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Guest Editorial: Battle vs. human trafficking continues

Strides have been made to curb human trafficking in Minnesota and North Dakota, but anyone who thinks this social ill is cured is sadly mistaken. Several times in the past year, trafficking has appeared in headlines, showing it still exists in this region.

For example, on Nov. 10, the Pioneer Press of St. Paul reported that the leader of an international sex ring targeting this region was sentenced to prison. Sophia Navas led a group that preyed on foreign-born victims who were trapped in the United States and couldn't speak English. The ring ran from 2015 to 2017 — aided by advertisements on the website Backpage.com — and forced women to earn at least $800 per day or risk being "fired."

January is Trafficking Awareness Month, and it's a time to reflect both on what has been done to reduce this evil as well as what still can be done.

One of the most instrumental developments came in 2017, when the adult section of Backpage.com was shut down. Later, the entire site was shuttered. The site — an online classified ad site similar to Craigslist — was a hotspot for contact information for prostitution, likely performed by women who were being trafficked. It regularly featured ads for potential meet-ups in North Dakota and Minnesota, including Greater Grand Forks.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., were instrumental in the fight against Backpage.com.

Although traffickers and prostitutes still are using the internet to advertise, we consider the shutdown of Backpage.com as an important victory in the battle against trafficking.

And here's more good news: According to data on the National Human Trafficking Hotline website, North Dakota trafficking reports to the NHTH are declining. There were 65 calls and 18 cases reported in 2016 and 47 calls and 23 cases reported in 2017. Although data is incomplete for 2018, the NHTH website shows just 15 calls and six cases through June.

NHTH data in Minnesota isn't quite as optimistic, but it still shows improvement. In 2016, there were 301 calls and 66 reports in Minnesota. There were 254 calls and 74 cases in 2017 and through June of 2018, there were 110 calls and 45 case reports.

Legislatures in both states have worked in recent sessions to curb trafficking, securing funding for services as well as creating and increasing penalties for traffickers.

Meanwhile, in light of Trafficking Awareness Month, our sister newspaper in Duluth recently urged readers to learn to spot signs of potential sexual exploitation and trafficking. According to the News Tribune, signs include:

■ Slang, like "the life," "daddy," "track," "johns" and "stable."

■ Older boyfriends or girlfriends.

■ Evidence of control or dominance in a relationship, including repeated phone calls.

■ Online activity on classified ad websites.

■ Unexplained tattoos, especially on the neck or hand.

■ Downplayed health problems.

■ Inappropriate or sexually provocative clothing.

■ Sudden cash, expensive clothes, a new cellphone or other items without an established income.

■ Frequent fear, anxiety or paranoia.

■ Secrecy and vagueness regarding whereabouts.

■ Late nights and unusual hours.

■ Running away.

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