NEW YORK—New York and New Jersey were ready to throw the biggest party of the year. New York City shut down 13 blocks of Broadway to create “Super Bowl Boulevard” for festivities the week before the Super Bowl. Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks teammates stayed out late in Manhattan that week, eating steak and drinking Dom Perignon. The NFL set up a 180-foot toboggan run in Times Square. Cannons shot fake snow, spotlights spun, and ice sculptures slowly melted. A clothing store along Super Bowl Boulevard hired models to walk around in cheerleader outfits emblazoned with the store name. A few avenues west on the Hudson River, Bud Light’s party cruise ship docked and brought thousands of revelers into Midtown.
Behind Manhattan’s bright lights was a darkness. At a safe house in Queens, Restore NYC was preparing to receive victims of sex trafficking. The New York attorney general’s task force on sex trafficking asked several organizations including Restore, a Christian group for foreign national victims, to prepare to take in anyone who might be rescued during Super Bowl week. Before the week was out, law enforcement had contacted the groups about victims. The Tuesday after the Super Bowl, the FBI’s New York field office announced it recovered 16 children who had been trafficked and arrested 45 traffickers, some of whom admitted they traveled to New York to do business around the Super Bowl.
People often say that the Super Bowl is the biggest draw of sex trafficking in the country. Media and government officials have recycled the estimate that the Super Bowl brings in 10,000 sex trafficking victims. Experts in the field say that number is overblown. They say there isn’t reliable data on the game, but there isn’t data to dispute at least some spike in trafficking either. “We haven’t seen in the data and evidence if there’s huge spikes in trafficking around the Super Bowl. … I see the danger of using bad data,” said Jimmy Lee, the director of Restore NYC. “The truth is already bad enough.” From what people in the field like Lee see, the Super Bowl does result in an uptick in sex trafficking, like other large sports events.
“It’s all about money,” said Barbara Amaya, who was trafficked in New York City for nine years, starting as a 13-year-old. “Wherever there’s large crowds of men and there’s money, it’s happening.”
Amaya said it was common knowledge among her fellow victims that traffickers would bring victims to large sporting events. Amaya’s trafficker took her to a fight in Ohio once, to serve men there.
“Everybody knows that, it’s a given fact in the subculture,” she said. To Amaya, the point is not whether there are more trafficked victims in a certain place on a certain day; the business goes on year-round. She’s glad if people want to talk about trafficking during the Super Bowl; it brings more attention to the subject.
POLARIS PROJECT, the numbers expert on sex trafficking in the United States, says there may be a “modest uptick” of trafficking around the Super Bowl, but the group bought billboard ads in Times Square right after the Super Bowl to emphasize that the problem is year-round.
New York strip clubs, a legal part of the sex trade, boasted that they had brought in additional women for the Super Bowl. One Manhattan strip club even issued a press release on Super Bowl week describing additional women who would be at the club and announcing it would be open from 11 a.m. Wednesday until 4 a.m. after the Super Bowl. Backpage.com, the internet’s dark alley for commercial sex ads, had listings of women marked as “Super Bowl specials,” as well as trafficking red flags like “New Asian Girls—First Time in USA.” As I was sitting in a coffee shop two days before the Super Bowl, I noticed the man on a computer next to me was clicking through ads for prostitutes in New York. He declined an interview.
Wednesday night before the Super Bowl in Midtown, police arrested a mother and charged her with bringing her 15-year-old daughter from Florida to pimp out to Super Bowl visitors. The same night police descended on a Manhattan apartment building which formed a base for a major sex ring, just half a block from the “Super Bowl Boulevard” on Broadway. (And incidentally, the same building that holds dorms for The King’s College. The college said all the students were safe.) The New York attorney general’s office along with the New York police and federal investigators had been investigating the multimillion dollar operation there for almost a year but decided to bust the ring before the Super Bowl because the leaders were bringing in trafficking victims for the game.
During the two weeks before the game, the leaders had sent text messages to clients advertising, “We updated our girls! New sexy & beautiful girls R in town waiting for u.” Following the bust, the attorney general was treating the rescued women, many of them South Korean, as victims of sex trafficking. The increase in arrests during the Super Bowl this year may be in part because law enforcement is cracking down on sex trafficking during the Super Bowl.
What typically happens after a bust like the Midtown one, according to Lee, is that the rescued women are taken to a hotel room where they are questioned to determine whether they are victims. In New York, law enforcement assumes the women in these situations are victims of trafficking. Then law enforcement sends victims to emergency shelters, and then to groups like Restore, where the women find a home and hopefully leave the world of commercial sex behind.
