FBI in Knoxville calls human trafficking a growing problem

FBI in Knoxville calls human trafficking a growing problem

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By ANN KEIL
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - The FBI and humanitarian groups want to draw attention to the problem of human trafficking. They say it's happening in East Tennessee.

Vulnerable people, often from other countries, are kept effectively as slaves working for criminal organizations.

"It's typically American criminal enterprises here luring foreign national here with the promise of some type of gainful abuse. Then, through physical abuse, psychological coercion, even physical restraint forcing them into labor as prostitutes, as drug traffickers, sometimes in the agricultural arena and even in the hospitality area," said Richard Lambert, FBI special agent in the Knoxville field office.

The FBI recently arrested Selvin Perdomo, 36, for allegedly running a sexual delivery service out of a rental home along Papermill Drive in Knoxville.

Authorities say the majority of the female escorts were illegal immigrants. "Primarily it involved undocumented immigrants of Hispanic decent," Lambert said.

He also says the recent human trafficking incident is emblematic of a rising national issue and East Tennessee is no exception.

"It is growing year by year by year. We had five times as many prosecutions in 2009 as we did in 2005," Lambert said.

The people interested in combating the problem met Tuesday at the Crowne Plaza in Knoxville. The Department of Justice and the FBI hosted the event.

The Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a Knoxville-based organization, helped organize the speakers.

"This just gives us a better chance to know who to call, when to call, and it helps us get our training in place so our officers know what to do," said Newport Police Chief Maurice Shults.

Law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates and members of faith-based organizations were in the audience.

They spoke about the need to collaborate. "We're wanting to take a proactive approach and actually prevent trafficking from taking place as well as rescuing any victims we may find," said Christi Wigle, president of Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

The newly-formed coalition is expected to act as a liaison.

"It's a very difficult crime to detect because most of the time the victims are very reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement. Many times there is a language barrier. Many times the victims have been threatened," Lambert explained.

He also says there are nearly 300 human trafficking cases pending across the U.S. Approximately, 20 percent of the victims are from Mexico. 

Officials with the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking hope to host a larger training session next year with hands-on workshops for law enforcement.

For local agencies this could be key training considering limited budgets.

Another Knoxville-based non-profit, Cry for Justice, is raising funds for a facility that would give victims of human trafficking a place to stay.

"We want to have a safe house so we can get people, get the victims off the street  and get them placed in a home and enrolled in programs," said Kelly Wyatt, founder of Cry for Justice. 

The safe house would ideally house 50 victims.

The organization already has a location picked out in Knoxville. It just needs the funding to run its programs and pay its staff.

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