Hidden in plain sight

Human trafficking is a surprisingly prevalent issue in New England.

When she was 19, Jasmine Marino was on a steady path. She was living in Massachusetts, working in a small salon, and going to community college for journalism. Then she met her boyfriend and fell in love.

“I had my own set of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and I was basically looking for love and attention, and he provided that — telling me how beautiful I was, how smart I was, how he wanted to be with me,” she says. “He played the boyfriend role, but he was always making me doubt myself.”

She started doubting her choices. Why work in a salon when you could own one, he’d ask her. Why work in journalism when there’s no money in it?

One night, Marino went to a college party. Someone hired a girl to come dance for entertainment. “It happened to be my best friend,” Marino says. She left the party, crying, went home, and told her boyfriend.

“He said, ‘I know her man — (dancing) is how she’s making money these days,” Marino says. Later, her boyfriend drove them out to Chestnut Hill, an affluent suburb just outside Boston. Marino’s friend was living in a massive house with two other women. “I’m impressed because she has all these clothes and shoes and jewelry, and she looks happy and has a Range Rover in the driveway. It makes me think, OK, maybe this isn’t so bad.”

In short order, Marino’s boyfriend became her pimp. For the next five years, she worked in massage parlors throughout New England, from Hartford, Conn., to the former Danish Health Club in Kittery, Maine. She worked long hours and gave the money she earned to her “boyfriend.” He abused her, emotionally, physically, and mentally, and whenever she’d try to break free, he’d find her and insist that things would be different.

“It’s mental and emotional bondage. You’re not handcuffed to a radiator, but it’s in your mind,” she says.

The U.N. Gift Box exhibit was on display in Portsmouth in late November.

The Gift Box exhibit, a large installation that draws attention to human trafficking, was on display in Portsmouth’s Vaughan Mall late last month. According to experts, human trafficking is not just a global problem, but a national and regional concern.

Marino, who now lives near Boston, has been “out of the life” and sober for more than eight years. In the last three years, she’s become one of the region’s most visible leaders in the anti-human trafficking movement. Her story was on display in late November in Portsmouth as part of the Gift Box exhibit, a large installation set up in Vaughan Mall to draw attention to human trafficking.

“It’s hidden in plain sight — no one’s noticing how it operates,” Marino says. “Domestic trafficking … happens not just in inner cities but in small communities everywhere.”

A prevalent problem

Human trafficking is defined as forcing another person to do something — such as labor or sex acts — through fraud, coercion, or threats of physical violence, according to Maureen McDonald of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Scenarios like Marino’s are common, McDonald says. “(There are) young women and sometimes young men who have an unstable home life … and an individual comes along and promises them the world … but what they’re really doing is bringing them into a life in which they’ll be trafficked.”

It’s a global issue. The U.N.’s International Labour Organization estimates some 20 million people worldwide are “trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave.”

It’s also a national and regional problem. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to end human trafficking, sponsors the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), which runs a 24-hour hotline where victims, law enforcement, and others can get help or connect with resources.

According to the NHTRC’s 2014 annual report, the hotline fielded 5,042 unique calls about potential human trafficking cases. Six cases of trafficking were reported in New Hampshire in 2014; Vermont had seven, Maine had 11, and Massachusetts had 55.

“It’s a $150 billion industry (globally),” says Bryan Bessette, director of The Freedom Café in Durham, a nonprofit coffee shop that supports anti-trafficking efforts. “We need widespread community support to know what the issue is. Trafficking is local, it’s not just overseas.”

The Gift Box exhibit was first displayed at the London Olympics in 2012; earlier this year, Bessette says, the Freedom Café took ownership of the exhibit and has been bringing it around New England.

The box’s design “exposes the technique traffickers use,” Bessette says. An alluring exterior entices passersby to stop, only to reveal a dark secret. “(Traffickers) prey on vulnerability.”

Trafficking is also hidden in the sale of many consumer goods. “We do have a very direct relationship with trafficking,” Bessette says. “Many of our everyday commodities — coffee, tea, chocolate, seafood — have a significant level of trafficking in their supply chain.”

Local cases

Though human trafficking isn’t as big of a problem in New Hampshire as it is in large cities, it still happens locally. Just over a decade ago, federal law enforcement raided the Danish Health Club in Kittery, which had been a front for prostitution and sex trafficking for about two decades.

In late November, a Rockingham County grand jury indicted Frantzer Fleurimond, a 29-year-old Massachusetts man, on six counts of human trafficking. Portsmouth police arrested Fleurimond in October 2014 and alleged that he maintained “involuntary servitude of two prostitutes who had been working in local hotels” by controlling their access to heroin.

In July, police arrested Leo Grondin of Biddeford, Maine, in Dover and charged him with “transporting an individual in interstate commerce with intent (to) engage in prostitution,” according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Maine district office. Police tracked Grondin and the woman he was trafficking to a hotel in Dover through an online advertisement for escort services. Grondin pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Portland on Sept. 30 and faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“It’s mental and emotional bondage. You’re not handcuffed to a radiator, but it’s in your mind.” — Jasmine Marino

“It’s not something we see a lot of within our city, but it’s something we’re trying to be as proactive about as we possibly can,” says Lt. Brant Dolleman of the Dover Police Department. “It’s not like traffic enforcement, where you can go out and stop a bunch of cars. … We have to try and constantly monitor the information people are providing us to find any sort of evidence this type of thing is happening.”

According to Dolleman, Dover police make a distinction between cases in which someone is engaging in prostitution by choice and cases in which someone is being trafficked. There is often overlap between the two, he says, and domestic violence and sexual assault often dovetail with human trafficking cases.

“Our concern will always be for (the) victims, and making sure the victims are