Bringing Awareness to Trafficking

By Nate Boulter
AATN Program Officer and Board Member


The mission of  Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network (AATN) is to eliminate human trafficking in Arizona by raising awareness, reducing demand and fostering prevention efforts with youth.


Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain or commit labor or a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act is any sexual act on the commercial or open market. It can take place in person on the street, in strip clubs (private or public), on the internet, in the form of pornography or web camming, through prostitution deals and any other sexually explicit activity. Human trafficking is exploitation-based, and many victims don’t realize they are being trafficked until they are well into “the life”. Some don’t realize it until they are out of “the life” and look back on their past.

In Arizona, there is a common misconception human trafficking involves human smuggling. Human smuggling is a completely different crime. The crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever. Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own hometowns, even their own homes.

In 2022, the United States Department of Justice released a statistic showing 83% of trafficking victims are U.S. citizens. The youth and young adults who are being trafficked in Arizona are from neighborhoods and homes, right here in our own communities.

When people are asked what images come to mind when thinking about human trafficking, most describe a white paneled van kidnapping a child, or images of individuals (usually young girls) chained to beds with duct tape over their mouths. This is an indicator the human trafficking movement has not done a good enough job educating our communities about what human trafficking really looks like.


The Grooming Process

The process of grooming victims relies heavily upon social media and influencing potential victims through compliments, kindness, “likes,” and exploiting any vulnerability in their self-esteem or family dynamic. Traffickers will spend weeks and months to gain the trust and affection of their victims, effectively building walls around their victims and isolating them from their friends and family in plain sight. Once this level of trust and affection is built, a trafficker can sell their victim right inside their own home.

Unfortunately, most trafficking victims believe they are in love with their trafficker. Although the relationship is built upon deceit and desire for money, the victim develops a bond with their trafficker akin to the relationships which domestic violence victims share with their abusers. It is very difficult to break this bond and get trafficking victims out of this “life.”



This is used to keep victims in line and to perform the duties required by their traffickers. This can be emotional and mental coercion through physical threats against family members, blackmail and sextortion. Also because the majority of trafficking victims are female, control of children is a commonly used tactic. Some traffickers will intentionally impregnate their victims, and if they don’t meet their quotas and behave appropriately, they may not get visitation or will receive threats of violence against their children.



This tactic is used later in the process to keep victims performing and under the trafficker’s control. Even though the process of grooming involves actions that are portrayed as love, once a victim of trafficking has had enough, force can be used as a reminder they are property and not allowed to make their own decisions. This is when holding someone against their will (kidnapping), physical violence, drugging, torture and more can happen to victims.

Trafficking comes down to greed for money. Every victim involved is given a daily quota to meet. This is the amount of money a trafficker requires the victim to earn each day and be turned over to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s obtained through sex acts or other means; the victim knows they must meet the quota or there will be physical consequences such as withholding food or drink, sleep deprivation and more. In the world of trafficking, there are no weekends or holidays, business is performed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Human beings who are trafficking victims are considered property and assets used to make money.


The trafficking landscape

According to ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, the average age a child is forced into sex trafficking in Arizona is 14.5 to 14.8 years of age. The national average is around 14.2 years of age. What’s interesting to note about this number is even though the age of entering trafficking is 14.5 to 14.8 years of age, grooming typically starts around 12 to 14 years of age, the age most kids are gaining access to smart phones and social media platforms. It is vital for parents to monitor online activities and have age-appropriate discussions of what is acceptable online activity and conversations.

One of the biggest things parents can do is not allow young kids to have phones in their rooms at night or have access to phones and computers behind closed doors. Many parents and youth don’t understand the capabilities and capacities of most apps on the market, which provide access to anyone, anywhere in the world. As a result, it is almost impossible to shield our youth from predators.

At the 2022 Shared Hope “JuST” (Juvenile Sex Trafficking) Conference, an updated statistic of young boys and teenagers was presented. Current statistics show young boys and male teenagers now make up 12% to 14% of the trafficking market. What is shocking about this number is that in 2020, young boys and male teenagers only made up 6% to 7% of the market.

As more research is being conducted and resources offered, more trafficked males are being found. Currently it is thought that the highest paid commodity in the sex trafficking market is a young boy.


Trafficking— a game of numbers

Where large groups of men and large amounts of money are found, traffickers will be as well. One study that surveyed over 8,800 men respondents found most men in society won’t buy sex, but approximately 6% of men will buy sex if the conditions were “right.” When looking at major events (from car shows, golf tournaments to the Super Bowl) it is primarily men who attend these events. Studies have shown the contributing factors that make the conditions for buying sex “right” are when large groups of men get together, away from their homes or towns, without the company of their spouses or significant others.

During events earlier this year, 33 local and federal law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations teamed up to work operations for three straight weeks. Law enforcement made over 350 arrests for those involved in attempts to buy sex. Just over 50 of these arrests were the apprehensions of suspects who were specifically trying to buy sex with underage youth in our community. Overall, these operations were a large success. Every year law enforcement hosts operations to surround events like the Super Bowl, but the Super Bowl only comes to Arizona every 7 years or so. There are many other events that draw larger attendance every year in the Valley making the conditions “right” for sex buying.


