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Mercyhurst intel students use analysis skils to combat human trafficking

Monday, November 11, 2013

It’s ugly. Young children, barely old enough to read, kidnapped from orphanages in countries like Thailand, Mexico and Albania and forced into child pornography. As if it couldn’t get any worse, some are put directly into the sex trade.

Beginning in late November, students in the intelligence studies department at Mercyhurst University will establish an Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Cell (AHTIC) on campus to help fight these atrocities. The department has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Orphan Secure, a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization, to support its mission of combatting child sex trafficking by using intelligence to identify perpetrators, uncover their networks, liberate victims and safeguard potential targets.

With more than 2.4 million people around the world victims of human trafficking at any one time, students have their work cut out for them. Intelligence studies assistant professor Steve Zidek, who is overseeing the project, knows his students have the skills, but do they have the stomachs?

“I don’t doubt that there will be many students wanting to help,” Zidek said. “To give hope to these defenseless children who are being victimized is a great use of their skill sets; it’s also consistent with the mission of the Sisters of Mercy. But they will have to be well vetted to ensure they have the emotional capability to deal with these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Zidek said Orphan Secure will train students in mid-November with the intention of staffing the AHTIC for a small-scale startup at the end of the month. Students will be working with the organization’s mobile “Freedom” app, which empowers individuals to anonymously report cases of human/child sex trafficking. That information will be received by students manning the cell, who will analyze and disseminate to authorities for action.

For example, someone who witnesses a child being forced into a vehicle could report it via the Freedom app. They could describe what they saw: time, place, circumstances, descriptions; even upload a photo, perhaps of a license plate on the vehicle in question. The information would be processed by the students and forwarded to authorities previously vetted and deemed trustworthy. One of the problems in many countries rife with human trafficking, Zidek explained, is corruption at various levels of government and law enforcement.

The new partnership between Mercyhurst and Orphan Secure resulted from a study conducted last year by intelligence studies students as part of their strategic intelligence capstone experience. The students researched the sexual exploitation of children and organized crime activity in the U.S., Mexico, Thailand and Albania and prepared intelligence reports that ultimately led Orphan Secure President Rolando Lopez to gain cooperation from certain government agencies in each country.

“We are so grateful for what Mercyhurst has done for us,” Lopez said. “Several students, some who have graduated, were an integral part in preparing our teams to make a difference abroad and here within the United States.  We look forward to seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of human/child sex trafficking victims freed globally through this partnership."  

Three students who were instrumental in the original project are David Bott, Kevin Shields and Mauricio Canton, who worked collaboratively with Mercyhurst intelligence studies graduate Sean Underwood, who serves in a volunteer capacity as the director of intelligence for Orphan Secure. Orphan Secure is operated exclusively by volunteers from law enforcement, U.S. Military Special Forces, and intelligence officers and analysts from global intelligence agencies.

Shields and Bott worked to identify the incidence of human trafficking in major U.S. cities, among them Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio, and Chicago (in no particular order). Their analysis also looked at how human trafficking thrives in those cities, investigating gang connections, modus operandi of perpetrators, and profiles of victims and how they were recruited and subsequently advertised, Shields said. The data they helped to collect, he added, was used in the creation of the Freedom app. 

“I was very lucky to have this kind of opportunity to work for Orphan Secure,” Bott added. “To use our skills, not just in the fields of national security and law enforcement, but to help nonprofit organizations that deal with atrocities like human trafficking was very rewarding.”

For his part, Canton looked into how Mexican cartels utilize gangs located along the US-Mexico border to smuggle human trafficking victims into the US.

“I developed an awareness of the magnitude of issues like human trafficking and it made me realize that choosing intelligence studies as a major gives you an opportunity to fight for a change in the world,” Canton said.

Although the newest collaboration is moving forward with in-kind services and donated materials, Zidek said efforts will be made by both parties to secure funding to sustain the program.

“What we are dealing with here is evil – pure evil – and we have to do everything we can to stop it,” he said.