Do a quick Google search on human trafficking and the cases pile up quickly. Trafficking, another word for old-fashioned slavery, remains a global scourge in the 21st century. Appomattox didn’t end the practice. It merely pushed it underground. 

According to the global slavery index, 40.3 million people worldwide were in slavery in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available. Of those, 71% were female, 24.9 million were in forced labor, and millions more were forced into prostitution.

So when Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes made headlines this week by announcing charges against Paul Petersen, the elected assessor of Maricopa County in Arizona, in connection with a scheme to smuggle pregnant women to Utah, Arizona and Arkansas from the Marshall Islands to sell their babies, it was just the latest in a long string of cases.

Many of these have unusual twists. Human trafficking takes on many forms. But all rely on the same basic form of evil: Capture people against their will, with false pretenses or in violation of law, and exploit them for money.

Arizona elected official charged with running Utah ‘baby mill’

Petersen, through his attorney, said he disagrees with the charges and was acting properly. The legal system will sort out the facts. 

Meanwhile, the case once again highlights this problem, which festers in society’s darkest corners and can exist even in the best of neighborhoods.

Officials who work with human trafficking cases in Utah say some crimes originate in suburban neighborhoods that can seem family-friendly and, for lack of a better word, boring. Often, they are associated with the sex industry. Recruiters look for places where teenagers congregate. They prey on those who seem insecure or who are having difficulties in their relationships with parents. They lure them through shaming, threats or a deceptive friendship that morphs quickly into bondage and dependency.

But this isn’t always how it works.

Several years ago, authorities in Utah arrested Victor Manuel Rax, a Guatemalan who allegedly used teenage boys against their will to sell drugs. He ended up committing suicide in jail before facing 63 felonies for crimes that included the rape of children and the use of threats against immigrant families to induce them to sell drugs and submit to further atrocities.

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That sort of thing doesn’t describe what Petersen was alleged to have done. Authorities claim he was bringing pregnant women from the Marshall Islands and stacking them in houses without prenatal care and in subpar conditions. He is alleged to have made $25,000 to $40,000 per adoption, once the children were born.

The mothers allegedly were paid $10,000 to put their children up for adoption. Travel from the Marshall Islands to the United States for purposes of adoption is illegal without a special visa, the result of widespread exploitation in the past. Petersen faces separate state charges in Arizona, and federal charges in Arkansas.

If people aren’t aware that human trafficking is a problem in Utah and elsewhere, they might not know what looks suspicious.

In these and all other cases, the best weapon is an attentive and aware public that isn’t afraid to report things that seem out of place. In Petersen’s case, someone phoned the state’s human trafficking tipline after noticing a suspicious adoption involving a Marshallese woman at LDS Hospital.

But vigilance requires education. If people aren’t aware that human trafficking is a problem in Utah and elsewhere, they might not know what looks suspicious. The purveyors of trafficking count on that sort of ignorance.

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