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Human Trafficking Grant Goes to Arrest Suspected Victims in Tucson

A Tucson Weekly investigation finds that federal funds to "fight sex trafficking" are actually perpetuating it.

Tucson Police Department/FacebookTucson Police Department/FacebookThe program raked in $1.5 million from the Department of Justice (DOJ) in its first year. Its mission: to disrupt human trafficking and help the crime's victims in southeastern Arizona. Instead, Southern Arizona's Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network (SAATURN) largely engaged in arresting and prosecuting sex workers, including some suspected of being victims of sexual exploitation.

We know this thanks to some solid investigative work from Tucson Weekly. Last week's cover story by Danyelle Khmara reports that in three years of SAATURN investigations, 516 cases were opened. But only 23 of these cases resulted in arrests related to sex trafficking, with just 14 leading to charges and only 10 so far ending in convictions or guilty pleas. (Three of the cases are still ongoing, while one suspect committed suicide while out on bail.)

Even in these cases, "sex trafficking" is used to describe a rather wide range of conduct, including things that may have caused harm but aren't at all what people think when they hear human trafficking and sex traffickers. Just two cases "resemble the mainstream narrative of a kidnapped female forced to commit commercial sex acts against her will," writes Khmara. "The rest of the cases vary widely." Some examples:

In one case, a drunk, 71-year-old registered sex-offender in a wheelchair persistently and crudely offered a 14-year-old girl money for sexual favors at a bus stop. He tried to touch her but she was able to move out of his reach. In another case, a man offered to pay three 15-year-old boys and one girl to commit sex acts in front of him.

In cases involving adult women, some "consider the trafficker their friend or boyfriend," notes Khmara. Cops and activists like to suggest this is because the women have been brainwashed or abused. Certainly, many cases of coerced prostitution are more akin to domestic violence situations than the movie image of sex trafficking. But it's also true that friends, partners, spouses, roommates, and others who are aiding an adult sex worker with the sex worker's consent are often arrested for offenses like pimping and, now, sex trafficking.

Many sex workers themselves were investigated and arrested by Tuscon police as part of the SAATURN project. Some of these investigations were started based on years-old online ads.

In total, SAATURN-related efforts yielded 52 misdemeanor arrests for either prostitution or working as a legal escort without a license. The arrests were set up as stings, in which undercover cops contacted sex workers with online ads and set up dates at area motels. Those without drugs on them, outstanding warrants, or unpaid court fees were generally cited for prostitution and then released—after cops confiscated their cell phones and cash.

"If she is found to be a trafficking victim," writes Khlana, she may be arrested but "she won't typically be charged" (emphasis mine).

Two felony prostitution charges were also made. In one of the felony cases, "an undercover cop set up a meeting with a 23-year-old woman of color who had a Backpage ad," reports Tucson Weekly:

When they met, he exposed himself, let her touch his penis and undress in front of him before arresting her. She told detectives later that she had been a prostitute since she was 16 and previously fled a pimp who beat her. Operating out of an apartment explicitly for sex work, she was charged with "attempting to keep or maintain a house of prostitution."

Tucson WeeklyTucson WeeklyThe woman wound up being sent to jail for 180 days.

All told, SAATURN investigations led to 253 arrests for random offenses, "like prohibited possession of a firearm, narcotics charges and felony warrants," Khlana writes.

Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman has criticized the SAATURN operations, observing that even the people deservedly arrested in operations like these are not the criminal masterminds that the trafficking frame suggests.

"Calling them sex traffickers as opposed to pimps sends a very different message and mobilizes a very different political base," Feinman tells Tuscon Weekly. It lets people mobilize "around tougher laws and harsher sentencings and more police and more money for law enforcement" rather than "looking at the problem with a nuance that I think it deserves."

Interestingly, Tuscon Weekly reports that the DOJ "directed [Tucson police] in February to stop conducting operations that start with the intention of arresting the sex provider" and stop using the grant money on "end demand" strategies (also known as the Nordic Model) that center on arresting prostitution customers. Data on recent SAATURN-related arrests "indicates that no Johns or sex workers were arrested through SAATURN since that order," the Weekly found.

That's a huge change from DOJ policies past when it comes to federally-funded prostitution stings—and a very much needed one. Let's hope similar directives are making it to the other local law enforcement agencies receiving millions to police sex.

Photo Credit: Tucson Police Department/Facebook

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  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "The program raked in $1.5 million from the Department of Justice (DOJ) in its first year"

    If they tell you it's not about money...

  • Anomalous||

    Government is the biggest whore of all.

  • Eddy||

    "We know this thanks to some solid investigative work from Tucson Weekly."

    I keep seeing evidence that local journalism still survives. Maybe it will adapt to the new environment better than some had been assuming?

  • Dillinger||

    >>In one case, a drunk, 71-year-old registered sex-offender in a wheelchair

    Herbert from Family Guy

  • Eddy||

    For Dirty Uncle Bob you need a task force?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Hollywood actress-sluts and actor-studs sell their bodies for money too!!!! And they have LOTS of money!!!! How long till Government Almighty discovers that actors and actresses have HUUUGE tons of money that can be confiscated by calling them "traffickers" and pimps and pimpesses and so forth?!?!?

    Oh, wait, the Hollywood types have enough money to afford fancy lawyers, so... NEVER MIND!!!!

  • KiwiDude||

    "When they met, he exposed himself, let her touch his penis and undress in front of him before arresting her"

    What a lightweight, didn't even fuck her before arresting her.

  • SQRLSY One||

    He's the slut, engaging in sex play for pay... Pay into the legal system. He is literally a whore for the state.

    Who will police the police?

  • BYODB||


    In cases involving adult women, some "consider the trafficker their friend or boyfriend," notes Khmara. Cops and activists like to suggest this is because the women have been brainwashed or abused.


    I love how the 'activists' don't believe women have the ability to reason for themselves. It's especially funny because the implication is that only men have agency. And these are the activists who are supposedly on the side of women. Yikes. With friends like those, who needs enemies?


    The only 'right' a woman should apparently care about is abortion, little things like accepting payment for use of their orifices is simply beyond the pale.


    I do wonder what these types of moral busybodies think about male prostitution. Are they helpless victims as well?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "I do wonder what these types of moral busybodies think about male prostitution."

    They probably think it's a myth.

  • Robert||

    SAATURN runs rings around other anti-trafficking efforts!

  • Robert||

    The arrests were set up as stings, in which undercover cops contacted sex workers with online ads and set up dates at area motels.


    How would that be likely to find victims of trafficking? "[W]ith online ads" is ambiguous. Whose ads were they—the sex workers' or the stingers'?

  • josh||

    "Calling them sex traffickers as opposed to pimps sends a very different message and mobilizes a very different political base"

    I've been engaged in a "discussion" about the Cyntoia Brown case on Twitter. I keep injected facts -basic facts- into the "discussion", and keep hearing nothing but pedophile, rape, sexual slavery, and the like.

    Confusing terminology is just the first reason why we can't have normal conversations in these types of cases.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    TUCSON IN THE NEWS

    Fuck Mark Napier.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    So they just went and hung around No Tell Motel on Grand and Oracle?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Fuck you autocorrect, I wrote Grant.

  • Spookk||

    "Calling them sex traffickers as opposed to pimps sends a very different message and mobilizes a very different political base," Feinman tells Tuscon Weekly. It lets people mobilize "around tougher laws and harsher sentencings and more police and more money for law enforcement"

    As usual. Simple solution is to get rid of cops. Or just legalize all consensual activity.

  • ClassicLiberal||

    Is it Khmara or Khlana?

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