EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – When it comes to human trafficking, law enforcement officials often describe the border as a corridor, not a destination. Still, the FBI El Paso Field Office has arrested 19 people in the past two years in connection with forced prostitution and other sexual commercial acts.

“We do see some victims that perhaps are from El Paso or were smuggled from Mexico into El Paso, so they do touch this area, but they don’t stay here,” said Aida Reyes, supervisor for the bureau’s human trafficking and crimes against children squad here. “With the proximity of Interstate 10, we have information to believe they are sent to larger cities such as Houston or the Chicago area.”

Crimes of human trafficking have been rising since 2020 due to people spending more time at home – and in front of their computers – because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FBI’s caseload of forced sexual exploitation and slave labor has increased from 604 in the fiscal year 2021 to more than 1,700 now.

“It’s quite an increase. I attribute it to people being more online … kids have gone to online schooling, even adults are online a little bit more. It’s an opportunity for individuals to take advantage of people who’re more isolated. They tend to reveal their vulnerabilities and people exploit those vulnerabilities,” Reyes said.

One of the traffickers’ favorite tools is “sextortion.” That involves starting an online conversation with a young boy or girl posing as a peer, daring them to send revealing images and threatening to publicize the photo or video unless the victim engages in further sexual acts.

Reyes said she recently dealt with the case of two underage girls, both U.S. citizens, who were coerced into engaging in commercial sex acts by a couple they met online. “It was heart-wrenching to see how the victims felt so much shame and felt it was their fault for finding themselves in this situation. They could not see how much control their pimps exerted over them,” she said.

The rising online trend is prompting the bureau to promote public awareness of this illegal activity and dispel common misconceptions. Other agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are following suit as part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

“A lot of people get human smuggling and human trafficking confused. Smuggling is individuals who pay a fee, it’s consensual. No one is forced or coerced,” she said. Trafficking involves applying psychological pressure or threats to get someone, usually a young woman or boy, to engage in commercial sex. In some cases, trafficking involves forcing an older man or woman or a recently arrived immigrant to work for free.

“We see those cases, for example, in restaurants and agriculture. […] the hospitality industry, casinos, nightclubs, massage parlors (and labor trafficking in) landscaping and construction,” Reyes said. The El Paso Field Office came across three labor trafficking victims in 2020 but none in 2021.

The FBI urges citizens who come across young men and women who may be victims of sex trafficking or elderly adults or migrants who might be victims of labor slavery to contact law enforcement.

If they see the victim in immediate threat of bodily harm, witnesses should call 911 immediately. If you suspect you’ve spotted sex trafficking or slave labor, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.