Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Chicago Police Officer, Human Trafficking Activist and Actor
Officer Lourdes Nieto has appeared in NBC’s Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire, but in real life she’s on a mission to help the children and youth of Pilsen. She is a passionate advocate for victims of human trafficking and she hosts workshops to educate the community.
Raised in Pilsen, she joined the Chicago Police Department in 2003, eager to inspire trust and change in her neighborhood: “I love Pilsen. It runs deep. Even though I don’t live here anymore, I spend at least eighty percent of my time here. My parents still live here so I am always here.” Her roots bring her back to Pilsen in hopes of bringing awareness about human rights issues.
Officer Nieto with Chicago P.D. actor Jesse Lee Soffer (Pinterest/Lourdes Nieto)
Not long after graduating from the police academy, she began to see firsthand cases of sexual assaults against minors. One particular case involved a girl who was 15 or 16 years of age and was on her way to school when she was kidnapped and raped by two older men. “We arrived on the scene and they had let her go. Their mentality was that this girl was a commodity. To them, this girl is disposable. To them, this is what we are raising girls to do, to be sexual objects,” Nieto said. “I remember that staying with me for a long time, the look on her face.”
A single mother, this experience strengthened the love for her daughter but it also planted the seed for her advocacy: “I come to find out that she had sexual trauma before. So to the victim it was like ‘this is just another day’ and that really affected me, especially because I have a daughter.” Shortly after that case, Nieto joined New Life Covenant church where she first learned about human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the force or coercion of people for the purpose of engaging in acts of labor or sex against their will. This underground industry is considered by traffickers to be low-risk but highly profitable. Young women and children are often manipulated or kidnapped and sold into prostitution and sometimes pedophile rings.
In 2014, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received 492 phone calls, though estimates of human trafficking are higher. Most people are unaware of persons who are part of the sex trade, and they either don’t know that it’s happening or they don’t report it at all.
Through her research, Nieto learned that Chicago has become a hub for the nation’s sex trade and human trafficking. She joined the organization, Traffick Free, and began walking down 18th Street posting up public service announcements about human trafficking. “I noticed that nothing was being done in Pilsen. I said let me go around and see if they will let me put up these PSA boards. After speaking to a few managers and owners, they had no idea what this was. They were like ‘what’s human trafficking?’”
That’s why she started conducting educational workshops on the subject, an initiative she does independently from the Chicago Police Department. Her mission is to show Pilsen residents to look for signs of people who are being victimized and give them the tools to help them. “I not only get people from Pilsen, but I get them from all over the city. I get people who think that human trafficking is like in the movie ‘Taken’,” Nieto said. “No doubt that does happen, but the majority of the cases are different. It could be the mom next door pimping out her child for her rent. It’s that easy, it’s that simple. It doesn’t require shackles.”
The connection to human trafficking and pedophile networks is not lost on Officer Nieto. “You see some of these websites and forums where men and women are searching for young girls and boys, babies and children. And unfortunately there are parents and care givers, that end up abusing those children or selling them over the internet.”
In July, Illinois Governor Rauner signed into law two bills addressing human trafficking. One bill would support a hotline to be displayed at truck stops and rest areas across the state and the other bill would protect victims of trafficking from being charged with prostitution.
Nieto has her work cut out for her. “We are trying to bring more training for established law enforcement, our Chicago Public Schools, healthcare providers and anyone that works directly with children,” she said. “There should have some type of training to be able to recognize those red flags.”
Officer Lourdes Nieto will be hosting a workshop on human trafficking on Saturday, September 4, 2015 at the Rudy Lozano Library from 3:00 to 4:00pm. Register.
For more information on human trafficking visit:
Interview by Luiz Magaña
Photo by Luiz Magaña