Sex Trafficking in the V.I. Isn’t Always What It Seems

This is the first in a series of stories on sex trafficking in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Family Resource Center on St Thomas is one of the agencies providing assistance for victims of domestic violence and sex-related crimes. (Source photo by Bethaney Lee)
The Family Resource Center on St Thomas is one of the agencies providing assistance for victims of domestic violence and sex-related crimes. (Source photo by Bethaney Lee)

The arrest and prosecution of financier Jeffrey Epstein and his subsequent suicide, and allegations about the sexual abuse of dozens of minors – some of which allegedly took place in U.S. Virgin Islands – has drawn the national spotlight. Here’s where the spotlight has not captured: Victims of sex trafficking in the Virgin Islands who don’t show up as part of this famous case.

Sex trafficking – Who’s in it? Who does it? Who benefits? Who suffers? Is it part of a regional pattern? Does it affect V.I. residents? Immigrants?

And – are your children safe?

The Source talked to law enforcement, social service workers and a former lawmaker to ask them what they thought. We looked at reports from the FBI and at regional reports published by the United Nations.

What emerged is a picture of a nebulous world. One made so by the impressions of some most likely to know saying they’ve never seen sex trafficking in the V.I. On the other hand there are those who have no doubt.

The term human trafficking has been used to describe anyone involved with smuggling men, women and children across an international border. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses a different term – “human smuggling,”

International observers offer a more precise view. To them, sex trafficking is one road those subject to human trafficking can travel, among others.

A story told by a former domestic violence advocate illustrates the point: A call went out from law enforcement to St. Thomas advocates against domestic violence, asking them to assist a woman found handcuffed to the rail of a sailboat along the Charlotte Amalie waterfront. When she first told the story from the late 1990s, the former director – we’ll call her R.M. – described it as human trafficking.

As she retold the story recently, R.M. said a fuller picture of what happened developed emerged as an investigation got underway.

“That was one of our domestic violence victims. That was not trafficking but it was a domestic violence situation with physical abuse and false imprisonment. She was an immigrant, she hadn’t been documented yet. He sailed away on his boat – the same boat. He was never incarcerated past his initial arrest,” she said.

Investigators determined the woman handcuffed to the boat was pregnant at the time. R.M. said authorities on St. Thomas freed her from the boat. She received intake services from the agency and eventually was able to travel to the U.S. mainland, with her child, to live.

Another expert in dealing with crime victims offers another set of dubious circumstances, this time on St. Croix.

A top police investigator said several years ago she had been called by an outside agency to assist a woman asking for an escort from her home. When authorities arrived, they found something unexpected: There were five or six women in the home, all claiming to be the wife of one man.

“The one I encountered wanted an escort, but she wanted out. The feds got involved in this case. He was using his sons to marry these ladies, so he could bring them in,” the investigator said. “When I got to the residence there were four or five women, one of which was the man’s wife. The other women, he married in the mosque. The religion allowed him to have up to four or five wives but it was forbidden to show affection in front of others. That was starting to happen, so the other wives thought he was not observing the faith, and they wanted out,” she said.

The story of the St. Croix wives was corroborated independently by a second party familiar with the case.

“I would consider this human trafficking,” the investigator said. Although it was an isolated incident influenced by the customs of an ethnic community, elements of trafficking appeared.

Experts say it’s common for migrants to act on promises of a new life, only to fall victim to a bait and switch scenario upon arrival. To the person telling this tale, would-be brides were courted by the sons of a man who they did not expect to marry.

In the end, the investigator said the woman who asked for an escort out of the home received the help she sought.

According to a report issued in 2018 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sex trafficking is one type of human trafficking. But getting a clearer picture was hard, the report said, because in some parts of the world authorities were not identifying or keeping track of cases. In the 2018 report, UNODC authors said improved data collection methods offered a more definitive view of human trafficking, worldwide.

One law enforcement official had no doubt which category they came across when they told a story about a traveler who called in to a St. Thomas police station. When the call came in, the officer was working the desk at the station. The caller asked for transport.

Upon arrival the woman told a story of arriving from Puerto Rico and being taken to a place offering room and board, and having her passport taken away. She then told the officer that after awhile she and other women given similar lodging were escorted into a place in the home where there were a number of men.

The host then told them they were to sleep with all of the men. The woman said she fled the building but once on the street, had no idea where she was.

Sex trafficking – the kind the traveler from Puerto Rico described – is one form of exploitation, along with forced labor – domestic and manual labor – and the forced conscription of child soldiers.

In some parts of the world, such as Central America and the Caribbean, the report said girls are most likely to be sex trafficking victims. Although locally, authorities and advocates working with victims said they have seen both women and girls come forward.

“Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, although this pattern is not consistent across all regions. Trafficking of females for sexual exploitation prevails in areas where most of the victims are detected: the Americas, Europe, East Asia and the Pacific. In Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are detected as victims of sexual exploitation while women are more commonly detected as victims of this form of exploitation in other subregions,” the UNODC report said.

That’s one of the problems with identifying sex trafficking locally. Officials say most likely it will not show up in an identifiable form. It might show up on a police blotter as a call for police assistance. Or as a case of unlawful imprisonment. Or as identity theft.

On a broader scale, the United Nations has taken a look at sex trafficking activity in the Caribbean region. Those in the know say all of these scenarios have turned up in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Next installment: How big a problem is it in the USVI? A top investigator with the Virgin Islands Police Department says it’s big.