A new organization that is focusing on human trafficking and domestic violence has set up shop in Pine Bluff and is working to bring awareness to what they say is a growing concern. Shanta Rice, the project director for Ambassadors for Christ, said that since May 1, when they began operations here, the group has worked four cases involving inappropriate relationships between younger girls and older boys.

One of those instances involved a relationship between a 14-year-old girl and a 19-year-old male. Rice and Outreach/Case Manager Angela Roby were the guest speakers at the monthly Coffee with the Chiefs, sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Tuesday.

“Be aware that it is going on here, at the mall, in schools and in neighborhoods,” Roby said.

She said that victims are frequently targeted because they have no support system, and in many in many cases, victims are given money or gifts to gain their affection and to keep them quiet about what is happening to them.

“Human trafficking is the second oldest illegal crime in the world,” Roby said. Trafficking typically involves forced labor or sex, with the latter being the most popular form spreading across the world.

Rice said her organization — which is a 501 (c)3 non profit — began in Houston, Texas, in 2006 and is not affiliated with any church.

A worldwide problem

July 30 marked the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a day focused on ending the criminal exploitation of children, women and men for forced labor or sex work. Between 27 and 45.8 million individuals worldwide are trapped in some form of modern-day slavery. The victims are forced into slavery as sex workers, beggars and child soldiers, or as domestic workers, factory workers and laborers in manufacturing, construction, mining, commercial fishing and other industries.

Human trafficking occurs in every country in the world, including the U.S. It’s a hugely profitable industry, generating an estimated $150 billion annually in illegal profits per year. In fact, it’s one of the largest sources of profit for global organized crime, second only to illicit drugs.

Trafficking often begins with fraudulent recruitment methods, such as promises of employment or romance. Data can help identify specific economically depressed areas, where we can deploy awareness campaigns and social service support. Trafficking networks are dynamic. Traffickers are likely to frequently change distribution and transportation routes to avoid detection, leaving law enforcement and analysts with incomplete information as they attempt to identify and dismantle trafficking networks.

However, researchers can help by tracking subtle trends in data at various locations; at access points where we actually come in contact with victims, such as the emergency room; and in the activity of local law enforcement.

In the sex trade, for example, clues may be found in patterns of petty theft, by looking at transactional data from purchases at retail outlets. Victims sometimes steal essential supplies that traffickers may not provide for them such as feminine hygiene products, soap and toothpaste. Trends in the use of cash for transactions normally made with debit or credit cards – hotel bookings, for example – may also raise a red flag.

Traffickers advertise on social media and internet-based sites. Analytics could seek patterns in photos through facial recognition software, comparing images from missing person reports or trafficking ads. Sex trafficking activity, in particular, leaves traces in the public areas of the internet, mostly in the form of advertisements and escort ads. Advertisers tend to use social networks and dating websites, while more proficient traffickers frequently alter their online presence to try to elude identification.

To help authorities identify trafficking operations to target, researchers could turn to network analysis, a mathematical way of representing real world systems and their interactions. For example, network analysis can be used to map out the dynamics of users and their connections embedded in social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. This can possibly identify at-risk persons or, alternatively, traffickers or customers.

‘The most vulnerable’

Back in Pine Bluff, Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter said there have been cases come across his desk that would fit the profile of older people taking advantage of younger ones for sex.

“Sex crimes involving young boys and girls occur in many cases because minors are the most vulnerable,” Hunter said.

Rice said that in many instances, human trafficking is not like what it presented on television, with young people being taken away from their homes and neighborhoods in vans and sent to other cities where they are forced to have sex in exchange for money.

“We’re trying to collaborate with churches, schools, youth camps and other organizations to get the word out,” she said.

For information contact Rice at 870-619-2914.

Portions of this article were contributed by the Associated Press.