Adria Malcolm / Searchlight New Mexico 

A Navajo girl was exploited and sex trafficked in urban and rural New Mexico. Why did so many fail to help her? 

This story is published in partnership with Slate.com

Eva was found at dusk one Tuesday in late December 2016, standing in a parking lot in northeast Albuquerque. The 15-year-old Navajo girl had been missing more than two weeks when her grandmother got a call from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office — saying her silver Ford truck had been recovered.

 “I don’t care about the truck, what about my granddaughter?” Heidi demanded. 

 She drove three hours, from her house outside Gallup to Albuquerque, and arrived a few minutes after 1 a.m. to see Eva emerge from the juvenile holding area, quiet and hunched, her dark brown eyes fixed on the floor. She weighed 94 pounds. Her cheeks and neck looked skeletal. She kept her answers short, and when an officer asked her to sign a release document, she rolled her eyes. A familiar pattern was unfolding.

Back in the car, Heidi locked the doors. The cold fabric of the seats smelled of cigarettes and pine. Give me my phone, Eva said.

For going on two years, Eva recognized that horrific actions were being forced upon her, but she didn’t have a name for them. She didn’t know she was a part of something larger, something the state and the nation has yet to fully reckon with or measure. Eva was among the thousands of human trafficking victims targeted and exploited in the U.S. every year, of whom only 10 percent or so are ever identified. In New Mexico, only 160 cases have been opened since 2016 — Eva’s among them. And while Native Americans make up about 11 percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly a quarter of trafficking victims, according to data compiled from organizations that provide services to trafficking victims.

A 16-month investigation by Searchlight New Mexico has found that when it comes to human trafficking, indigenous women and girls are the least recognized and least protected population in a state that has long struggled to address the issue. An almost total lack of protocols, mandated training, and coordination between law enforcement systems as well as medical institutions has ensnared victims in cycles of exploitation.

 

That includes Eva, who, according to her own recounting in addition to notes from medical personnel, caseworkers, and therapists, was systematically lured, coerced and threatened by a man who amassed hundreds of pornographic images and videos of her, raped her more times than she can estimate and traded sex with her to others for money, drugs and favors. Her name, along with those of her family members, has been changed for reasons of safety and privacy.

Throughout those two years, Eva showed many of the warning signs of someone who’s been trafficked: She was anxious, depressed, absent-minded, mute, and had little sense of time. She was frequently reported missing, labeled a runaway, appeared malnourished and was occasionally bruised. Time and again, she was cast aside by the very authorities sworn to protect her. She was given few referrals for care from licensed professionals, who responded to her trauma by dispensing psychotropic medication to her on numerous occasions, while not asking questions or consulting other agencies. When she tried to take her own life, the hands-off responses persisted. Despite dozens of brushes with five law enforcement agencies (Zuni tribal police, Gallup police, McKinley County sheriffs, Bernalillo County sheriffs, and Albuquerque police) and seven healthcare institutions (in Gallup, Zuni, Black Rock, Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Taos), she was not once questioned or screened for human trafficking.

“Nobody saw me,” she says. “Not until the very end.”

The number of trafficking victims in New Mexico has consistently risen over the last three years. While Native people make up nearly 11% of the state population, they account for a quarter of the sex trafficking victims served.
Photo by Adria Malcolm

Growing up on the Zuni and Navajo reservations of western New Mexico, Eva moved continuously between her mother’s two-bedroom house in Nakaibito to the residences of her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — all in small communities north and south of Gallup with fewer than 2,000 people, connected by roads flanked by spruce trees. The only constant in her life was Haley, her sister 4½ years her junior.

Eva was the outgoing one, admired by her sister for her lanky limbs, her long eyelashes and her gift for sketching. When her cousins came for sleepovers, they marveled at her drawings of butterflies floating among trees. Eva was the one to initiate games of basketball in the driveway, scolding her cousins when they didn’t pass the ball to Haley.

