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Colorado had 267 criminal cases involving human trafficking from 2006-2022. (Illustration by Lonnie MF Allen)

Colorado prosecutors landed a single conviction for labor trafficking and fewer than 50 convictions for sex trafficking in 17 years despite multiple efforts to strengthen state laws. 

From 2006-2022, there have been 267 criminal cases involving trafficking, and within those cases there were 619 counts of labor trafficking and 10,813 counts of sex trafficking, according to a new report from the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. But very few resulted in convictions.

Many of the people initially charged with trafficking ended up being convicted of other crimes, including child abuse, drug charges or “keeping a place of prostitution,” found the new report from the Colorado nonprofit. 

All of the trafficking charges were filed in just 23 of Colorado’s 64 counties, which points toward the need for more widespread training among law enforcement and district attorneys’ offices to identify and prosecute trafficking, the report said. Its authors called on Colorado to strengthen local task forces that work to prevent trafficking and hold traffickers accountable in court. They also said Colorado needs to do more to include trafficking survivors, and those most vulnerable to trafficking, including LGBTQ people, Indigenous people and immigrants.

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The task forces need to include people who “reflect and look like the community” because people who need help with food, shelter and language translation will seek out others they feel comfortable around, said AJ Alejano-Steele, co-founder and research director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. 

“If you have a high population of immigrants from Mexico, does the partnership actually have people who represent that group?” she asked. “It’s hard to go to people for help if they don’t look like you.” 

In agricultural areas, the groups should include people who work on farms, and in mountain communities, they should include people who have worked as sheepherders, for example, she said. 

Sheepherders migrate to Colorado from Chile, Peru and Mexico to work on ranches, and in some cases, find out after they arrive that they are required to work 24 hours per day, seven days a week, the report said. “They live in small campers without electricity, toilets or running water,” it said. “Most herders reported having no days off for over a year. These workers have been consistently exploited to the financial benefit of their employers — the very definition of labor trafficking.”

Larger jurisdictions are more likely to have officers trained to identify human trafficking and how to interview potential victims. 

The results show that many counties aren’t using state trafficking laws as often as they could be, the report said. Rural counties rarely, if ever, use the statutes. Five counties had 67% of the human trafficking charges filed in the state. In order of case counts, those were Adams, Arapahoe, El Paso, Denver and Jefferson counties. 

In a Jefferson County case announced last month, a sheriff’s special investigations unit uncovered a human trafficking operation inside a massage parlor in Golden. After receiving a report from someone who feared a massage therapist was a trafficking victim, law officers searched the business and discovered that a Chinese citizen had been coerced into performing sex acts in exchange for a green card, authorities said. 

Calls and texts to a state hotline have increased every year since 2018. (Screenshot from the Colorado Project 2023 report)

Colorado statistics show the state has been far more focused on sex cases than labor cases. All but 10 of the 267 cases that resulted in charges in the past 17 years were sex trafficking, the report found. 

“Sex trafficking tends to receive more attention,” Alejano-Steele said. There is a “lag in understanding” about what labor trafficking looks like, speculating that it’s harder for people to recognize because the effects of it are commonplace in daily life. People are complicit when they buy coffee or fruits and vegetables produced by people who are being trafficked, she said. 

“It makes labor trafficking feel a little bit close to home,” she said. 

People who have unstable housing are some of the most at risk for becoming trafficking victims, and traffickers will prey on people who are in shelters or temporary housing because they know that housing will expire. The Laboratory is hoping to work with more housing nonprofits so people are trained to help residents avoid being trafficked. 

“When you have somebody who is in need of making money, in need of getting a shelter over their head, in need of putting food on the table … you have prime conditions for a trafficker,” Alejano-Steele said. “If you are desperate, you will follow somebody who is offering you a day job.” 

The number of human trafficking cases peaked in Colorado after the state strengthened laws in 2014. (Screenshot from the Colorado Project 2023 report)

Colorado updated its trafficking laws in 2014, creating the Colorado Human Trafficking Council and aligning state law with federal trafficking laws. As a result, the state saw a burst in prosecutions. But the number of prosecutions statewide has declined since then. 

Prior to 2014, there were just two trafficking convictions in Colorado. 

Additional state laws since 2014 have sought to provide immunity for prostitution offenses for minors who are sex trafficked, create felony-level crimes for stealing wages, and give agricultural workers the right to state minimum wage, overtime and labor organizing. A 2022 law established an office for missing and murdered Indigenous people, who are trafficked at higher rates, within the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...