NEW YORK — Shandra Woworuntu was 25-years-old when she flew to New York from her native Indonesia for what she thought would be an interview for a hotel job, but instead found herself forced at gunpoint into prostitution.
For several months in 2001, the former bank employee was moved around from brothel to brothel in New York and New Jersey, until she finally escaped by jumping out of a bathroom window while an armed guard slept.
Now working with survivors of human trafficking, Woworuntu is helping train over 3,000 law enforcement and civilian workers ahead of the Feb. 2 Super Bowl to help spot people who may have been trafficked.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to flock to the area around East Rutherford, New Jersey, for the week-long buildup parties and the game.
Demand for prostitutes surges ahead of the Super Bowl and officials warn trafficking gangs are likely to cash in on the influx of football fans, forcing people they have often bought into the country illegally to work in the sex trade.
New Jersey’s ports, freeways and major airports make it a “destination state for human trafficking,” said Melanie Gorelick of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
“They are preparing to have as many arrests as possible during the Super Bowl and to make it as difficult as possible for traffickers to bring women and labor to the area.”
There are no firm statistics on how much the forced sex and labor trade expands during the annual National Football League championship, but New Jersey law enforcement officials and advocate groups are raising awareness ahead of the event.
Human trafficking is not limited to the sex trade, and they urge people to be alert to the possibility workers in local motels, restaurants or even domestic workers could be working against their will.
“Human trafficking is not just the sex trade, it’s a labor trade, too. People you might see cleaning your hotel or cleaning in a restaurant,” Woworuntu said.
Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, and there are at least 2.5 million victims of forced labor and prostitution around the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Polaris Project, which fights human trafficking in the U.S. and overseas, says it has learned of 12,000 victims across the United States, including people trying to leave a violent pimp or domestic workers held against their will.
“People think that these forms of involuntary servitude and people being coerced against their will ended years ago,” said Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris.
“They think that this happens in far away countries and this doesn’t happen in America.”
The NFL said it is working with local and federal law enforcement to combat forced labor and prostitution during the Super Bowl.
Tell-tale signs a person has been trafficked can be if they do not speak for themselves, are not in control of their own identification documents or do not know their geographic location, experts said.
New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman has put together a task force of experts and survivors of trafficking to canvass communities and advise citizens how to identify victims and their abusers.
Over the past six months, it has visited hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, bus depots and train stations, to urge employees to be vigilant and alert authorities if they see anything suspicious.
It will also visit middle and high schools around the state and hold a seminar for taxi drivers in the run up to the game.
Advocates have been stocking hotels and public restrooms with bars of soap with a wrapper bearing the phone number of a national victims hotline run by Polaris Project.
“Human trafficking, forced prostitution, can happen to anyone,” said Woworuntu. “And it can happen anywhere.”