Freature: Magazine Crew - Human trafficking may have knocked at your door.

Published November 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 10

by Margo Pierce
photos by Adrian Diubaldo

 Some of the 27 million people worldwide who are bought, traded or are unwitting victims of human trafficking live and work in Colorado. It could be the person in the fields you drive past or on your doorstep telling you about a magazine offer. It’s not clear if Jose Garcia was a victim of human trafficking. He had one of those jobs that operates in a grey area. But one thing is certain: he is one of the lucky ones who was able to escape that possibility.

Garcia found his job in California when he met two assistant managers at the Los Angeles Union Station, where he was waiting for his wife.

“Everything was fine. Everything was perfect in California,” Garcia said, “but as soon as we got out of California they started changing. Everything started changing; their attitudes, their…everything.”

According to Garcia and two of his coworkers, one supervisor was even punched several times in the chest by the owner of the company after coming back from a day of work with too few sales.

Hired into what’s called a “magazine crew,” Garcia and two other young men who were “dumped” for not making enough sales in Denver, were stranded after the promises made to them turned out to be lies. Those promises included a daily salary, free accommodations and meals, an opportunity to win $2,000 cash and overseas trips, along with a bus ticket home if they decided they didn’t like the job. But Garcia, James and Monty got nothing.

“I was looking through a job joint, and I seen this ad that says ‘Travel Money-Makers,’” Monty Randall recalls. “I called it up and they schedule me an interview right then and there. They hired me right there on the spot.”

Monty Randall

“I was told we’d live rent-free,” Monty says. “Now they say, ‘Oh, you guys got to make at least three sales to have rent covered and gas … and for your food.’ That really threw me off.”

At the commission rate of $5 per magazine sale, each of the 12-15 crew members living in two hotel rooms would have to sell 30 magazines a day to make the promised $150; most days nobody sold any. After working from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. without a break or meals, each crew member received $3 to buy food.

Employees of the company currently known as Team Green USA (also formerly known as Readers Association of America, National Cash Award and Cash Award Program, according to Garcia and other crew members) refused requests for an interview.

Experts in the field estimate that 45,000 - 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually, with forced labor being the most prevalent. The most frequently seen forms of trafficking are prostitution and sex services (46 percent), domestic service (27 percent), agriculture (10 percent); sweatshop/factory work (5 percent) and restaurant and hotel work (4 percent.)

Accurate statistics are hard to come by given that most law enforcement don’t have a “human trafficking” category as a way to track arrests.

Whether Garcia’s situation fits the definition of human trafficking is open to debate. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000 defines “severe forms of trafficking” as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery” (8 U.S.C. § 1101).

Fraud seems apparent in this case, in the form of lies about wages and working conditions. Experts in the field believe a case could be made for coercion, given that all three men were looking for work in the midst of double-digit unemployment, leaving them open to accepting substandard conditions for a paycheck. But would this be enough to get law enforcement to begin an investigation?

“An easy way to help categorize whether or not something is akin to trafficking is to look at a model that we call ‘Actions Means Purpose’ – it helps break down the Trafficking Victims Protection Act,” says Lauren Croucher, Human Trafficking Project Manager at Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA).

The actions traffickers take include “recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining of a person,” according to Croucher. The means can be things such as physical force, physical abuse, withholding their documents or coercion by means of promising money or threatening family members. The final step, purpose, is the reason these people are trafficked, to provide for labor and services. Commercial sex, domestic service, agriculture, sweatshop/factory work and restaurant and hotel work are the most prevalent forms of trafficking in the United States.

Anyone can be forced into a human trafficking situation. The usual “requirement” is some form of vulnerability that can be exploited. But the word “trafficking” confuses people.

“Nothing within any of the laws or legal definitions talks about the legal status of a person or the requirement of somebody being transported across borders,” Croucher says. “So these magazine crews are a great example of domestic trafficking situations where legally U.S. citizens are recruited into these jobs, they’re promised money, they’re promised good opportunities, travel. It looks really great on paper.

“The caution is that not all of these magazine crews and all these traveling sales crews are trafficking. Some of them are just wage and labor violations where somebody’s just not being paid and there may not be exploitative or physical violence or the level of coercion that we normally see in a trafficking case. Some can be legit. Some can be shady. Some are trafficking.”

In Colorado, the trafficking of homeless youth is a reality, according to Seth Donovan, the founder and now board member of Prax(us), an anti-trafficking group in Colorado that works specifically with cases of domestic youth trafficking.

“They aren’t going to youth with support, who have basic survival resources,” Donovan says. “And they usually prey directly on their vulnerabilities to recruit them into the crews and use those vulnerabilities against them once they become dissatisfied with the job situation. Substance control and abuse, physical abuse and control, threats of contacting family or law enforcement for youth who are on the run: those are used against them, which is documentable as a force issue. And it’s the reason the FBI nationally is partnering with us in investigating these crews and collecting testimony, because they see that really clear link to the force, fraud and coercion piece.”

Prax(us) has helped a number of kids who were trapped in magazine crews. In one case Donovan went to pick up a boy who refused to leave an elementary school. He ran away from a magazine crew and had no idea what state he was in; he just wanted to go home.

