Ahead of every recent Super Bowl, there’s a debate over whether the game is a magnet for sex traffickers.
Skeptics call it a myth that sex trafficking increases during the Super Bowl. Even advocacy groups, such as the Polaris Project and the International Human Trafficking Institute, dispute it, saying attention should focus instead on trafficking as a year-round phenomenon.
But others disagree, arguing sex traffickers are invariably attracted to large sporting events, such as the Feb 3 game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots.
“I think you will see commercial sex advertisements geared towards persons attending the Super Bowl,” said Kimberly Mehlman Orozo, an author who specializes in the study of sex trafficking.
“And some of those advertisements will be for victims of sex trafficking.”
Recently, with the game just days away, law enforcement arrested 33 individuals in metro Atlanta, this year’s Super Bowl host city, for sex trafficking. Authorities say four victims have already been rescued.
But who is looking out for other victims this weekend?
The Crime Report found a recent uptick in hotel engagement around the country to raise awareness for human trafficking, including flyers in public areas, pamphlets in hotel guest books, training programs for employees, and state laws requiring hotels and motels to take action.
In an emailed statement prepared for The Crime Report, Tu Rinsche, Marriott International’s director of human rights, said hotels play a critical role in the fight against sex slavery, especially this weekend.
Hotels can play an important role by contributing to prevention efforts through educating hotel workers on the many signs of human trafficking and to identify potential victims who may have been forced or coerced into an unwanted situation. Equally important is for hotels to work hand in hand with law enforcement authorities, non-profit organizations and governments. We can’t do it alone.
The Crime Report contacted the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Hilton Atlanta, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta— the largest hotels in the city— who declined comment.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, fueling a multi-billion dollar industry that remains hidden to the untrained eye.
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“And it’s not just low-end hotels—this problem is endemic.”
“In this climate of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, it’s on the minds of everyone I talk to in the hospitality industry,” says Spitz, “because nobody wants to be known as the hotel where trafficking occurs.”
Which is why hotel employees at the Ritz Carlton in Beaver Creek, CO., received training on how to spot a sex slave in 2017.
“If a guest pays in cash or requests a room with access to an exit, that’s a red flag,” said Ritz-Carlton team trainer Wendy Hunter, in front of a group of employees.
Behind her stood a large screen showing an image of a young girl and a list of signs of human trafficking that she ticked off.
“Does a guest speak for another person in their party?” she asked them. “Or seems too protective of them? Maybe he lingers outside their room for long periods of time? That’s the time to speak up, “Hunter said.
Hotels like Marriott International, which owns the Ritz-Carlton brand, have stepped up to address a problem happening right under their noses.
This month, Marriott announced it had successfully trained 500,000 hotel workers to spot the signs of human trafficking in its hotels through a new partnership with ECPAT-USA, an advocate organization focused on sexual exploitation of children.
The two organizations entered into an agreement called “The Code” which promised to implement the following criteria:
- Establish a corporate policy and procedures against sexual exploitation of children
- Train employees in children’s rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation and how to report suspected cases
- Include a clause in further partner contracts stating a common repudiation and zero tolerance policy of sexual exploitation of children
- Provide information to travelers on children’s rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation of children and how to report suspected cases
- Support, collaborate and engage stakeholders in the prevention of sexual exploitation of children
- Report annually on the company’s implementation of Code-related activities
They launched a mandatory human trafficking awareness training program last January, and so far, there has been a recovery credited to the training course.
Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, painted the following picture in an op-ed written for USA Today.
In the early morning hours in one of our hotels in New Orleans last March, a safety and security associate at the hotel noticed a 12-year-old boy in the company of two men buying snacks. The associate overheard one man say to the other, “I may take this one home.” Trained to notice signs of human trafficking, the associate thought the situation didn’t look right to her, and the overheard statement was an alarm bell. Following her training, she alerted her supervisor, and they called the police.
When the police arrived and questioned the men and the little boy, they confirmed our associate’s suspicions. Things were definitely not right. The young boy had been missing for three days. Thanks to the quick actions of the associate, this story has a good ending.
Apart from Marriott International, current participants of “The Code” include Hilton, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, AccorHotels, Real Hospitality Group, Sonesta International Hotels Group and Wyndham Worldwide.
In some states, it’s required by law to provide information to guests and employees on human trafficking.
In New York, under the bill S8874, which passed last summer, facilities such as hotels, inns, and motels are required to provide informational cards on the services available to victims of human trafficking.