The girls’ mother, Lea, worked multiple jobs as a nurse’s aide, and the family had a comfortable life in an area where the median household income hovers at about $27,000 a year. Lea entered her daughters in child beauty pageants in Gallup, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and Eva relished in the two times she placed first. Lea was the kind of mother who on a whim would take the family on a road trip to White Sands National Monument or the redwood forests of northern California, where the girls twirled and laid silent under the trees at night. Eva remembers those times as her happiest ones.

They ended the year she turned 11. Lea had long struggled with alcoholism, and as the disease worsened she increasingly left her daughters in the care of others or alone at home. Eva was made to mature far beyond her years while enduring the advances of an abusive stepfather. When her mother was too intoxicated to drive, she propped Eva on a pile of blankets to see over the steering wheel of the family’s 1999 Honda Civic. Eva began skipping school, and while there she got in trouble for smoking. Finally, in her seventh grade year, she was expelled for fighting and never went back. Her grandmother described her as “12 going on 25.”

Reports from McKinley County sheriffs and Zuni police officers, who responded to disturbance and residential battery calls, chronicled a home life with frank, check-box detachment.

Daughter, 12, seemed Ok.

Alcohol abuse by biological mother… Said she [leaves] kids with stepfather.

Younger one said they are alone a lot.

Daughter, 12, asked to go to grandmother’s house.

Only later would Eva and Haley confide in their grandmother that their stepfather physically, sexually, and emotionally abused them. “Don’t you tell Grandma what happens in this house,” he often said.

The girls’ grandmother says she kept as close a watch as she could, and when she saw them, she would give her granddaughters almost anything they wanted. For Eva’s 12th birthday, she bought her an iPhone, so Eva could call whenever they were left alone at home.

“Buying her that phone was the worst thing I ever did,” Heidi says now.

On Dec. 8, 2015, Eva looked at her phone and saw a Facebook message from a young man with a thick brow, chalky brown hair, and a round jawline. I remember you from middle school, he wrote. Eva, then 13, didn’t recognize him, but she assumed she knew him. “Everyone on the reservation knows everyone. Or they pretend they do,” she says.

D, as she came to call him, enthused about her large brown eyes, her dimples, and the way she wore her hair in French braids. He asked for photos and she sent him intimate selfies, soon followed by more explicit pictures. She drove to his house in her mother’s car — still propped up on blankets and often hitting trash bins along the way — where he shared  beer and marijuana with her. She thought he looked older than he did in his pictures on Facebook, but told herself that he was probably in high school when she was still in middle school. They drove to a Conoco gas station near the waterless Red Lake north of Gallup, where D — so confident, so approachable — told her he loved her. Eva felt needed and exultant, unmoored from the problems at home.

As the months went by, D took more photos and recorded videos — usually of Eva performing oral sex and having intercourse with him. His affectionate ways were soon supplanted by forceful sex, violence and threats. He promised to share her photos and videos on Facebook and hurt her little sister if she were to say anything. Then, he invited other men — he said they were his brother and cousin — to the house, where they molested and raped Eva. She remembers initially resisting, punching one of them, and hearing the words “Just do it,” before feeling a weight fall on her.

Her grandmother reported Eva missing that night when she failed to return her texts and calls. When Eva returned the following morning looking “totally out of it,” a police dispatcher urged Heidi to take her to Para los Niños, an abuse crisis center for children and adolescents in Albuquerque. After an examination that lasted several hours, clinicians concluded that Eva showed signs of rape, “petechial bruising” and “penetrative trauma,” according to medical records.

A nurse gave Heidi brochures, while Eva was presented with new clothes and stuffed animals and referred to tribal social services for counseling. No follow-up was ever made. No one at the center asked any of the questions developed to help identify human trafficking victims. Questions like: Sometimes people are hurt or threatened, forced to do things by someone else who is getting something in exchange. Are you in a situation where you think this could happen? Indeed, according to Searchlight’s research, no major healthcare center in the state mandates trafficking screenings for minors presenting signs of sexual violence.