In the United States sex trafficking victims are ensnared between the ages of 12 and 14 on average, according to the Polaris Project. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that up to 17,500 people are trafficked in the United States every year. People often imagine sex trafficking victims as foreign nationals—but Polaris says that 41 percent of sex trafficking cases involve U.S. citizens.
Amaya said the tactics of traffickers haven’t changed since she was enlisted over 30 years ago: “Nothing’s changed except the internet has made it worse.” Amaya was abused as a child and left home for the last time at age 12. As she wandered downtown Washington, D.C., homeless and hungry, she encountered a couple who offered her help—a roof and food. Kindness? No. The two were drawn to her vulnerability like hawks. Amaya had been enlisted into a trafficking operation, and was forced to sell herself on the streets of Washington, D.C.
A few weeks later as she stood on a street corner downtown, she looked on as her trafficker sold her to another trafficker. The new trafficker drove her to New York City, where she was sent out as a sex worker; she says she was beaten and raped “more times than I can remember.” She was 13, and remained under the trafficker’s control for nine years on the streets of New York. Law enforcement tended to turn a blind eye to her age whenever she was arrested for prostitution. “I felt invisible,” she said. “I woke up when people were going to bed. I felt like a vampire.”
Heroin became the way she coped with her life. She ran away repeatedly, but her trafficker always found her. One time, he didn’t track her down and she found help at a drug clinic—she thinks her heroin habit made her less valuable. She found out recently that he died while in prison on weapons charges.
PAST SUPER BOWLS have shown a bump in trafficking, and law enforcement officials say the increased awareness around the game has led to more arrests in the months and years after. Indiana, for one, had paper-thin laws against trafficking until the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis. The week before the game, the governor signed a new law that beefed up trafficking penalties; before, traffickers of minors only faced prosecution if they were the guardians of the child. The week before the Super Bowl, law enforcement in Indianapolis noted a tenfold increase in ads on Backpage.com compared to numbers for the month before. Law enforcement made 68 commercial sex arrests, and rescued four sex trafficking victims during the Super Bowl.
“We don’t want to be participating in ridiculous statistics,” said Abby Kuzma, who oversaw the Indiana attorney general’s anti-trafficking efforts during the Super Bowl. The victims were the tip of the iceberg, said Kuzma, because victims are easy to hide.
The Super Bowl increased awareness about sex trafficking in Indiana to the point that, since the game, law enforcement has been getting on average one reliable tip a week about trafficking situations and has opened 112 cases involving trafficking victims. Victim services groups have opened another 62, a huge increase since before the Super Bowl. Those are just the incidents where authorities have enough evidence to open a case; many cases of suspected trafficking go unresolved, as when a victim leaves the state.
Sister Ann Oestreich headed up the anti-trafficking operation for Sisters of the Holy Cross in South Bend, Ind., during the Indianapolis Super Bowl, and said they saw an increase in activity. But she said she sees increases during other sports events: At a senior PGA tournament nearby recently, she said the social media ads for sex increased fivefold.
“Indianapolis is a small city compared to New York, New Jersey,” Oestreich said. “[The Super Bowl] was quite intense for us, so I can only imagine.”
Starting last year, nonprofits and churches in New York and New Jersey followed the lead of Indiana nonprofits, partnering with local law enforcement to do outreach and training for thousands of hotel and transit workers, considered the front line in fighting traffickers. Love True, a Christian anti-trafficking group in New Jersey, placed soaps in hotel rooms etched with the phone number for Polaris’ national trafficking hotline. New York and New Jersey are already considered major corridors for sex trafficking in the United States, and the two states have some of the best laws in the country to protect sex trafficking victims, according to the Polaris Project.
Trafficking is still a relatively new concept to law enforcement–it wasn’t defined in federal law until 2000. “Sadly when I was being trafficked, there was no word human trafficking,” said Amaya. Federal and local governments still rely heavily on private organizations to provide victims with services, which Lee of Restore NYC thinks is good for this crime in particular. “In this area a government agency is not going to engender a lot of trust,” he said. But nonprofits in New York have thin resources—a few dozen beds—to meet a massive need.
“The numbers are still unacceptably low in terms of victims [rescued],” said Lee. A conservative estimate is that there are a couple thousand victims in New York City every year. “We’re not finding a couple thousand,” he said. “Either estimates are wrong or we’re not great at finding these women, and I think it’s the latter.” After MetLife Stadium emptied and Super Bowl Boulevard became Broadway again, the work was just beginning.