Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Birmingham conducted a four-week joint operation to combat human trafficking during The World Games 2022, which resulted in over 50 arrests.
HSI participated in The World Games Human Exploitation Task Force along with federal, state and local law enforcement. Through “Operation Games STOP,” the agencies targeted human exploitation-related offenses, drug trafficking and other public safety threats in the Birmingham area during The World Games.
The World Games started on July 7 and ended on Sunday. It was estimated that the games would generate $256 million in economic impact. The World Games welcomed 3,600 athletes from over 100 countries competing in over 25 venues around the greater-Birmingham area.
The operation resulted in at least 58 arrests including:
34 arrests of commercial sex buyers.
Six arrests on human trafficking-related charges.
Eight arrests of adult males for online enticement of a minor and traveling to meet a minor for sex.
Nine felony drug arrests.
One arrest of a fugitive from Michigan on charges of impersonating a police officer.
Doug Gilmer, the resident agent in charge of HSI’s Birmingham field office, said those charged with crimes unrelated to human trafficking were encountered through its effort to combat human trafficking.
HSI’s operations were specifically designed to arrest commercial sex buyers who potentially thought that they were going to pay someone for sex and to identify and remove potential victims of human trafficking.
Gilmer said that HSI anticipated that there would be an increase in human trafficking activity to come with The World Games.
“[The World Games] don’t create human trafficking, but they create an environment in which it can thrive,” Gilmer said. “… [With] an increase in people comes an increase in demand for that kind of activity.”
Gilmer said the HSI targeted a handful of websites that frequently advertise commercial sex and used fake advertisements to identify people looking to pay for sex.
HSI also did several operations where they caught individuals online who were interested in having intercourse with minors. These individuals unknowingly communicated with HSI, thinking they were talking to a minor. Some even traveled, thinking they were going to meet the minor.
According to Gilmer, these individuals made it clear that they thought they were communicating with a minor.
Gilmer said the crime around The World Games was a mixture of organized crime and individual actors. He said HSI identified groups that were actively involved with human trafficking.
“At the end of the day, it’s all financially motivated,” Gilmer said. “Trafficking is a crime that is motivated by greed because it is a very profitable business and criminals know that.”
Gilmer said the high arrest numbers are a combined effect of increased pressure on human trafficking efforts and The World Games bringing new opportunities for human trafficking crimes to be committed. A number of the arrests were directly related to The World Games.
“They traveled here specifically because they knew there were going to be a lot of people in town for the games,” Gilmer said.
Gilmer said some of those arrested were from other parts of the country or even the world.
Agents were also able to identify and provide service for 15 adult sex trafficking victims, four minor labor trafficking victims, seven adult labor trafficking victims, two minor online sexual exploitation victims and seven missing and endangered minors.
Gilmer said community partners helped serve the victims, which is an important part of combatting human trafficking.
“Whether they were victims of labor trafficking or sex trafficking, the fact that we were able to provide services to these victims is absolutely critical because if we don’t do that, we just perpetuate the problem,” Gilmer said. “They could end right back up into a cycle of exploitation.”
Gilmer said that the HSI was able to learn new techniques from the different agencies they worked with during The World Games, which they will be able to implement on their own going forward.
Gilmer also said he thought public outreach efforts helped combat human trafficking during The World Games.
“We have trained thousands of area law enforcement, healthcare workers, community groups and those in the hospitality industry on the signs and indicators of human trafficking as well what human trafficking is and what it isn’t,” Gilmer said. “We’ve kept the topic in the news, and this kind of awareness and public education is the first and most important step to prevention. We wanted people to know that we are serious about combatting human trafficking in Alabama and that we would undertake a zero-tolerance approach to those who seek to exploit others for profit.”
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