How to recognize a trafficking situation

There are numerous indicators to identify trafficking, and each person might see them differently. For example, Arizona has a robust hospitality and tourism industry. Hoteliers will see this issue differently than the construction crew working on the side of a road. Because of the differences in scenarios, the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network (AATN) provides a multi-faceted human trafficking training approach.


SAFE Action Project

For our partners in the hospitality and tourism industry, AATN offers training through the SAFE Action Project, a collaboration between AATN, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations. The training ensures members of this industry are not unknowingly facilitating trafficking at their hotels and businesses. It’s a tragic fact that almost 80% of our trafficking victims will be trafficked at a hotel during their trafficking ordeal. The front desk will see signs in a different way than the housekeeping staff; the concierge and valets will notice even different signs; even food and beverage employees will have a different perspective. This makes it imperative all employees are trained to notice the signs that might be present in each of their respective roles.


CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation)

AATN offers training for cities, counties and tribal governments through CEASE. This program works to train at least 75% of a city or county’s workforce on the signs of human trafficking and teaches specific indicators that groups such as police, fire, park rangers, and other city staff might see during the course of their work. Cities employ large numbers of staff and through this training all employees are taught how to recognize trafficking and how to report it.


The TRUST (Training and Resources United to Stop Trafficking)

This program works to educate the community about what human trafficking and sex trafficking looks like. We train community groups, medical and hospital personnel, school districts, faith-based organizations, businesses and any interested group(s) in the community how to recognize and report trafficking situations. In 2023, TRUST began the TRUSTED Businesses Program to recognize businesses who have taken a proactive stance in training 75% or more of their staff to recognize trafficking and report potential trafficking situations.


What are common indicators of trafficking?

Individuals without access to their own ID, passport, or money (a common control tactic). Without an ID, victims can’t get on a plane or even a bus to escape their trafficker.

Demonstrates a sudden change in attire, personal hygiene, relationships, or material possessions (i.e., expensive jewelry, purses, shoes, manicured nails, even eyelash extensions). Many of these indicators really stand out, particularly with youth who are being groomed and potentially forced into trafficking. Traffickers will fill any need or vulnerability of their victim. If parents take a phone away, a trafficker will buy a replacement. If the victim has low self-esteem, the trafficker will do what they can to increase their appearance and popularity, showing the victim the trafficker is the “only person who cares about them.” Even though this is a lie, the victim’s perception of being cared for and treated kindly convinces them they are important.

Abundance of hotel room key cards. Many young victims like to keep mementos of travel and new places. This has been a big indicator of trafficking. Unless a family is traveling a lot, it should raise red flags when a youth has hotel room key cards.

Numerous inconsistencies in his/her story, or answers seem coached.

Dressed inappropriately for their age; has lower quality of clothing than companions; wearing clothing inappropriate for current weather conditions or surroundings. Most victims can fit all of their personal belongings in a bag the size of a common plastic grocery bag.

Presence of an overly controlling boyfriend. It is a sad statistic a majority of trafficking victims are trafficked by someone they know. Traffickers will be patient to build trust and strong relationships with the victim, their family and even friends.

Averts eyes or does not make eye contact with the trafficker or other men. In our society, we are taught that making eye contact is a sign of respect. However, trafficking victims are taught they are property of the trafficker. If they make eye contact with their trafficker, especially in a public location, they are essentially saying they are an “equal” with them. This behavior is likely to be punished. To reiterate, this is about money, not love, and trafficking victims are “property.”

Language and references include sex trafficking terminology such as: blade, trick, in-call or out-call, track, wifey, etc. These are not terms usually used in normal conversation or vernacular unless you are in the trafficking world.


These are but a few trafficking, and it is important to understand even if you see one of these indicators, it may not be trafficking. However, if you see three or more, consider taking action by calling your local law enforcement, the Arizona Tipline (877-4AZ-TIPS) or the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888).


Many times, people will see something that just doesn’t look right, but they don’t want to get involved. When it comes to trafficking, if we don’t get involved, this cycle of violence won’t stop.


No one reading this article should ever take direct action that would physically put them in harm’s way. Violence in this world is very real. If you see signs of trafficking, keep your distance and let law enforcement take the appropriate steps. This is not just a school problem, a tourism problem, or a law enforcement problem. Trafficking is everyone’s problem. We must work together to create an Arizona where no one is bought, sold or exploited.

It’s crucial to remember that rescue is not the final step to freedom for survivors, it is the beginning of a lifelong process of healing.


More about AATN

The Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network is a collaboration of programs fighting the multi-dimensions of Human Trafficking. Programs cover a wide spectrum that address community education, public awareness, prevention, demand reduction, male engagement on the issue and the tourism and hospitality sector. It is through these activities that we hope to eliminate Human Trafficking in Arizona by raising awareness, reducing demand and fostering prevention efforts with youth.

For further information visit