This MSU Denver professor is helping combat human trafficking across the state and the nation.

AnnJanette Alejano-SteeleSprawling on all sides of the confluence of I-70 and I-25, Denver has the ungainly look of a city shedding its industrial past. On I-70 the hulking gray Purina plant blocks views of the city’s gleaming skyline. Decrepit hotels and luxury condos rim I-25. Spindly cranes bracket construction projects, rising from the demolition of mid-century office buildings that no longer serve.

Denver doesn’t shine from its highways. But it’s the view daily commuters have as they rhumba across the city slowly in traffic – the same view those trafficked into the city see as they arrive for empty promises of jobs or love.

Colorado’s highways are among the first characteristics human trafficking experts mention when describing how the crime plays out here. The state capital is the nation’s bull’s-eye: one long day’s drive to Juarez or Saskatchewan; 10 tedious hours on the Great Plains to Kansas City, Missouri; 13 brutal hours across the desert to Phoenix. Denver is a convenient hub for the comings and goings of kids indentured to magazine sales crews or migrant farm workers in bondage to debt.

“The way human trafficking manifests in Colorado has a lot to do with its location in the U.S.,” explains AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, MSU Denver professor of women’s studies and co-founder of the nonprofit Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT). “We connect folks, east to west and north to south, by virtue of our highways.”

Alejano-Steele is co-author of “The Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking,” a groundbreaking three-year study conducted by LCHT that examined how the state is responding to trafficking. Although Colorado has its share of issues, starting with its laws, it’s the first state to hold a mirror up to its efforts, gathering on-the-ground data necessary to start corralling the problem on the continuum from prevention to prosecution to survivorship.

The surprise is the backyard nature of it all. The Colorado Project revealed that trafficking is thriving statewide – in Denver, Lakewood, Aurora, Colorado Springs and rural Colorado – and is as likely to involve a white middle-schooler at odds with her parents as it is an undocumented worker fearing deportation.

Colorado is at a crossroad with regard to human trafficking. This past October, LCHT published The Colorado Project national and statewide reports. Funded by a $1 million grant from the Embrey Family Foundation, the project began in 2010 with an overarching question: What would it take to end human trafficking in Colorado? Now three years later, the state – and the country – have some answers in the voluminous 400 pages produced by the team led by Alejano-Steele.

On a national level, the research illuminated promising practices in the “4Ps” – prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships. It’s a framework identified by the United Nations and U.S. State Department to address modern slavery that aims to circle the issue from start (prevention) to finish (protecting victims). The report created a research model other communities can follow and outlined an ambitious statewide action plan – 14 sweeping recommendations organized under the 4Ps – that more than anything urge continued education and collaboration among police, prosecutors, social services and other agencies.

On the front burner (recommendation No. 4 under prosecution): new legislation that will bring Colorado’s law more in line with federal legislation, further refining the language and giving prosecutors a more precise and potent tool with which to indict traffickers.

Colorado’s initiatives have not gone unnoticed. In March 2013, when LCHT hosted its conference on The Colorado Project, a member of the U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons attended. There also are eight communities nationwide looking to replicate The Colorado Project research in their area.

“What we are doing,” Alejano-Steele says, “will absolutely inform the way the movement talks about this issue.”


*This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Metropolitan Denver Magazine