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DIGGING DEEPER: Human smugglers in Tucson

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TUCSON - Human and sex trafficking is a global crisis.

It's a problem right here in Tucson, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tucson Police Department is raising awareness with the help of Faith, a woman who told the Digging Deeper Team that she considers herself a survivor.

"I was kidnapped at the age of five and at the age of five, that's when they started trafficking me," Faith said.

"They" are one of the most dangerous gangs in the United States, Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. 

Faith said she was 11 years old when MS-13 gang members started shooting her up with heroin.

The emotional scars still remain.

"I fear for my life very much," Faith said, which is why she does not reveal her last name nor her face.

Faith added, "They would threaten me, if you don't bring money, they would beat me up."

Money is what drives gang members as well as online predators who turn young girls into prostitutes.

"It's the second largest illegal money making opportunity in the world, human trafficking," said Detective Jennifer Crawford with TPD.

Detective Crawford works with the street crimes and human trafficking unit.

The recent cases that have come across her desk are online predators, Crawford said.

"Our victims are meeting predators and traffickers online on social media, escort sites, and building a quote relationship that ends up being a trafficking situation," Detective Crawford said.

Crawford also said she's had more cases than usual during the COVID-19 crisis.

"A lot of our youngsters are at home right now," Detective Crawford said. "They are online a lot more and so they are a lot more vulnerable to communicating with a potential predator."

The predators will spend their day on the computer monitoring social media to see what the kids are talking about.

They will then zero in on the kids who are depressed and lonely.

Detective Crawford also said they are seeing more escort ads.

"During this time, a lot of people have lost their jobs, are finding it hard to make ends meet, so we don't want these men or women to feel they need to get into the sex trade," Crawford said.

The sex trade is where kids could potentially end up being victims of trafficking, like Faith.  

Faith said she was with MS-13 over 20 years, until she escaped.

Now, she said she has hope.

"I never learned to read, or write, and now I am going to classes to get my GED," Faith said. "I want to become a social worker so I can help other victims."

Faith has teamed up with TPD to bring awareness to the public, especially parents.

She said she's grateful to be alive and while once a victim, Faith now sees herself as a survivor.

Faith said she is forever thankful to the Gospel Rescue Mission who has helped her, along with many others.

That is why Faith is now helping TPD get the message out.

TPD is a part of SAATURN, Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network, to raise awareness and help victims.

To get help or to get more information, click here.

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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