By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations says 34 arrests were made for commercial sex and six arrests for human trafficking during The World Games, which ended Sunday in Birmingham. The task force also made eight arrests of adults seeking online enticement of a minor and/or traveling to meet a minor for sex.
“I think for an event this size … or the Birmingham metro area, I think from a numbers perspective, we’re probably well up there [in comparison to human trafficking at other SEAR 1 events],” said Doug Gilmer, Resident Agent In Charge for DHS. “We felt like we were going to be busy. I just don’t think we anticipated just how busy we would be. It’s been taxing.”
SEAR (Special Event Assessment Rating) Level 1 events – like the Super Bowl — require federal government support to provide security and public safety.
Prim Escalona, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said human trafficking often goes “hand in hand with big events. It’s sex trafficking, where you have individuals who are trafficked and are being brought in to provide some illegal services, and I think we’ve seen probably more of that with big events than we do with people being abducted,” she during an interview with the Times leading up to The Games.
“There’ll be a lot of different folks in town, and some people will try to capitalize on that and do it in illegal ways, so we just want to make sure we’re prepared for that, and I think law enforcement, at every level, has thought through that and is prepared for it,” she added.
Gilmer said The World Games Human Exploitation Task Force has worked “pretty much non-stop” since June 23. A number of local, state, and federal agencies make up the command center including criminal intelligence at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the DHS Center for Countering Human Trafficking, and the Alabama Fusion Center, a state-level agency that shares information related to trafficking.
Gilmer said they saw an increase in what they believed was online recruitment leading up to The World Games. This led to multiple undercover operations that resulted in 34 arrests of commercial sex buyers.
“We’ve identified networks that are operating here that are also operating in other states,” he said. “So really cross-country from California to the East Coast.”
They also “rescued” multiple trafficking victims, Gilmer said. Officials described them as ranging from minors and pre-teens to victims in their 20s and early 30s. Gilmer said some are from the area, while others traveled from out of state specifically for The World Games.
“Not every case, not every operation that we’ve conducted has been geared towards necessarily arresting somebody,” he said. “A lot of the operations that we’ve conducted the last few weeks have actually been identifying potential victims of human trafficking. To us, that’s incredibly important.”
Bringing agencies together and are the keys to success in trafficking prevention and reducing other crimes, Escalona said.
“My theory is if you can get everybody in the same room at the table talking, and it’s the right folks…then you’re going to see better partnerships, you’re going to see better results,” she said, point out that group involves everybody from patrol officers in local law enforcement agencies, to state and federal law enforcement individuals, as well as community organizations.
Escalona was appointed as U.S. Attorney in July 2020. Prior to joining the Office, Escalona held multiple leadership positions within the Department of Justice, including in the Office of Legislative Affairs and the Office of Legal Policy.
Prior to her tenure at the Department of Justice, Escalona served as Deputy Solicitor General in the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and worked in private practice.
She received her law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Birmingham-Southern College.
Partnering law enforcement agencies is an obvious way to address crime, but “you cannot enforce your way out of a violent crime problem,” the US attorney said.
An important path for Escalona’s office to engage community organizations outside of law enforcement is One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center, a coalition of YWCA Central Alabama and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!), as well as local law enforcement partners.
One Place is organized around helping victims of domestic abuse. Seventy-four percent of homicide offenders within Jefferson County in 2021 had previously engaged in domestic abuse, so One Place can be a useful resource for Escalona’s office, she said.
“When we came in [to the role of US attorney], we thought, domestic violence is an area that we can start. We can really work with partners, we can build both law enforcement and community partners and have a really good coalition,” Escalona said.
Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, whose office is partnered with One Place, is someone with whom Escalona said her office has a “great relationship,” she said. During regular meetings which bring together all levels of law enforcement, Carr or a member of his office is always there to work together.
“There’s no ego. There’s no competition. It’s really more of a collaborative approach to violent crime, and I think that’s something that maybe has…not been as strong in recent years,” Escalona said.