A nationwide effort to address child sex trafficking last weekend included a number of arrests in Colorado Springs, underscoring a growing problem throughout Colorado.
The Metro Vice and Narcotics Unit, a multi-jurisdictional team that includes members of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, the Teller County Sheriff's Office, the Fountain Police Department and the Colorado Springs Police Department, arrested nine individuals in connection with prostitution-related offenses and cleared several warrants over a three-day period from July 25 to 27. None of those arrested was a juvenile.
Local law enforcement also "obtained an array of information relating to prostitution in our jurisdiction from the involved parties," according to Barbara Miller, police spokeswoman.
Police arrested one woman, 29-year-old Kristina Roome, twice on two consecutive days after she showed up for dates with an undercover officer. According to police, many of the prostitutes arrested could have been drawn into the lifestyle as children - lured by older men who took advantage of them and then forced them into becoming sex slaves.
The FBI led the nationwide, 76-city joint enforcement operation, named Operation Cross Country VII, as part of the Innocence Lost Task Force. Overall, 105 victimized children were recovered and 150 pimps were arrested on state and federal charges. The Denver Division, which includes Colorado Springs, was the fourth highest in operation arrests out of all the FBI divisions in the nation.
"We're considering these individuals with an investigation," said Dave Joly, spokesman for the FBI Denver Division. "A lot of these people (prostitutes), we are considering them as victims, not as suspects."
Between Wyoming and Colorado, the FBI oversaw the recovery of nine juveniles and the arrest and identification of a number of pimps and prostitutes, according Joly.Law enforcement in Denver, Pueblo, Douglas and Jefferson counties were among the agencies that participated in the sweep.
Between Jan. 2012 and June 2013, the regional FBI faction and local law enforcement officers recovered 80 children who investigators believe were victims of sexual exploitation in that same area, Joly said.
In recent years, awareness and education have led to increased reporting, investigation and prosecution of sex trafficking cases in Colorado, according to Amanda Finger, Executive Director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking based in Denver. Finger said that law enforcement and non-profits have been working together since about 2005, yielding success in targeting the issue.
"We are seeing more of it partly because there have been coordinated efforts," she said. "I don't know if it's a growing problem, but there is definitely growing recognition."
Sex trafficking falls under the umbrella of human trafficking, a problem that has gained national momentum in both legislative and law enforcement circles.
Human trafficking is broken into two major subsets - trafficking for labor or commercial sex - and encompasses the loss of human rights, such as the lack of pay for work and a degree of servitude akin to slavery.
While trafficking victims can be physically trapped, experts say they are most often psychologically bound to their abusers.
From 2008-2012, over 300 potential and confirmed cases of human trafficking were identified in Colorado, Finger said. There could be more, however, because of discrepancies in reporting and identifying cases.
"One of the reasons I think it happens in the state is that people don't know what human trafficking is," Finger said.
Lt. Mark Comte, a supervisor in the Vice and Narcotics Unit, said local enforcement has been working with non-governmental organizations and federal partners to take action and recover victims whenever possible. While he knows that sex trafficking victims, including children, exist in the region, fighting the criminals who perpetuate such activity has come down to staying ahead of savvy pimps who are keeping up with police tactics.
"We've been tracking child prostitutions and human trafficking for about a year now in Colorado Springs," Comte said. "We took this opportunity to get involved. Last year was our first time participating in it (Operation Cross Country) and we weren't too organized with it, but we're a little more experienced now."
The unit is working on its ability to assist victims with an appropriate response as well, Comte said, and how to recognize children who have been impacted by trafficking and reestablish them into a normal life.
"Basically, the Internet has changed a lot of things," Comte said. "With the advent of the Internet, some of these sites, like backpage.com, have increased the ability to conduct this business discretely. When it's done discretely, it's not done on the street corner like it was 20 years ago."
Betty Edwards, Chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado located in Colorado Springs, agrees that communities need to adapt to changing prostitution practices.
Edwards' organization is working to make young people aware of the tactics pimps use to lure victims and enslave them in the sex trade. Representatives from the task force regularly meet with groups to help them recognize victims and how to get them help.
"It's a continuing thing," she said. "We have to continue on. We want the community to know what's going on with this horrible crime so that they keep their eyes open and know how to report it."
Contact Jesse Paul at 636-0253. Twitter: @JesseAPaul