As they drove home on I-40 Eva heard a high-pitched noise, like someone yelling, in her head. The only sound her grandmother remembers hearing was the buzz of Eva’s phone.

In rural areas, like McKinley County, experts and tribal leaders say human trafficking is often overlooked or misidentified among child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence cases. 
Photo by Adria Malcom

Sex trafficking is defined (federally and by the state) as the exploitation of individuals through threat or use of force, coercion, and/or fraud to induce a “commercial sex act” — a technical definition that blunts the trauma and spectrum of exploitation. It is a growing crime that’s estimated to generate $99 billion in illegal profits a year globally, and in the U.S., people of color — mostly black and indigenous women — are victimized at the highest rates.

But the widely cited mainstream definitions need to be expanded and reshaped when considering the ways indigenous women and minors are victimized, says Maureen Lomahaptewa, a Hopi woman and caseworker at The Life Link, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that shelters and serves trafficking victims and other vulnerable populations. Caseworkers there say there’s a lack of understanding about the ways indigenous women, especially those from rural areas, are trafficked — and how the police, legal and medical systems fail them. These women are, according to experts, the most underserved of the underserved.

The Navajo Department of Family Services, which operates in Arizona and New Mexico, says that sex trafficking is often overlooked or misidentified among child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence cases. Domestic violence accounts for one-third of the nearly 300,000 calls made to Navajo police every year, and the NDFS reported a 23 percent increase in child sexual abuse cases over the past two years, with 442 intakes in 2018.

The agency is currently reviewing formerly closed cases and has in the past year opened three new trafficking investigations. Its efforts have been spurred in part by Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who spearheaded an as yet unpublished white paper on trafficking in the Navajo Nation. The paper functions as a warning to policymakers and those who deny the prevalence of the issue. It compiles the few existing research studies and data sets on trafficking of indigenous peoples, and calls for extensive research and assessments that go beyond simple statistics — such as the 2016 National Institute of Justice finding that four in five indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetimes. A landmark national needs assessment was slated to begin in 2018, but the Department of Justice eliminated its funding.

Not all tribal leaders regard the issue with the same urgency. Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco, for one, says he does not see sex trafficking as a problem in his jurisdiction. “It’s more of a border issue,” he says.

Of course, trafficking and exploitation are hardly a new phenomenon in indigenous communities. For centuries, sexual violence has been a cornerstone of the treatment of indigenous populations, integral to colonization and displacement, which to this day reverberates generational trauma. Sex trafficking of contemporary indigenous women is “almost indistinguishable from the colonial tactics of enslavement, exploitation, exportation, and relocation,” writes Sarah Deer, professor of law at Kansas University and author of The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Today, high rates of chemical dependency, abuse, involvement in the foster care system and a lack of resources exacerbate vulnerability to predators, the vast majority of whom are non-Native. As noted in Crotty’s white paper (produced in partnership with Casey Family Programs and the University of Colorado’s American Indian Law Clinic), female minors, homeless youth and transgender or two-spirit/LGBTQ people are most vulnerable to trafficking. Trafficking cases uncovered by NDFS show that the criminal activity is not solely conducted through organized crime. Individual exploiters from metropolitan areas often target rural communities. And, as tribal leaders have found in NDFS cases, family members have been known to exchange younger children for money, drugs or basic needs.

 

“We’ve seen our children trafficked by their own family, and most don’t even know they were trafficked. … Ultimately addressing this is about going back to the stories of these individuals who have been trafficked in each way. We need to stop erasing the experience of survivors,” says Crotty.

In August 2017, Crotty and Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown co-sponsored a law designating human trafficking as a criminal offense in the Navajo Nation. “Our Navajo children are being picked up through social media and trafficked at truck stops or other areas across the United States,” Brown says. “And for a long time we didn’t have a word to describe sex trafficking in our communities.” The new law grants tribal courts jurisdiction over Native and non-Native victims in cases that fall outside federal jurisdiction or that federal authorities decline to pursue. The law calls for coordination among government and civil institutions to fight illegal “transporting, trading or dealing” of people. Should a case arise, it would challenge the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which tribes lost the authority to prosecute non-Natives in Indian Country.