Within the state of Colorado a host of organizations have come together to serve the needs of trafficking victims under the umbrella of the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking (CoNET). In addition to staffing a 24-hour hotline (1-866-455-5075) that is available to assist victims, take anonymous tips, provide information and make referrals for training, among other things, CoNET serves as a model for how sometimes competitive non-profits can work together.

Garcia, James and Monty were an example of this collaboration in action, as explained by Chris Conner, street outreach case manager at Urban Peak. Jerene Petersen with the Mile-High United Way first met the young men on her lunch hour.

“She brought them back to the United Way with her, where she called the street outreach coordinator for Road Home, Katie Symons. (She) in turn called me and told me they needed assistance,” Conner says.

“I just set up shop at a table in the United Way and started having a conversation with them. I, oddly enough, had a guest with me on outreach that evening who is the Youth Services Administrator for Denver Human Services here in town, Tracy Neely. There were a lot of people ultimately involved beyond me in that case as well. I was able to facilitate in a lot of the efforts other people wanted to make to help them out. So it was good, one of the better examples of the city working together.”

Understanding the kinds of trafficking in the state and the needs of survivors is a challenge. Under-age girls and boys in the commercial sex industry tend to grab headlines. However, domestic servitude – housekeepers, nannies – are held in isolation without neighbors being aware of their existence. Few people pay attention to the ethnicity, working conditions or labor practices on farms and ranches, but there’s an increase in the trafficking of foreign-born agricultural labor. Polaris Project Colorado has been working to develop reliable data. For four years the organization has focused on training first responders and professionals and has begun a community-needs assessment.

Amanda Austin, street outreach worker for Polaris Project Colorado, says that they’re working on a “snapshot of knowledge in the community [among] potential first responders, like service providers, and what is their capacity to case-manage, to provide shelter, to provide food and provide those different types of services.”
Hard numbers are difficult to pin down because human trafficking is clandestine. Few states have anti-trafficking laws and the feds are spread thin, so traffickers are rarely caught.

Colorado Revised Statutes include a smuggling provision (CRS 06-206) and a trafficking provision (CRS 06-207); however, to date only one trafficking case has been filed and there are no prosecutions, according to Croucher. Like any crime, it’s not possible to “arrest” our way out of the problem. But anti-trafficking advocates believe it’s possible to bring an end to slavery and indentured servitude in our lifetime.

“I think it will take huge cultural and systemic shifts around oppression in general but my life and work is built on the foundation that it’s possible,” Donovan says. “It’s just a lot of work to get there.”
Donovan uses the example of farm workers to explain how some people are valued more or less than others based on their work. She describes the legal protections given to other workers that aren’t applied equally for those in agriculture.

“We’ve already set a standard where some populations of folks, some work areas, are just not valued enough to care about what happens to those people and the value of their labor,” Donovan says. “As soon as that standard is set, why should we be surprised at some point that someone is exploited in violent ways for free labor and sexual abuse?”

On the street level, the experience of helping kids dumped from magazine crews is translating into practical lessons for Conner and his colleagues. When a young woman from the same magazine crew that Garcia, James and Monty left showed up at the Urban Peak Drop In Center to recruit new sales associates, Conner sent an e-mail to his contacts. But the legitimate-looking job ads are difficult to counter.

Jose Garcia

Garcia and Monty both responded to ads in California, but James was picked up by a crew manager stopping at a 7-Eleven in his hometown in Utah. The three men banded together after witnessing physical abuse of one sales associate, repeated verbal assaults on several others and two more who were dropped on the side of the road – one in Las Vegas and the other in a mountainous region of Colorado – with no money or resources to get home.

All three are still bewildered by the direction they were given to lie to potential customers, saying that they were in a competition to win points. They say that the competition to win $2,000 cash and a trip were scams to get them to do sales.

“One day during the meeting the manager, he asked, ‘Now, are you guys lying to the Jonses?’ They call the Jonses regular people,” James says. “We’re all like (shaking) our heads, and he’s like, ‘You better start then.’ They said … do whatever it takes to make the sales – lying, don’t matter what it is.’ ”
Monty finally ended up going along just to make some cash.

“I would say, ‘Are you familiar with the Gift of Giving? The Gift of Giving is we send a children’s magazine to the St. Jude’s Hospital or we send a magazine to the troops,’ ” he says.

“Also, a dollar could secure us 100 points. That was something I came up with because I wasn’t making any money, so I really was depending on the donations for food and stuff. And I would just tell them, ‘Whatever you feel comfortable donating, that also secures us points.’ ”

All three young men are now home thanks to United Way and a host of anti-trafficking and outreach workers. But this story will play out over and over again.

“Trafficking is happening here in Colorado,” Croucher says. “It’s happening frequently. It’s happening to so many different types of people there’s no way to stereotype what a trafficking victim looks like and what a trafficker looks like. So, I’d really like people to think outside the box … call our hotline – the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking; we’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call with tips. You can call with suggestions, needs for training – whatever it is.”