NASHUA — Sex trafficking isn’t just happening in Third World countries, it is also taking place under the radar throughout New Hampshire communities, according to panelists speaking at a human trafficking conference Wednesday.
“This is fast becoming one of the largest criminal enterprises worldwide,” Assistant United States Attorney Mark Zuckerman said of human trafficking, which he described as modern-day slavery.
According to Zuckerman, there are between 800,000 and 900,000 victims trafficked across international borders worldwide each year, with up to 20,000 victims trafficked into America annually.
“This is a largely hidden crime,” said Zuckerman, explaining human trafficking generates a lot of money — $9.5 billion a year in the United States and about $32 billion internationally.
Rather than setting up shop in New Hampshire, the traffickers often roll through different sections of the state, blocking hotel rooms or renting apartments for a short period of time in Nashua, Manchester or Portsmouth, he said.
Sex trafficking rings are constantly on the move from different circuits originating in New York, Boston and elsewhere, according to Zuckerman, one of several speakers at Wednesday’s conference titled “A Call to Action: Human Trafficking in Our Backyard.” By the time law enforcement officers become aware of the case, the groups have already moved on, he said.
“We are starting to get a handle on that right now,” he explained.
Wednesday’s seminar at the Crowne Plaza Hotel was hosted jointly by St. Joseph Hospital and Covenant Health Systems.
“To think that it is right here on our doorstep is kind of a shocking awareness,” said Catherine O’Connor, vice-president of mission and sponsorship for Covenant Health Systems. “It is here in Nashua, but it is also worldwide. It is everywhere, and it is really disturbing.”
Last month in Merrimack, police announced that they are investigating a local massage parlor after its owners were arrested on sex trafficking charges out of New York.
Asian Massage, a Merrimack business that recently opened at 416 Daniel Webster Highway, is still under investigation for allegedly promoting prostitution. The owners — Zhan Wei Liu and Bo Xuan Zhang of 11A East Ridge Road — have since been arrested on fugitive from justice charges stemming out of New York. The married couple is facing numerous charges including two counts of sex trafficking, conspiracy, two counts of falsifying business records, promoting prostitution and two counts of money laundering.
O’Connor said Americans must educate themselves about the crimes that are taking place at area truck stops, nail salons, massage parlors and hotels. Victims are sometimes runaways or children who have spent time in the foster system, she said.
Theresa Flores, a human trafficking survivor from Ohio who has written two books about her two years as a sex slave, participated in Wednesday’s seminar.
Each year, about 350,000 American children are at risk of being sexually exploited, according to Flores.
“You would never know, seeing me walk down the street, that I was a slave,” she said.