Highway Hostages

April 1, 2011

An in-depth look at the growth of human trafficking and what truckers can do to help thwart it.

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Trivia question: what’s the second most lucrative crime business in the world?  SLAVERY
According to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study, the answer is human trafficking – a form of modern-day slavery that results in people being bought, sold and moved around. Worldwide, this is a $32 billion industry with an estimated 27 million people enslaved, more than at any other time in history. The recruited or harbored victims are transported and trapped in lives of misery – often beaten, starved, and obtained for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

So, what does that have to do with the American trucker? Plenty.
It’s been almost 150 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery in the United States, and I’m sure he would be dismayed to know human trafficking is alive and well in America. Beyond the international statistics, this type of slavery has been reported in all 50 states and in 91 cities. While the U.S. State Department estimates that 14,500-17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into our country each year, they approximate the number of trafficked individuals within our borders to be a staggering 200,000-300,000 per year. Second only to drug trafficking, this human rights issue doesn’t get near the attention  – publically, at least.

It’s been more than a quarter of a century since President Ronald Reagan declared America’s “War on Drugs”. The effort was spearheaded by a catchy “Just Say No” slogan, and drug trafficking was even glamorized into pop culture via these lyrics from the song,

The Smuggler’s Blues:

See it in the headlines,
You hear it ev’ry day.
They say they’re gonna stop it,
But it doesn’t go away.
They move it through Miami, sell it in L.A.,
They hide it up in Telluride,
I mean it’s here to stay.
It’s propping up the governments in Colombia and Peru,
You ask any D.E.A. man,
He’ll say There’s nothin’ we can do,
From the office of the President,
Right down to me and you, me and you.

It’s a losing proposition,
But one you can’t refuse.
It’s the politics of contraband,
It’s the smuggler’s blues,
Smuggler’s blues.

Some would argue that when Glenn Frey penned this song back in the mid-80s, that he would prove perceptive regarding the challenges (and possible futility) of the War on Drugs. Fast forward 15 years, and our nation’s leaders were calling for a “war on terrorism” in response to the 9/11 attacks on American soil. The trucking industry was proactive with anti-terrorism, with thousands of truck drivers joining Highway Watch, an American Trucking Associations (ATA) initiative that trained drivers to notice and report emergency or suspicious situations on the road. However, that program had some problems (some say ATA’s outreach was not broad enough) and was in danger of fading away until the Transportation Securities Administration (TSA) recently revitalized it under a new name – First Observer. Under a $15.5 million grant from TSA, HMS Company, whose subcontractors for this project include the Teamsters Union and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, will run the First Observer program for three years.

And while human trafficking has not received as much attention in the mainstream media as terrorism, the government has made it a priority for the past decade. In December 2000, the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, has served as a legal framework for national legislation. Almost simultaneously, the US Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which provides tools for the US to combat trafficking in persons, both domestically and abroad. The TVPA was reauthorized in 2003 and 2005, and one of the law’s key components is the creation of the US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which assesses the government response in some 150 countries with a significant number of victims trafficked across their borders.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also working hard to stop human trafficking. In the spring of 2003, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, in partnership with the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, formed the Innocence Lost National Initiative to address the growing problem of children forced into prostitution. “Child prostitution continues to be a significant problem in our country, as evidenced by the number of children rescued through the continued efforts of our crimes against children task forces,” said Shawn Henry, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is monitoring the human trafficking problem as well. According to the CIA’s Publication, The World Factbook, “Human trafficking is a multi-dimensional threat, depriving people of their human rights and freedoms, risking global health, promoting social breakdown, inhibiting development by depriving countries of their human capital, and helping fuel the growth of organized crime.”

Having federal agencies involved makes sense, not only because of the personal and psychological toll it takes on society, but also because human trafficking facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.

Similar to cargo theft rings, these syndicates use our highways as conduits to traffic mostly women and children. According to UNICEF, two children per minute are trafficked for sexual exploitation worldwide, and more than 100,000 minors are prostituted in the United States each year. Most of those trafficked girls end up in houses under careful observation, but many are forced to work the streets, at truck stops, and in motels.

They need help. They need to be identified and rescued – and you can help.

