Authorities fight sex trafficking with soap at the Super Bowl

Jason Fields, Reuters

Posted at Feb 01 2019 08:58 AM

Mercedes Benz Stadium is seen during preparations ahead of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Georgia, US, January 31, 2019. Mike Segar, Reuters

WASHINGTON - Ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl, tens of thousands of unaccompanied men will arrive in Atlanta to schmooze and be schmoozed, but most of all to party.

That brings sex trafficking to the top of the agenda for US authorities such as the Atlanta Police Department and the FBI, and for smaller organizations that fight trafficking without guns, or even flashlights, but rather with bars of soap.

The bars – and makeup wipes – were dropped off last weekend at hundreds of hotels and motels around the city, labelled with a phone number and a message.

"Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted?" the black letters on the red label say.

"If so, please call: 1-888-373-7888," the Nation Human Trafficking Hotline.

Big sporting events, from the World Cup to the Olympics, regularly trigger a panic over an influx of sex workers, with many being victims of human trafficking.

Arrests of pimps running underage sex rings are reported at the National Football League's championship game almost every year, with girls being trafficked from as far away as Hawaii to hook up with clients via the internet, hotels and strip clubs.

The founder of the SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) project, Theresa Flores, believes what matters is putting the right message in the right place at the right time.

To her, that is a bar of soap in a hotel bathroom where a trafficking victim may be able to grab a moment alone.

And when a hotel or motel is hesitant to take the proffered soap or wipes?

"I tell them my story about how I would have found it when I was left for dead in a motel," Flores told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She herself is a survivor.

A TRAFFICKING MECCA?

Numerous local and national charities are using the most-watched event on US television to spread their message.

And every Atlanta police officer has taken two hours of instruction on how to recognize and deal with trafficking, spokesman Jarius Daugherty said in emailed comments.

The police are also working with the FBI, which declined to give specifics about its plans ahead of the Super Bowl.

Still, for all the attention trafficking receives around the Superbowl, experts are unclear whether it causes a big spike.

Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation. The majority are children, according to a US Senate report published in 2017.

The state of Georgia ranked seventh in the United States for calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017, according to Polaris, which runs the hotline.

But any increase in reports of trafficking could have more to do with awareness efforts than a spike in women and girls being brought to the Atlanta area for sex.

"We don't believe there is a significant increase in actual trafficking cases or victimization," Polaris spokesman Brandon Bouchard said in emailed comments.

"Rather it's a change in the marketing of commercial sex services that use the Super Bowl as a hook."

SOAP uses big national events like the Super Bowl and the Detroit autoshow to anchor their efforts, but over the weekend they also worked to help trafficking victims who have been in Atlanta all along.

In addition to the soap and makeup wipes, the group distributes posters with photos of 12 suspected victims in the Atlanta area.

Flores said it is not unusual for hotel clerks to recognize the girls from the posters.

"A lot of them think of this as prostitution - no, this is human trafficking," she said.

"We're really educating every single hotel out there."