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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Albuquerque police called her Sara - a pseudonym.

She was in her early 20s and living in Denver, had only recently escaped an abusive boyfriend and survived being held up at gunpoint - enough drama to traumatize even the strongest woman.

A man named Rufus Byers offered her a fresh start: a job at his record company in California, he said. They would go there together with a stop in Las Vegas.

She left her 3-year-old daughter with her parents and set off to Nevada with Byers. On the way, he informed her: There is no record company job. She would work as a prostitute. He would be her pimp.

The nightmare was only beginning.

Crackdown coming

A message to those who would traffic in human life: A crackdown is coming.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas plans to sharpen the state's focus on investigating and prosecuting human trafficking crimes - and has requested a $750,000 federal grant to roughly double the number of personnel dedicated to such cases and reorganized the office to better leverage resources, according to Deputy Attorney General Sharon Pino, who oversees the state's criminal prosecutions.

Human trafficking is an underreported crime that too frequently goes uninvestigated in New Mexico, Pino said. The state has prosecuted fewer than two dozen cases since an anti-human-trafficking law went into effect in 2008. But that number belies the real extent of the crimes committed, she said.

"The numbers don't really reflect the human trafficking that is happening in New Mexico," she said. "From the victims we have worked with, we know this is a rampant, billion-dollar industry."

Human trafficking is akin to modern-day slavery, often manifested as forced prostitution or other forced labor.

The crime wears many masks: men who lure girls with promises of love and affection only to about-face and force them into prostitution; bar owners who hire waitstaff, then force them into sex acts with patrons; business owners who recruit foreign men and women to work in their fields or factories promising work visas, lodging and wages, only to deny them the life promised.

Coercion, isolation and physical, psychological or emotional violence keep victims under traffickers' control, experts say.

The story of Sara and her captor is reported with information from Pino, who worked on the case, and the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as from court documents and news reports.

Byers trafficked Sara from Nevada to California. He sent for her daughter but held the toddler with friends Sara didn't know to keep her under his thumb, selling sex.

He told Sara her little girl would be fine as long as she kept working - a veiled threat that kept Sara terrified.

Then he moved her again, this time to Albuquerque, where Byers pimped her on Backpage.com - a website for classifieds, well known for its racy "escort services" section. He left her little girl behind in California. It was the autumn of 2011.

'Could be anyone'

In New Mexico, victims of human trafficking are often but not always women, Pino said. Traffickers seek out those who are most vulnerable: teenagers, runaways, addicts, people who have already been victims of physical or sexual abuse. But it "could be anyone," she said.

"When you don't have a choice whether or not you leave, it becomes human trafficking," she said.

The state has prosecuted and won convictions or guilty pleas in 18 of 19 human trafficking cases - all involving sex trafficking - since 2008, Pino said. One case is still pending.

Last month, the Attorney General's Office applied for the federal grant that would pay for two more investigators and for a statewide task force on human trafficking, Pino said. Currently, one investigator and one prosecutor in the office are dedicated full-time to human trafficking cases, plus the director of special prosecutions in the Attorney General's border violence division.

"The cases are very hard to detect," she said. "They take a lot of resources to investigate, and a lot of law enforcement are not trained to investigate these cases."

Wallace Carson is a relative rarity in New Mexico: a human trafficker who is caught and convicted for his crimes.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in August in 2nd Judicial District Court for kidnapping, human trafficking, promoting prostitution and accepting the earnings of a prostitute.

With the help of a young female assistant - also considered one of his victims - Carson lured a 17-year-old girl from an Albuquerque bus station, took her to a motel room, dressed her in lingerie, then brought her to a hotel for prostitution.

He faces jail time of up to 97 years.

"The federal government, as well as jurisdictions around the country at the state and local level, are doing a much better job of trying to understand, learn more about and raise awareness of the crime of human trafficking," said Kris Rose, deputy director of the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime.

"I think there are myths around how men and women become involved," Rose said. "Understanding that better will go a long way to helping victims out of that really dark place and hold traffickers accountable."

Not long after Byers and Sara arrived in Albuquerque, APD vice detectives answered an ad on Backpage.com as part of a random sting. They found Sara in a hotel off Interstate 25 and arrested Byers. It was a frigid Dec. 5, 2011.

Detectives brought Sara to an unspecified safe place outside Bernalillo County. Still, she feared telling police anything about her trafficker, because he still held her daughter in California.

Finally, she told police everything, and APD alerted California cops. They brought Sara's little girl to safety, physically unharmed.

The nightmare began to lift.

Then Byers posted a $1,500 cash bond and walked free.

Federal role

The Obama administration's human trafficking strategic plan outlines ways in which federal agencies should collaborate with state and local entities to ensure victims of human trafficking have access to the services they need to recover.

Rose said her office saw its budget triple to $42 million this year - much of it grant money available to providers of victims' services and for law enforcement task forces around the country.

"There are still lots of challenges, and there are lots of jurisdictions that are trying to get their arms around this," Rose said. "I give New Mexico credit for applying for the grant, because it encourages a multidisciplinary approach by having law enforcement and victim services work together."

There is some collaboration happening already. Homeland Security Investigations has provided APD with anti-human trafficking training, said HSI spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.

"This is to enable them to recognize human trafficking and identify victims when they're out there doing their job," she said.

Louis Heckroth of the APD Vice Squad told the Journal in an email that the vice unit spends the majority of its time investigating street prostitution due to citizen complaints, although the unit does conduct operations related to massage parlors or Internet prostitution - potential sources of human trafficking crimes.

In February 2012, "America's Most Wanted" ran an episode on Byers, who fled New Mexico after bonding out of jail. He was still wanted in New Mexico on human trafficking charges - but police didn't know his whereabouts.

Authorities found him in Texas.

On Feb. 29, 2012, U.S. Marshals extradited Byers to Albuquerque.

Byers, wearing a plaid shirt buttoned to the neck and a gray hooded sweatshirt, was expressionless as authorities marched him through the Albuquerque airport.

A jury found him guilty on Oct. 18, 2013, of human trafficking, promoting prostitution and accepting the earnings of a prostitute, and he was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. He is still in prison today.

Sara found a place for her and her daughter to recover: A Santa Fe nonprofit that partners with the state to provide services to victims of human trafficking offered them housing and other services.

'Just petrified'

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported 70 calls from New Mexico to its Polaris hotline last year, of which 28 were evaluated to be potential cases of human trafficking in the state. Pino said state investigators currently get most of their tips from the hotline.

"These crimes are really hard to recognize," Rose said. "Trafficking victims often don't see themselves as victims; they don't know they are being trafficked; or they are just petrified and afraid of what would happen if they did come forward. They just want to feel safe again; they want to reclaim their lives."


Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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