Cook County Special Victims Unit warning migrants about sex trafficking

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones, Maggie Green and Adriana Aguilar WLS logo
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Cook County SVU warning migrants about sex trafficking
Migrants in Chicago and Cook County often flee violence and crime, but are vulnerable to sex trafficking. The Cook County Sheriff's Dept. is helping.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many of the 36,000 migrants in Chicago moved here to escape violence and crime. Now they are in need of protection from a despicable criminal element here: sex traffickers.

The I-Team rode along with Cook County Sheriff's Special Victim's Unit to get an inside look at the tactics they are using to help new arrivals avoid being victimized. But for some migrants, it's already too late.

"There's a power and control component with traffickers. They want to have people who are under their power and control and they groom them in such a way where they make it seem like the trafficker is the only person that cares," said Cindy Gonzalez, an Anti-Trafficking Outreach Specialist who is part of the Cook County Sheriff's Special Victims Unit. The unit is led by survivors of trafficking or domestic abuse.

Gonzalez visits Chicago's migrant shelters to warn new arrivals about trafficking, which is the use of force, fraud or coercion for sex or labor. Hundreds of migrants have been attending each session.

"In this situation with the migrants, they pose a greater vulnerability because they don't know the language, they don't know the laws," said Gonzalez.

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"There's a desperate need for money for a myriad of obvious reasons. And so if you were just to look objectively, at who would be a perfect group of people to be targeted by the traffickers, it's this population," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Gonzalez said many migrants approach her after the sessions.

"And so in those situations, they realize that they have been victims of trafficking and they do come up to me afterwards and tell me that they have been victimized, in such pain and they just never were able to put a name to the crime or their situation," she said.

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"Many of these people have already been trafficked before they got here...many have already had this happen to them on their way here," said Sheriff Dart.

Chicago police arrested Wilson Vasquez in January and charged him with sex trafficking two women from Venezuela who migrated to Houston and then northwest suburban Elgin. He has pleaded not guilty.

According to documents shared with the I-Team, Vasquez "arranged for men to come to the hotel where the victims were located and forced to engage in sexual acts in exchange for money. They were not allowed to keep the money."

With 36,000 migrants now in Illinois since August 2022, a number that frequently rises by the day, so does is the cost.

Cook County prosecutors say the women were held for days in the basement of a home on Chicago's West Side. They were eventually rescued at Loretto Hospital. Vasquez had taken them there because one of the women said she was sick, according to prosecutors.

"The people who are being trafficked, in many cases, they're getting some type of compensation for these horrible acts. So, there's this hesitancy to give up on the income, traditionally, and there's also still this fear that floats out there," said Dart.

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An I-Team data analysis reveals: recent migration is among the top risk factors for both labor and sex trafficking in the U.S. In 2021, 429 reported victims who experienced some form of sex trafficking were recent migrants or recently relocated, which is 18% of all sex trafficking victims.

"There is, unfortunately, a lack of information for those that are migrating, for communities that are newer to the country; in knowing that type of exploitation is unlawful, that they do have rights, that they have the ability to seek help and services, and that they have rights within this country," said Karen Romero with Freedom Network USA.

"I really try to sit with the individual and really try to help them process their situation and reassure them that...that they're not the only ones being a victim of this crime, and there are resources for them," said Gonzalez.

Half a dozen sessions have already been held, and Sheriff Dart said they plan to expand to all 28 migrant shelters.

The Special Victims Unit is also warning new arrivals about labor trafficking, which is exploiting someone for financial gain.