Grass roots efforts such as Chapter 61 Ministries inviting Transport For Christ to partner with them in their Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) initiative to come together to have a focused, concerted effort to raise awareness is making it easier for drivers to assist. They recognize that the trucking industry and individual truckers are invaluable in the fight against this heinous crime. If drivers are willing to be the “eyes and ears” for these organizations, there will be plenty of opportunities.

Truck stop prostitutes are still prevalent – especially at large truck stops near metropolitan areas and rest areas near major interstate intersections. Speculation among drivers we interviewed was that security officers at some truck stops are turning a blind eye to the situation because they are getting kickbacks from the girls and sometimes the pimps. Tim Brady, whose driving career has spanned 20+ years, said he remembers being deluged more than once with five or six young women and their obvious pimp walking back from the truck stop restaurant to the truck. “Over the years, you realized where the worst areas were and learned to avoid those truck stops and rest areas, “ Brady stated.

Gary Bricken, a former owner operator, shared similar experiences. “I once encountered a situation that involved human trafficking. A mom tried to sell me her daughter who was about 14 in a truck stop parking lot in El Paso,” Bricken stated. “Personally, I didn’t want any part of that. Truckers as a general rule don’t want trouble.”

Some drivers we interviewed said they thought there is a big difference between lot lizards and human smuggling – and they are correct. People are often smuggled across borders, for instance, and then trafficked into slavery once they’re in this country. They may think they’re coming here for a job, and then arrive to be sold. Traffickers may ask truckers to transport their victims for them inside trucks – that is trafficking. This differs from smuggling, which is just hiding in trucks on their own accord. One driver stated, “I think overall most of the involvement with these girls is in transportation, sometimes unknown to the truckers, not so much using the girls themselves at the truck stop.” Indeed, the greatest danger posed to truckers in the human traffic business may be finding yourself involved when you didn’t know you were caught up in a crime.

“A lot of loads are sealed and you have no real idea of what is in there. When I pulled loads out of Laredo for a couple of years, I never opened the trailer doors unless I was near the dispatch office under good lights and hopefully with a guard nearby,” Bricken said. “The company was not smuggling people, but sometimes we heard about people hiding in the loads.” If the office was closed, Bricken said he went to a local Border Patrol check point and opened his doors there, often finding some evidence (trash, food, etc.) that people had been in some the trailers. “I never had any jump out at me, but I took a lot of precautions anyway,” Bricken said.

Truckers Against Trafficking and Chapter 61 Ministries have produced wallet cards with tips on what to do if you think you have encountered victims of human trafficking. The cards prominently display the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number, 888-373-7888. This multi-lingual hotline will help identify local resources available in your community for victims, and coordinate with local social service organizations to protect and serve victims so they can begin the process of restoring their lives. The wallet cards also contain an address to report by email: Report@PolarisProject.org.

Both groups caution drivers not to approach traffickers. They encourage you to call the hotline, and they will call the FBI and local police Screen shot 2011-03-24 at 2.11.52 PMto deal with them and rescue the victims. Approaching traffickers is not only dangerous for you and their victims but could lead to problems in the eventual prosecution of traffickers. Transport For Christ’s Tammy Stauffer says their organization stresses safety for the drivers. “We want them to be seen as heroes, but we encourage them to do so by calling the hotline,” Stauffer said. “Even if you suspect but aren’t sure about a suspicious situation, please call,” Stauffer added. “You never know.”

Stauffer says they have over 30 mobile chapels and want to work more closely with truck stop owners. “Our chaplains fill out daily logs, and some have reported talking to drivers who have been approached by girls they now suspect  could have been trafficking victims.” Major sporting events have shown an increase in the demand for sex trafficking for the city in which they are held. As such, Transport For Christ had planned for one of its mobile chapels to be at the Traffick911 Super Bowl Tailgate Party in Mansfield, Texas, close to where Super Bowl XLV was being held in February. The plan was to launch Traffick911’s “I’m Not Buying It” campaign to raise awareness of the human trafficking of American children. The tailgate party was designed to showcase education and prevention campaigns designed to curb demand and prevent victims. In addition to the educational displays, several speakers, some of whom are sex trafficking survivors, had hoped to tell their stories. Unfortunately, an ice storm in the Dallas area forced the event to be cancelled, but future campaigns are being planned.