McKinley County, New Mexico

In the fall of 2016, D doubled his threats against Eva. If she spoke out, he would escalate. In addition to sharing the photos and videos, he promised to harm Heidi and abduct Haley. Isolated and cornered, Eva felt a heaviness to her every step.

If anyone could have helped Eva, it would have been her mother. Lea knew, or at least suspected, what was happening; she had seen the nude photos of her daughter and did nothing. Eva expected her mother to act or at least say something. But in November 2016, Lea died after an incident near Shiprock.

Her death left Eva terrified. For weeks after the funeral she lay on the floor of her grandmother’s house, her body squirming in the dark, while her phones buzzed with messages.  

 

By now, she had four Samsung cellphones, all supplied by D, who within several weeks of her mother’s death was texting daily, demanding more photos, threatening her with violence unless she pick herself off the ground and meet him. Which she did, as if pulled by a wire tethered to her feet — driving or being driven to faraway towns and switching between cars with strange men.

Listen to Heidi, Eva's grandmother, in her own words.

Heidi, who now had full custody of both granddaughters, coped by writing notes in her planner (Eva snuck out of room in morning, 2-3 a.m… Eva gone… Eva still gone) and calling tribal and county police. She called so many times that they recognized her voice. Her despair had, in her words, become something of a joke to them. “Eva up and gone again?” they would ask. She cut back her hours as a pharmacy assistant to look for Eva, driving across the Zuni Pueblo and southern Navajo Reservation to Gamerco, north of Gallup, knocking on doors to ask total strangers if they’d seen her granddaughter.

Listen to Heidi, Eva's grandmother, in her own words.
Listen to Eva’s grandmother as she recounts the moments after Eva’s interview with the FBI. Some parts may be difficult to listen to, but she told us she wants people to hear it.

“I’d never heard the word ‘trafficked’ until that day,” says Eva. “When I heard it, I thought it was just like a word for trapped.”

 

Home 

In the last 14 months since departing a safe house, Eva, now 17, and Haley, 13, have each enrolled in new schools twice and changed apartments three times. Eva has gone missing once after she ran away in the middle of a panic attack. She has also been arrested and spent a night in jail for kicking and punching Heidi. Despite the occasional outburst, the family maintains a bond — albeit one that’s limited to the three of them. Though aunts and uncles and cousins live in western New Mexico, Eva, Haley and Heidi do not visit. There are many places Eva won’t return to.

To date, no charges have been filed. Every few months, Heidi calls the assigned FBI agent for an update, but there rarely is anything to report. Several individuals familiar with the case believe it has been relegated, like so many others under the FBI’s purview, to inactive status.

Listen to Heidi, Eva's grandmother, in her own words.

Eva, meanwhile, has grown out her bangs and wears large puffer and fake-fur coats that obscure her slender body, no matter the season. She frets about being recognized in public and says illicit photos and videos of her can still be found in the dark corners of the internet. Recalling those photos is one among many triggers for her, along with the smell of marijuana and abrupt movements. Sometimes at the peak of a panic attack, she faints — a somewhat rare occurrence among trauma victims, one that’s more often experienced by refugees who survive war, torture and genocide. She deconstructs these episodes and her past in biweekly therapy sessions.

The family subsists on victim assistance funds that will change and decrease as Eva grows older. Heidi will apply for food stamps and public housing in the coming years. Eva says she and Heidi will soon start looking for jobs. For now, though, she tries to stay focused on finishing the 10th grade. While she sometimes struggles in school, in her creative writing class she has an A+.

Sometimes, Eva has a sense that things will improve, but she also likes to point out that to believe rests on an assumption that believing will work. Many nights, she resists sleep. Nightmares ensue, and the sensation of near-sleep reminds her of the feeling she experienced when she was being trafficked — weightless and contorted underwater.

“I want to make it not real. But I was living there. And sometimes, I’m still living there.”