“Information about services, such as the national trafficking hotline, will be made readily available to trafficking victims and other hotel guests and displayed in public spaces such as public restrooms, individual guest rooms, and near the entrance,” according to the law.
“This will ensure that victims have access to a discreet informational card so they are able to call the hotline for help at a later time.”
In upstate New York, I had a brief encounter with a human trafficking flyer that was in my hotel guest book, which gave the signs of a trafficking victim, along with the hotline number I could call.
For a moment, I thought about what kinds of people I would encounter at the hotel, what a trafficking victim might be doing there, and if I would see someone who was being abused.
It was enough to keep me alert for the weekend.
In California, a similar law, bill No. 970, was recently signed to ensure that all hotel and motel employers provide workers with at least twenty minutes of human trafficking awareness training.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, California has had the highest number of reported cases of human trafficking in the country over the last six years, followed by Texas and Florida. Last year, 1,305 cases were reported in California.
But is a 20-minute presentation enough to understand the complex, clandestine nature of human trafficking?
According to Orozco, it’s not.
“Hotels are receiving training, but not necessarily quality training,” she said. “Quality training is important. You can’t become expert in identifying a victim after watching a power point. It takes a lot of time and effort.”
She suggested that hotels make sure their training protocol has been tested by academics and has proven successful. Otherwise, a hotel can misidentify someone as a human trafficking victim, when they are not.
Recently, hotels have come under fire for their role, whether knowing or unknowingly, in perpetuating the hidden crime. Hotels and motels across the country are facing lawsuits in civil court for allowing sex crimes to happen in their chambers.
At the Salisbury hotel in Maryland, four women who say they were forced into prostitution are suing the owners of a Salisbury hotel, arguing that staff either knew or should have known that the hotel was a site for human trafficking.
The hotel was the site of a 2014 human-trafficking bust in which the ringleader, Cornelius Briddell, was given a 145-year prison sentence.
The lawsuit says the hotel owners had a duty to keep the property safe.
In Texas, The Harris County Attorney’s Office filed suit Wednesday against a Spring area Motel 6 for harboring habitual criminal activity.
Court documents declared the location was notorious for harboring habitual criminal activity, including trafficking of persons, prostitution, promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, and illegal drug offenses—in violation of Chapter 125 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
“Motel 6 knowingly tolerates and has failed to make reasonable efforts to abate the criminal activities at this location,” the documents said.
And in California, Motel 6 agreed to pay $250,000 last year to settle a lawsuit brought by Los Angeles that alleged one of the chain’s locations was a base for human traffickers, drug dealers and gang members, prosecutors said.
Los Angeles police had made more than 60 arrests at the location since 2013 for prostitution, battery, firearms possession and drug-related charges, authorities said.
Now, hotels across the country have paved the way for human trafficking awareness in the service industry.
Wyndham Hotels and Resorts created a program where customers can donate unused Wyndham Rewards Points to Polaris, a large human trafficking advocacy group, so they can use them on the National Human Trafficking Hotline for victims and survivors in need of emergency shelter.
In addition, Marriott teamed up with Polaris to create trafficking awareness posters and signs for public-facing areas.
“This is the first time a major hotel company has embarked on a collaboration focused on building public awareness through trafficking signage and posters,” a press release earlier this month by Polaris said.
Whether or not the training, flyers, and awareness campaigns aid hotel staff, or anyone in the service industry, to spot a victim of human trafficking remains unclear.
Also, volunteers went into hotels to share the signs with employees.
Theresa Flores arrived in Atlanta in mid-January with more than 60,000 bars of soap, CNN reports.
On each, a message: “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Text HELP to BE FREE 233733.”
Flores said she is a sex trafficking survivor and the founder of the S.O.A.P — “Save our Adolescents from Prostitution” — Project, a nine-year-old non-profit that aims to raise awareness about trafficking.
On a recent weekend, Flores says about 200 volunteers delivered the bars of soap — along with missing children posters and tips for spotting trafficking — to more than 330 Atlanta hotels.
“If you can talk to the housekeepers, do so,” Flores told the volunteers in a church conference room before they fanned out across the city in three-person groups. “They have a valuable wealth of information of things they see that nobody else sees. Talk to them about red flags.”
According to Orozco, all hotel employees should be on high alert this weekend.
“If a woman is fearful of authority, or there’s multiple people going to the same room, that should put them on high alert.”
She also noted there needed to be an open line of communication with law enforcement.
“If someone asks for assistance, call 911. Do not think twice,” she advised.
Megan Hadley is a senior staff reporter for The Crime Report