Inside Baltimore's human trafficking industry

(Aljazeera) - Survivors of sex trafficking and those who investigate it in the city share their stories.

Inside Baltimore's human trafficking industry

Taylor* was 13 when she first became a victim of sex trafficking. 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.

"When I got out [to the hotel where the job was supposed to be] it wasn't what I expected," she said. "I got there, and they wouldn't let me leave."

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.

A hotspot for human trafficking

Baltimore, Maryland is a hotspot for human trafficking, according to experts. The confluence of highways, including the I-95 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 100 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 "white L", as it is known, enjoys access to public transportation, bike lanes, and quality grocery stores. 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 2015 murder of a 25-year-old Black man named Freddie Gray.

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.

These differences play out even in life expectancy, with a 20-year gap between the city's wealthiest neighbourhoods and its poorest. And inequality extends past the city's borders and into the suburban sprawl.

At more than 20 percent, Baltimore city's poverty rate is around double the national average. Maryland itself, in contrast, consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest states in the country in regards to average income and economic opportunity. Some of the country's wealthiest people live in a state whose largest city is plagued by poverty.

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.

Poverty

In Pennsylvania Station, Baltimore's main train station, flashing billboards tell onlookers how to spot the signs of human trafficking - unrelated girls with matching tattoos, for example - and which numbers to call if they see something suspicious. 

Awareness among the general population is growing, but the problem is intractable.

"I think the I-95 highway plays a huge role in it. We also have an airport with really inexpensive flights. We're a hub for those airlines, and that certainly contributes to it," said Amanda Rodriguez, the executive director of Turnaround Inc, a Baltimore-based organisation that provides services to victims of human trafficking.

Rodriguez is a lawyer who spent years prosecuting human trafficking cases in the Baltimore area before she began working for Turnaround.

"I think trafficking is also related to socioeconomics in Maryland," she said. "We have a lot of poverty, and it's right next door to a lot of wealth, so you end up with people who can buy sex and people who are desperate. Poverty, in general, is a vulnerability that we need to address if we're going to address trafficking."

'They approach you like mother figures'

Jennifer*, a soft-spoken woman in her late 40s with flecks of grey in her hair, described her childhood in Baltimore as "destructive." Her cousin and his friends sexually abused her repeatedly from the age of seven to 13.

"My mother just wasn't around, and my grandparents weren't watching," she said.

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 my house, my car, my dog, my kid," she explained. "I lost it all, and I was on the streets for a while. I lost a sense of purpose."