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Raising awareness of North Country human trafficking

Julia Botero
On the set of the taping of WPBS's Public Eye with Jeff Cole on human trafficking

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced new efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking in New York. It's an underground crime that traps men, women and children against their will. Many are forced to work hard labor without pay, or become prostitutes.  Last week, state experts on human trafficking spoke at a taping of a discussion on the topic at the WPBS studios in Watertown.  

Many of us are already familiar with human smuggling.  That's when a person is so desperate  to leave their home country they pay or borrow thousands of dollars for someone to bring them to the United States.

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia is the human trafficking expert with the Worker Justice Center of New York. He says human tracking can be an easy next step for a smuggler.

"They may find it more profitable to make them victims of human trafficking then customers of a smuggling business... it doesn't take much  for that middle person, that smuggler, to decide they would rather put that person in a peonage situation then a situation where they can pay off that debt," said Gonzalo.

Martinez de Vedia is part of the North Country Human Trafficking Task Force. They work alongside the Governor's office, advocacy organizations,  the Department of Labor, and 12 other executive agencies to stop this kind of modern day slavery. Martinez De Vedia says they are typically illegal immigrants who  work in hotels, restaurants and in agriculture - industries that are all over northern New York.

"An entire community that is living in the margins of our agencies  because they don't have the documentation to be able to engage," said Martinez de Vedia.

Jim Spero is an agent in Buffalo with Homeland Security Investigations. He says just because the North Country is remote and rural doesn't mean there is no human trafficking here.

"The sad reality is, probably not. Human trafficking doesn't know any boundaries. No community is immuned to human trafficking," said Spero.

Martinez de Vedia says  once traffickers hit the highways, they can go anywhere. They rely on threats of violence to control their victims and keep them from seeking help. And that is part of the reason this crime has been hard to identify and report. He says many of the trafficking cases are hidden in plain sight.

"Its frustrating for services and law enforcements as well to find out that many cases they had contact with hospitals, school, law enforcement, NGOs and this went on for years and year before  someone was able to get to the bottom of their story and realize they didn't have control of the conditions in which they lived and worked under. "  

Martinez de Vedia says police, non-profits and agencies have to work together to  uncover these crimes. He says this month the task force is focusing on education. Helping the public and local police learn to identify victims is the first step to shining light on a crime  committed in the shadows.  

WPBS  will broadcast its discussion on human trafficking 10 p.m. tonight.