again you use that electronic device to locate the address and use the GPS feature on it to navigate your way to that business. You use the electronic device to communicate with that business. You can use the electronic device to call and book an appointment if you need to. On so many levels if you have a smartphone, you now have the ability to purchase a human being.
TOBIAS: Is there an amount of it that starts in a location that kind of has some permanence?
BREWER: I think there are so many different faces to human trafficking. There are the faces that do start out of a business, so a strip club or massage parlor for sure. The businesses in essence are the front to launder the money, because on the surface it appears to be a legitimate business when in fact once you get deeper or past the different layers into that business and are approved to get through those layers, then you are offered certain services that most people are not offered, and then clearly the money is then laundered through that business, because the business on the surface looks like a legitimate business.
TOBIAS: Talk about that notion of it being hidden in plain sight.
BREWER: A lot of the investigations that I participated in were businesses that most of us passed on a day to day basis. Once it was brought to light through the media or through the adjudication process, a lot of people came up to me and said, "Oh, I always thought there was something strange that was going on over there." I'd pull my hair out of head because I would say, "Well, why didn't you call someone? If you saw something, why didn't you say something?" Again, that's the message that we're trying to get out to the community in this day and age is, if you see something, you really, really should report it. Say something to someone.
TOBIAS: What are examples of some of those places that were eye-opening after the fact?
BREWER: The massage parlors, in particular. One of the massage parlors was located in a strip mall, and there were legitimate businesses on either side. One business to the left was a children’s store and one business to the right was a grocery store. After law enforcement had made contact with the massage parlor and the investigation became overt, then people from the private businesses left and right came out and said, "Oh, we always thought there was something going on."
TOBIAS: Let's talk about where traffickers are recruiting victims.
BREWER: They're recruiting vulnerable people. So vulnerable people, who are they? Those are maybe children who are in the social justice system, whether they're in foster care or they're missing from care. They're recruiting people who have, maybe, a mental health disability, or are homeless, someone that's living in poverty. Clearly, it's someone (who) has a vulnerability. There are people that are recruited who are coming from stable homes, that have what you might think as everything that they need, but they might be missing love. They might be missing some part of their hierarchy of need. Maslow's hierarchy of need: everybody wants to feel wanted, wants to feel loved, wants to feel nurtured, needs food, needs survival, needs housing. And because of those needs, that makes someone vulnerable. Those who seek to exploit are looking for the person that has one of those vulnerabilities.