PHOENIX – On the Saturday before the Super Bowl, a 23-year-old on the northern edge of this sprawling city scans escort offers on the Internet. There are dozens of listings, many with photos of girls in suggestive poses and little clothing.
This is a huge weekend for football and fanfare – an unofficial national holiday – and it is also a huge weekend for sex. That means it is also a huge weekend for sex trafficking, and this 23-year-old is working long hours on a Saturday to stop it.
She is an agent in the Phoenix division of the FBI.
The Super Bowl is culmination of a months-long effort by the FBI and a task force of local authorities to track down pimps and recover underage girls who are coerced into turning tricks while the world is watching Phoenix but nobody is watching them.
"The Super Bowl, unfortunately, happens to be the largest human trafficking venue on the planet," said Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Senator John McCain, who has been leading the push for stronger laws in Arizona and elsewhere.
The awareness of this problem has ramped up considerably in the last several years. "It's gone on for decades unchecked," said Special Agent George Steuer, sitting at a conference table in the FBI office before a full day of sting operations. "We assumed it was a voluntary industry."
Advocates like McCain and intensified media coverage have combined to augment attention on this issue. So have instances of girls being recovered with broken bones, branding and other physical injuries.
"When Arizona was awarded the Super Bowl, we had no human trafficking legislation on our books, period," McCain said. "Unless we were going to be racked with a dangerous Super Bowl, we had to get to work."
It has worked, according to authorities. Of the 27 juveniles recovered in the past year, 18 have come in the three weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the Phoenix FBI reported. That's almost one per day. There have also been dozens of pimps arrested over the past year, along with nearly 200 sex workers who have been offered victims services. While some reports argue there is no empirical evidence of an increase in trafficking during the Super Bowl, Steuer said his office has seen a "definite uptick in activity" and the amount of alerts he has received from the national office over the last several weeks has jumped five-fold.
The recent efforts have come in part from this austere office building, isolated from the buzz of downtown by miles of highway and desert. Steuer, who has worked for the FBI for nearly 20 years, is one of the overseers. The 23-year-old agent scouring the Internet, who would not give her name because of the confidentiality of her work, is one of 20 on Steuer's team. In a main room, there's a map with target neighborhoods and a dry erase board with photos of pimps and underage girls who are thought to work for them. One picture, lying on a desk in a cubicle, is of a girl who the agency is hoping to recover from "the life" as prostitution is often known. Her birth year is listed as 2000.
"It's a serious threat to young people," Seuer said Saturday. "It's tragic and violent. It's modern-day slavery."
Seuer said he has seen cases of girls being befriended at a high school party, raped, photographed, and then blackmailed into working. "There's often evidence of assault and battery," Seuer said. "They are psychologically broken." Seuer has seen a rise in juveniles being marketed over the past several weeks. That suggests it's not just a demand for sex at the Super Bowl; it's a demand for sex with minors.
Yet the task force has been ready. One of the most reliable tools for Seuer and his staff is the "reversal," where agents pose as johns or young girls on social media and then set up meetings. The primary goal is to prevent further harm, so sex workers are often given a chance to defer arrest if they want to escape. Some don't trust cops, and would rather be arrested. But even an arrest can be a way to break the chain of forced labor.
The pursuit is on several fronts: the task force will infiltrate a hotel on one night, then scan a red light district on the next, and then focus on online operations on the third. The pimps are communicating online also, alerting each other where the cops have been spotted, so it's important to change course daily if not more often. There is always a plan for the day, and that plan always changes.
What's different during Super Bowl week, besides the influx of tourists, is the enlisting of other parties to help fight the scourge.
"All the hotels have been trained," McCain said. "They are taught to know what human trafficking looks like and what to do if you see it."
The NFL has also ramped up its efforts in recent years.
"They got into the game late," McCain said, "but they are making great progress."
There will be no more getting into the game late. Santa Clara County, site of Super Bowl 50, has set up a commission to plan the effort for next year. There are bilingual billboards already standing in the Bay Area, promoting awareness. A law enforcement concern that was an afterthought only a few years ago is now a year-round fight.
And while the planet watches the Super Bowl on Sunday, the 23-year-old and the rest of her FBI team will be watching the message boards.