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Modern slavery

Sex trafficking, forced labor: Lucrative business for criminals in U.S.

A Polaris report reveals how commercial-front brothels in the U.S. continue to operate largely unchecked by posing as traditional bars or nightclubs, and highlights the need to eradicate this crime and support the survivors.

By Tessa Couture, Data Analyst, Polaris

Sex trafficking and forced labor in bars, nightclubs and cantinas is a lucrative business for criminals across the U.S. Our recent report “More Than Drinks For Sale” analyzes more than 200 cases of trafficking at bars and cantinas in Latino and Hispanic communities in 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, based on the National Human Trafficking Hotline data from December 2007 to March 2016. More than 1,300 victims were identified in cantina-related cases, most of them coming from Mexico and Central America, with 96 percent of victims female, and 63 percent of victims minors when their exploitation began.

This report reveals horrific violence and manipulation occurring at these businesses. Criminal networks recruit vulnerable young women and girls from Mexico, Central America and other parts of Latin America with empty promises of good jobs in the U.S. Once here, the victims find themselves trapped in an underground sex economy, facing brutal threats, physical violence, sexual abuse and other extreme forms of abuse by their traffickers.

Human trafficking networks in Mexico and Latin America are some of the most violent, hidden and underground networks we hear about on the hotline with a high prevalence of child victims. Thomson Reuters CLEAR has been crucial in tracking and identifying these networks and has helped us to accelerate our model for disrupting human trafficking, using data to undergird our work.

This map shows all sex trafficking cases, including cantinas, with a Mexico or Central America nexus, based on Polaris-operated hotline data
This map shows all sex trafficking cases, including cantinas, with a Mexico or Central America nexus, based on Polaris-operated hotline data

What’s the business impact?

Profits for these enterprises can surpass millions of dollars a year from illegal activities alone; unfortunately, human trafficking is a high-profit, low-risk criminal enterprise. Banks, real-estate companies, suppliers and other legitimate businesses that may interact with illicit businesses  should be aware of potential trafficking indicators. Many of these establishments are directly run by criminal networks.

In order to better identify human trafficking and connect victims with help, Polaris advocates posting a national victim hotline number at bars across the U.S. Business owners and bar associations should also work with legislators to close the regulatory loopholes that make it easier for traffickers to operate businesses. Learn more about this form of human trafficking and how to spot the signs.

Businesses should be alert to suspicious activity in financial transactions, and owners of bars and nightclubs should exercise a zero-tolerance policy towards facilitating exploitative prostitution in their businesses.

Currently Polaris and Thomson Reuters are collaborating on a use-case centered on risks of and potential cases of slavery linked to cross-border migration between Mexico and other Latin American countries into the U.S., with a specific focus on agriculture.

Find out more about how Thomson Reuters is partnering with NGOs to tackle modern slavery.


Tessa Couture, data analyst at PolarisTessa Couture is a Data Analyst with Polaris, where she analyzes data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline and the BeFree Textline operated by Polaris. Polaris uses data to find out where and how traffickers operate so that we can put them out of business, keep them from harming more people, and help survivors find the services they need. Tessa also works to identify external data sources and synthesize these with hotline data in order to build up increasingly accurate and detailed pictures of human trafficking trends and networks across North America. She is the author of Polaris’s new report, “More Than Drinks For Sale: Exposing Sex Trafficking in U.S. Cantinas and Bars,” and of another recent Polaris report, “Knocking at Your Door: Labor Trafficking on Traveling Sales Crews.”

Tessa graduated with a B.A. in English and French from the University of Dallas and an M.S. in Applied Intelligence from Mercyhurst University, where she completed her thesis on the topic of strategic intelligence development on the human trafficking issue in her home state of Maine.

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