Truckers Against Trafficking has recorded an educational webinar and is producing a DVD to be used by their trucking partners. The DVD will be a tool that can be used not only to highlight the growing problem of human trafficking, but will also show what steps can be taken to help victims and how truck drivers have already started working toward that end. Truckers Against Trafficking is also working closely with the FBI and hopes they will be part of the training video that will be provided to driver training schools, trucking companies, and travel plazas.

Mark Brown, a former driver who is now an instructor for Central Tech Truck Driver Training in Drumright, OK, is featured on the video and hopes all trucking companies will start to show the DVD in their driver orientation classes. “The basic idea is to make drivers conscious of what is going on around them; we are pushing awareness.” Brown said. During his driving career, Brown once encountered a young girl who knocked on the door of his truck and propositioned him for sex. When he said “no,” he asked her why she was doing it. She pointed to a big Cadillac (in reference to her pimp) and said, “that’s why.”

Unfortunately, this incident happened before the Truckers Against Trafficking initiative was launched, but Brown shared the story with one of their representatives after meeting them at a truck show last year. He became involved with TAT and had someone from their group attend the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools convention to hand our brochures and wallet cards.
Lee Stambaugh, a company driver for Moore Freight Service, says getting the Truckers Against Trafficking message in as many hands as possible is critical.

Stambaugh, who created the www.driversalike.net Social Media site, has seen the trafficking and child prostitution problems firsthand and got involved after connecting online with Kylla Leeburg of Truckers Against Trafficking. “I’m in the truck all the time, and see a lot of young people being lot lizards at truckstops, and I wanted to come back with something to help,” Stambaugh said. He said he now passes out the TAT human trafficking cards if he’s every approached and he also gives cards to his fellow drivers who may be stuck waiting on loads.

Brown has been doing this about seven months and hasn’t heard from any of his students to date. “The students might make a call, but I wouldn’t necessarily know the outcome,” Brown stated. “I would love to hear that they had saved just one girl – that would make it all worth it.”

Tips from anonymous truckers are starting to make a big difference. They were instrumental in November 2010, when the FBI, its local and state law enforcement partners, and the NCMEC concluded Operation Cross Country V, a three-day national enforcement action as part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative. The operation included enforcement actions in 40 cities across 34 FBI divisions around the country and led to the recovery of 69 children who were being victimized through prostitution. Additionally, nearly 885 others, including 99 pimps, were arrested on state and local charges.

“The leadership of the FBI and the Department in attacking domestic child trafficking and prostitution is historic,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Once again, Operation Cross Country has awakened the nation to the fact that today, American children are being marketed and sold for sex in American cities. These kids are victims. This is 21st century slavery. We are proud to be a part of this extraordinary partnership to rescue children, save lives, and bring the pimps and operators to justice.”

Scott Weidner, President and CEO of Transport For Christ, said they have started a positive inertia, but bringing human trafficking to a halt needs to be a national effort. Joey Gilbert, a Wisconsin-based owner operator who is leased to Diamond Transportation, says the only way to stop it is for fellow drivers to stay aware and get involved. “Many drivers are afraid if they get mixed up in the situation there will be repercussions, but there won’t be,” Gilbert said. “They just need to stay in their truck, pull their curtains and dial 911 or the hotline number.”

Truckers Against Trafficking hope to place posters like this at truckstops nationwide.

Truckers Against Trafficking hope to place posters like this at truckstops nationwide.

Without a doubt, the eyes and ears of truckers can be one of America’s most vital security resources. About a decade ago, RPM for Truckers profiled a reluctant hero name Ron Lantz, a trucker who helped put an end to the lengthy sniper siege that terrorized the suburbs around Washington, D.C. And in late February of this year, watchful workers at Con-Way Freight’s Lubbock Texas service center combined to foil a terrorist bomb plot. Billions of dollars invested in data mining programs and global signal intelligence efforts found nothing before alert employees flagged a suspicious shipment and reported it to law enforcement.

As these examples illustrate, the eyes and ears of our industry play an important role in both homeland security and human rights issues. There is an old African proverb that says, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and it may only take one phone call from one driver the save the lives of numerous children or other victims of human trafficking. “Imagine what the impact could be if more drivers who see anything suspicious report it promptly,” Stauffer said.
Working together, we can make a difference.