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Human Trafficking in Arizona

A highway in the desert of Arizona

When topics like sex trafficking, human trafficking, and modern slavery are brought up, a majority of Americans will associate these with low- and middle-income countries. Even though the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States, the practice is still alive and well today.

Arizona is a hot, vast, desert-ridden state and the sixth-largest in the nation. Additionally, Arizona is one of the four states bordering Mexico, making it a hub for human trafficking. In fact, in 2017, Arizona was reported to have the third-highest rate of human trafficking in the nation[1]. However, after valiant efforts from the local law enforcement, these numbers have subsided significantly.

State Statistics

Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) has been one of the nation’s greatest resources in combatting the human trafficking crisis. In 2020, the NHTH received 608 incident reports from Arizona[2]. This number only skims the surface of plausible cases. In most cases, victims are unable to reach out for help. Finding access to a phone or a means to signal for help can be nearly impossible. The average age of youth trafficked in Arizona is 13, which is nearly four years younger than the national age[3]. The exact reason for such a drastic age difference is unknown, but nonetheless, government agencies are tirelessly working to provide more protection for youth in Arizona. From 2007 to 2009 the United States experienced the Great Recession, the nation's largest stock market crash since the Great Depression in the 1930s. As a result, Arizona experienced a large increase in homelessness, leading to a spike in human trafficking activity. Even in 2019, nearly ten years after the Great Recession came to a close, states are still feeling the impacts. Arizona State University performed a statewide study on 89 individuals aged 18-25[4]. They found that one in three homeless citizens have encountered human or sex trafficking[5]. Multiple factors contribute to Arizona having such high rates of human trafficking, but in recent years, COVID-19 is the main culprit.

Effects of COVID-19

Since 2019, there have been over 22 million COVID cases reported worldwide and nearly 179,000 people have lost their lives to this illness[6]. Over the past three years, people around the world have been experiencing changes in nearly every aspect of their lives. A prominent change was the sudden conversion to a virtual lifestyle. One of the largest populations affected by the pandemic were children still in school. Instead of being educated in a controlled and safe classroom environment, they now had access to the internet unsupervised. With this sudden change, premature exposure to the vast content of the internet was inevitable. In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) experienced a 97.5% increase in online human trafficking attempts[7]. With children now being in front of the screen for hours each day, the likelihood of one of them falling for clickbait is unavoidable. Clickbait is an example of deceiving ads whose sole purpose is to entice the user to visit an encrypted webpage. Depending on the audience, these ads vary wildly. Traffickers use clickbait as a means to ensnare children. On May 19, 2022, law enforcement in Arizona arrested 29 males working together on an undercover human trafficking operation called “April Fools”, which was used to create clickbait targeted towards kids[8]. Schemes like these are becoming more common. In fact, the founders of, a website known for being involved in multiple human trafficking schemes, are from Arizona[9].

Nearly 80% of all ads for adult services in the U.S. can be found on Backpage[10]. The founders of this website are from Phoenix, Arizona. Originally, Jim Larkin and associate Michael Lacey founded Phoenix Times, one of the state's most popular publications. However, a few years after opening this paper, they developed an online sales platform rivaling Craigslist. The company generated around 500 million each year from prostitution ads alone[11]. Some of the advertisements were part of human trafficking schemes. In 2010, Backpage was sued by a “15-year-old sex trafficking victim for allegedly aiding and abetting forced prostitution and the exploitation of children and child pornography by failing to investigate the prostitution ads on Backpage”[12]. Although this initial case was dropped, attention was brought to the public. This is just one example of the multitude of platforms used to traffic children through manipulative advertising.

The Border’s Effects on Trafficking

For decades now, Mexican citizens have been crossing the border into America illegally. To make it across the border, a long and sometimes dangerous journey is required. Border towns like Sinaloa and Sanora are hubs for human trafficking. When migrants come into the U.S. there are multiple paths of entry. However, the most common method of entry is through hiring a “Coyote” or a paid guide who take migrants from the border to the U.S. Most paths of entry through border towns are controlled by a cartel[13]. With one of these escorts costing nearly $4,000 USD, many migrants are left with little to no savings[14]. As a result, they are forced to turn to less-than-ideal ways to make money to survive. Over time, the traditionally dangerous route into America is now becoming even more accessible, and cartels have created an Uber-like system. The cartel will find Americans and pay them to pick up people trying to cross the border and take them to a designated drop off point. This is just one example of how cartels have changed the way that people can be trafficked. Changes like these are making it more difficult for border patrol and other law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking activity.

Laws in Place

Arizona distinguishes between sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Although each is considered a form of human trafficking, there are different legal actions required to address each. For a case to be classified as human trafficking, the case needs to meet all three areas of the Action, Means, and Purpose model[15].

Currently, there are six laws in place addressing the human trafficking crisis in Arizona. For further information regarding the laws and regulations in place please visit the links below[16].


Throughout the state, human trafficking continues to be an ongoing issue. To learn how more about local and state efforts, please visit the links below.


[1] “Child Sex Trafficking in Arizona: How to Spot the Warning Signs.” KNXV. KNXV, November 14, 2018. [2] “Arizona.” National Human Trafficking Hotline. Accessed June 7, 2022. [3] “Human Trafficking.” Human Trafficking | Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family. Accessed June 7, 2022. [4] “ASU Report Finds Homeless Young Adults at Risk for Labor, Sex Trafficking.” School of Social Work, May 22, 2022. [5] “Human Trafficking.” Human Trafficking | Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family. Accessed June 7, 2022. [6] CSSEGIS . “Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Cases.” GitHub. Accessed June 8, 2022. [7] “Human Trafficking.” Human Trafficking | Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family. Accessed June 7, 2022. [8] “29 Arrested in Hsi Phoenix, Multiagency Operation Targeting Alleged Child Sex and Human Traffickers.” ICE. Accessed June 8, 2022. [9] Billeaud, Jacques. “ Owners Head to Trial over Alleged Sex Ads.” FOX 10 Phoenix. FOX 10 Phoenix, September 1, 2021. [10] “Arizona Sex Trafficking 101: An Overview.” TRUST AZ, November 29, 2018. [11] Press, Associated. “Feds: Made $500m from Prostitution-Related Ads.” Fox News. FOX News Network, April 11, 2018. [12] “Arizona Sex Trafficking 101: An Overview.” TRUST AZ, November 29, 2018. [13] Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “How the Sinaloa Cartel Rules.” Brookings. Brookings, April 6, 2022. [14] Migoya, Clara. “US, Mexico Team up to Dismantle Human Smuggling Organization in Nogales.” The Arizona Republic. The Arizona Republic, January 1, 2022. [15] “Arizona Sex Trafficking 101: An Overview.” TRUST AZ, November 29, 2018. [16] “Arizona Sex Trafficking 101: An Overview.” TRUST AZ, November 29, 2018.


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