The recent disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito has outraged people all over the world. But, what about the victims closer to home?
Indigenous women go missing and are murdered regularly here in New Mexico at disportionate rates.
Reporter Taylor Velazquez speaks with lawmakers, advocates, and survivors about how vulnerable the state is when it comes to perpetuating violence against women.
Within the last 6 years, the state has only passed two human trafficking bills. However, some legislators right now are fighting for updated changes that hold traffickers accountable.
"Historically we haven’t really looked at this as seriously. And maybe I’m really going out on limb here, and get bashed for this, I think crimes which are primarily against women have historically been viewed as less serious."
That’s New Mexico Representative Elizabeth Thomson. She was one of the co-sponsors of a bill that would fundamentally change how human traffickers are charged depending on the ages of their victims.
Right now, the problem is human trafficking prison time varies from a range of 9-18 years, again, depending on the age of the victim. Another huge change in this bill would stop law enforcement from slapping prostitution charges on all of these victims.
But, Thomson said she’s pushing for the maximum punishment across the board.
"And that the person who is a trafficker doesn’t get filthy rich off the work of their trafficked people and just get to keep the money, and the trafficked people are left out in the cold once again. So, it puts some kind of financial teeth into the law" said Thomson.
Becoming excessively rich does happen in trafficking schemes, case in point, Jeffery Epistein’s ongoing alleged sex trafficking case.
New Mexico was one of the many places the convicted sex offender exploited young girls/ in an high profile sex trafficking ring, serving the rich and the powerful. Just this year, Epistein’s Santa Fe Ranch hit the market at $27.5 million dollars.
Thomson feels that because of the Epstein case, there’s some urgency to make significant law changes.
But, Thomson said, it was very difficult to get this complicated bill passed in this year’s regular legislative session because there wasn’t enough time. But, she’s hopeful something might budge next year.
Not only are legislators taking a look at human trafficking, but advocates are worried that New Mexico is just simply behind the times and should act with urgency.
"Our state has kind of made itself vulnerable to human trafficking by not addressing it well in legislation and within the rule of law within our state. Because it’s not addressed well, then what that means is that criminals can get away with little to know penalty."
That’s Shelley Repp, Executive Director of the New Mexico Dream Center, an advocacy organization that is centered around human trafficking in New Mexico. She said that passing legislation is a multi-year process, but there shouldn’t be any excuses to not pass any legislation revolving around these issues.
"When we look at that, what we see, is that we’ve seen a pattern of bills addressing criminal code being held up there we’ve seen a number of bills addressing child welfare being hung up here as well." Repp said.
Without crucial legislation, where do we go from here?
Repp said education is key to understanding what domestic trafficking is and to come to terms with, that we, as a nation, have a human trafficking crisis.
"When a young person is on the street, especially if they are that ‘run away or throw away kid.’ Nobody is really looking for them. So, if there’s nobody looking for them, then it is super easy for the trafficker to identify and find them. There’s no report made that they’re missing, there’s you know none of those kinds of things. They kind of just disappear."
Even though many counts are not completely comprehensive, it’s estimated that 5,000 youth are homeless in just Albuquerque alone, with 1 out of 5 falling victim to some sort of human trafficking.
The U.S. Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year estimates that 11,574 public school students faced homelessness in the entire state.
Repp said, human trafficking is about acknowleding the truama, vulnerability, and teaching law enforcement and medical professionals to be empathetic.
"We have had young people come into The Harbour with very serious injuries. And we’re like, 'hey, we need to take you to the ER or we can call an ambulance, this is beyond our first aid capabilities.' And they’re like 'no,no,no', they have to almost on their last dying breath to be willing to go get medical care.
The “Harbour” she’s talking about is a drop-in center for kids experiencing homelessness to access resources. If possible, Repp and her team use education to prevent trafficking or identify and care for those who have been trafficked.
Traffickers have a vast knowledge of these current gaps in the system, but most of all, they capitalize on the prevalence of violence against women.
4 in 5 Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetime. That’s according to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. And for over half of that accounts for sexual violence. The Department of Justice found that Indigenous women are murdered at rates 10 times more than the national average.
Michele Curtis is on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and Relatives Task Force and is the Project Coordinator for Sex Trafficking at the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Curtis said, right now there’s a lot of missing data.
"We are in tribal communities, it’s rural area, we’re overlooked when it comes to state and federal law enforcement. With different tribal governments they have their own sovereign government system, so, that’s a huge impact with jurisdiction."
To her, serving on the impact committee of the task force is about educating law enforcement about MMIW, because for Curtis it's about believing the stories of survivors.
"It takes an individual to give their full attention to the victim. And with the Native American culture, it’s a stigma to let others know what you’re going through –– when it’s something bad." Curtis said.
One thing Curtis said she would like to see from the Legislature is funding, because shelter is hard to find for trafficking victims who need intensive care.
"There’s not a lot of human trafficking resources, within tribal communities, I have not heard of any. So, with legislation I do hope that they realize that this is a real life problem."
Gabby Petito. It’s a name we all know. Petito’s disappearance and later ruled homicide earlier this month has captivated the world’s attention. But there’s an epidemic closer to home where Indigenous women are going missing and being murdered at exponential rates –– with zero media attention.
“It’s that whole,‘missing white girl syndrome.’ People need to be aware of that because, I don’t think that the color of someone’s skin should matter whether or not they get their missing poster out to the media. As Indigenous people, we should not have to be our own media source, but we are.”
That’s Jessica Gidagaakoons Smith, the education coordinator for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force and a survivor of sexual assault and human trafficking herself. Jessica said, from experience, more needs to be done to support victims.
"There are not any safety nets in place for survivors in the justice system. In my research, I found that, only 6% of Native survivors actually feel safe reporting any violent crime against them."
One crucial component is that jurisdictional issues need to be fixed fast, because without this change nothing will get better.
"I’ve just heard a story about a woman who was very brutally assaulted and because it happened off reservation and her attacker fleed to reservation she was told by tribal police that they couldn’t go and arrest him because that’s not their jurisdiction." Smith said.
As we have learned with Gabby Petito, having the media platform to get information out into the world can be all the difference in finding a body or a missing person. But Indigenous women go missing everyday in our own backyard without us even hearing a peep about it.
"Even just on social media, there are so many different groups and things like that, that people can join to get informed" said Smith.
The same armchair detectives that pieced together Gabby’s story, have the same access to many Indigenous run accounts putting out names and pictures of missing persons. There are hundreds of Indigenous women’s cases just waiting to be solved, but the question is, will anyone take the time?
Human Trafficking Hotline: 505-GET-FREE