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She had recently escaped from an abusive home and was living on the streets of Baltimore. She was too young to work legally, but a close friend told her that she could make money by giving massages. Anxious to make a living, Taylor agreed. It turned out that her friend was recruiting girls for a human trafficker. The traffickers forced Taylor to live and work out of hotels for the next two years. Baltimore, Maryland is a hotspot for human trafficking, according to experts. The confluence of highways, including the I corridor that connects Baltimore to other nearby cities like Washington, DC and New York City, combined with the proximity to several major airports, a plethora of hotels and casinos, and extreme poverty beside extreme wealth, has created the perfect conditions for the trafficking industry to thrive.

Several interstate highways cut through the heart of the city, running on the east and west of the Baltimore port. Thousands of trucks, cruise lines, and cargo ships pass through Baltimore each year. Meanwhile, deep social divisions and a long history of racial and economic inequality also mark the local landscape. More than years of segregation and racist housing and economic policies have divided Baltimore into an L-shaped corridor that runs north to south, where an advantaged majority white population lives, and a butterfly-shaped majority Black area spreading through the east and west of the city.

The majority Black neighbourhoods, meanwhile, are plagued by urban blight; dotted with boarded-up abandoned houses. These neighbourhoods experience gun violence paired with police brutality, including the now infamous murder of a year-old Black man named Freddie Gray.

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Today, neighbourhoods that are less than 50 percent Black receive almost four times the amount of investment as those where more than 85 percent of the population is Black, according to the Washington DC-based think-tank the Urban Institute. Maryland itself, in contrast, consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest states in the country in regards to average income and economic opportunity. What this means is that those who can afford to pay for sex live within close proximity to those most likely to be targeted by traffickers.

As a result of this and its proximity to other large East Coast cities, Baltimore has one of the highest rates of human trafficking cases in the country.

Washington, DC — just 64km 40 miles away — is believed to have the highest rate. According to local law enforcement, people engaged in commercial sex work in Baltimore often make more money than those in other cities, and that fact is what motivates traffickers from other parts of the country to flock to Maryland.

We also have an airport with really inexpensive flights. Rodriguez is a lawyer who spent years prosecuting human trafficking cases in the Baltimore area before she began working for Turnaround. Later in life, Jennifer worked a steady job for years before an abusive relationship, and chronic stress drove her to alcoholism. She fell into depression and lost her job. I lost a sense of purpose. Jennifer began spending time in nightclubs, and she was often in need of a place to sleep.

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That was when traffickers began offering assistance. Sometimes, it was men who approached her, but on other occasions, it was women.

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They approach you in the nicest way. Homelessness and housing insecurity can put people at risk of being trafficked.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit, estimates that one in six of all missing children is a victim of human trafficking. Many of the victims have complex histories of sexual abuse, trauma, and addiction, experts said.

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In a country that has endured an opioid epidemic since the s, Baltimore still stands out. More than a thousand people in the city die each year from overdoses. Heroin, in particular, has devastated the city since as early as the s, and Baltimore was once dubbed the heroin capital of the United States.

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Now, much of that heroin has been replaced by the cheaper and even more deadly fentanyl, but the high rates of addiction and overdoses continue. Baltimore, today, has one of the highest overdose fatality rates in the country. Addiction, coupled with the high rate of poverty in the city, creates ample opportunity for children to be neglected or abused, experts said.

This, in turn, puts those children at risk of being trafficked.

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Araminta is currently working with 18 survivors and their children in Baltimore. Most of the survivors are 15 or 16 years old. Special Agent Kelly Baird, who le a team with Homeland Security that investigates human trafficking in Baltimore, said that sometimes traffickers pick victims up directly off the streets. They rolled up next to her in their Chevy and started talking and, knowing that she had nowhere to go, she got in the car with them.

For several months, the victim was expected to engage in commercial sex acts in exchange for food and a place to stay. She was 15 years old.

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She was made to visit customers across the city, and was frequently put in danger. One customer cut her hand so badly that she had to seek medical attention. Following an investigation, one of the men was indicted and entered into a plea agreement. The other was murdered before charges were brought against him. Local law enforcement works hand in glove with Homeland Security to tackle these cases, the special agents said. Patrol officers are the eyes and ears on the ground.

Investigators, meanwhile, rely heavily on data mining and search warrants to investigate cases, essentially trawling the internet to figure out where traffickers advertise to potential customers. In years, a website called Back. Some officials have argued that Back was useful because it allowed law enforcement to easily obtain the phone s, addresses, and other details about the traffickers paying for. Once the agents locate a victim, they can use conventional investigative techniques, such as interviews, to discover more details about the traffickers. But the internet is often where they find the victim in the first place.

Trafficking has become more opaque since Back. Instead of one website, now, there are many. John Eisert, special agent in charge for Homeland Security investigations in Baltimore, said that the opioid epidemic and other drug problems plaguing the city contributed to the prevalence of human trafficking. It is very prevalent here. According to the Polaris Projectwhich operates the US National Human Trafficking Hotline, traffickers often use addiction to manipulate their victims.

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Human trafficking is one of the top priorities for human services investigations across the country, Eisert said. But Baltimore has its work cut out for it. Some cities are destinations for human traffickers, and some are sources of trafficking victims, but Baltimore is both. From early childhood until about the time she turned 10, living in Baltimore was amazing, she said. Suddenly, it became harder to ignore the crime that plagued her neighbourhood.

Taylor witnessed one of her cousins being raped. As Taylor described her experience, the words poured out of her as though she was just beginning to understand the emotional complexity of her story. She cried as she described how her childhood experiences led to her being trafficked. Taylor felt like she could not talk openly to anyone about her experience of sexual abuse because her brother had already gone through something similar. On other occasions, Taylor ran away from home.

While the majority of prosecuted trafficking cases in Maryland are sex trafficking cases, labour trafficking is also taking place in the shadows. Experts said that labour trafficking can be harder to detect because the victims are often immigrants who are reluctant to report the abuse. In one recent case, for example, a woman from Zimbabwe was held in slavery for around eight years. She had been recruited to work as a domestic servant and was promised money and an education, but none of those promises materialised.

After four years working in captivity, the traffickers started letting her attend church services. When, years later, she eventually described her living situation to her pastor, he told her to put her belongings in a bag, go outside, and he would rescue her. Neighbours knew her. The traffickers gave her permission to attend church services, so the parishioners knew her, but she was given rules.

Today, she has a visa that allows her to remain in the US, and she can access services like subsidised housing. She started attending school to become a nurse. Still, Maryland has not yet passed a safe harbour law that prohibits the criminalisation of minors for prostitution. Thirty-four states, including Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota and Tennessee, have passed safe harbour laws.

Since Maryland is a majority Democratic state with a large Republican population, policy issues can get bogged down in discussions about the approach. Law enforcement and others in the city are learning, however, that trafficked women and children are victims and survivors, not criminals.

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Places like Turnaround Inc and Araminta are all part of that collaboration. When Stack started working in the police vice unit inhuman trafficking was not a commonly used term, he recalled.

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But over the years, as he encountered more victims, his outlook began to evolve. Stack gained a greater understanding of the relationship between poverty, the abuse of runaway children, and prostitution, and discovered that shutting down massage parlours and arresting people was not going to address the issue at its root.

Each hospital in the city has a representative tasked with understanding how to identify victims of trafficking if they seek medical attention. Members of law enforcement visit local schools in at-risk areas and talk to the students. An official just has to use a specific code word and the healthcare providers automatically know that a human trafficking victim will soon arrive.