Her family looked normal from the outside, Pavandeep Khalsa said. She grew up in Orlando, Fla., in a middle-class, military family and attended Catholic school. But when she was a teenager, she said, her mother, who was struggling with a drug addiction, forced her into the sex trade.

“I was a commodity,” said Khalsa, her collarbones inked with colorful, swirling tattoos. “… For years, I was told the best hope I had was prostitution. We have to start talking about responsibility.”

Khalsa, a Santa Fe yoga teacher, life coach, writer and advocate for victims of human trafficking, was one of several women who spoke Wednesday at the state Capitol about their experiences as sex slaves. Most were not yet 18 when they were stripped of their identification, wages, medical care and contact with their family members — and forced to have sex with strangers. On her website, Khalsa says she was 13 when the horror began.

The event, hosted by The Life Link, One Woman Rising, Spoken For and several other advocacy organizations, marked National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and was aimed at shedding light on a crime in New Mexico that advocates say remains largely overlooked and underreported. Many of the speakers said the number of victims is increasing, but awareness of the abuses remains low, and state laws are inadequate.

Before the talks, about 40 people marched from Warehouse 21 to the Capitol, carrying handmade signs that read “Funding for survivors of human trafficking” and “Change New Mexico’s laws.” In recent years, advocates, victims and some state politicians have pushed for harsher criminal penalties for sex traffickers and funding for victims’ services. Under New Mexico law, sex trafficking is considered a nonviolent crime, a fourth-degree felony carrying an average 18-month prison sentence for a single offense.

A 2016 state scorecard issued by Shared Hope International, a sex trafficking prevention organization, gave New Mexico a grade of D for its laws protecting minors from sex trafficking.

Kathleen Burke, with the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Street Safe New Mexico, said, “New Mexico is becoming a haven for sex traffickers because they can get away with it here.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by the nonprofit Polaris, receives roughly 90 calls from victims of human trafficking in New Mexico annually, about half of them minors. The highest rate of calls in the state come from Albuquerque, the organization says, followed by Santa Fe and Farmington. Reports also come from Grants, Roswell, Alamogordo and Hatch, 90 miles from the border with Mexico.

A spokesman for the New Mexico attorney general’s Human Trafficking Unit, established in 2016, told The New Mexican the state investigated 18 human trafficking cases in 2015, a number that nearly doubled last year to 33 cases.

Christine Barber, executive director of Street Safe, said the number of human trafficking victims in the state is significantly higher, likely several thousand each year. The organization conducted interviews with sex workers and security staff at the types of places where victims were most likely to be found — truck stops, casinos and massage parlors. Incidents also occur frequently through online solicitation, Street Safe found.

Based on these talks, as well as on-site visits and national studies, the nonprofit estimated through extrapolation that there are more than 10,000 sex trafficking victimizations each day in New Mexico.

“I hate this number,” Barber said. “These people are being controlled by another human being — beaten every day, raped every day.”

During the 2015 legislative session, then-state Rep. Stephanie Maez, D-Albuquerque, introduced a measure calling for tougher penalties for people convicted of a sex trafficking offense involving a child between the ages of 13 and 16. The bill would have increased the crime to a first-degree felony. Under the bill, a legal guardian who knowingly allowed a child to engage in sex work would have been guilty of a third-degree felony. But the bill failed, along with a measure that would have funded services for victims of sex trafficking.

In 2016, state Senate and House bills requesting $125,000 for victims’ services also failed. So far, no bills on the issue have been filed for the 2017 legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

A federal bill to provide funds for trafficking victims stalled in Congress in 2015. Republican senators, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, objected to a provision that would have allowed female trafficking victims who had become pregnant to use the funds for abortion.

Greg Gurulé, a spokesman for the Santa Fe Police Department, said potential human trafficking cases in the city usually involve teenagers and are handed over to the attorney general. “They usually come in as reports of runaways, drug busts, abuse, domestic violence, battery,” he said, adding that the department doesn’t track data on human trafficking cases.

“Prostitution doesn’t appear to be a major problem in Santa Fe,” Gurulé said. “I very rarely see cases pop up on the dispatch reports.”

Advocates stressed that lack of reporting doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

“Oftentimes, their stories go unnoticed and unbelieved, and a lot of people don’t even know that human trafficking is happening here in Santa Fe, here in New Mexico and across the globe,” said Jessica Eva Montoya, with the group One Billion Rising. “We know they are out there.”

At the end of the event at the Capitol, trafficking victims were asked to stand, signifying proof of their existence, beyond statistics. Six women rose silently in the hushed room. One held an infant.

The New Mexican's Tripp Stelnicki contributed to this report.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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