If you have ever seen the movie "Taken" starring Liam Neseson, you have a small insight to how global human trafficking works. The problem is this isn't just happening in the movies or in far off countries like Nigeria. Human trafficking is a growing 39 billion dollar global business and in the real world Nieson's special set of skills won't save victims of this atrocious crime.
So why should we care about this in Toledo-Tama, Iowa? Because it is happening in Iowa. Iowa is centered between several major cities such as Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City and Chicago that are all known as trafficking hubs. Iowa is also a crossing of two major interstates, I-80 and I-35, that reach to every border in the United States. While there have been no reports in the Tama/Toledo community according the Toledo Police Chief Bob Kendall and Tama Police Chief Jeff Filloon, it is a occurring in the the great state of Iowa.
Trafficking has been witnessed in Iowa communities such as Lamoni, Lennox, Dennison, Mason City and Fredericksburg, according to Mike Ferjak the Senior Criminal Investigator at the Iowa Department of Justice. There are no boundaries according Ferjak. These crimes are occurring anywhere from the World's Largest Truck Stop in Walcott to high-end hotels in West Des Moines. This is not a new problem but the recognition of the problem has recently gained some increased attention.
On Wednesday May 7 Ferjak led an informational meeting at the Marshalltown Public Library detailing what human trafficking is, how it works, what Iowa is doing, and what the public can do in regards to this crime.
What is Human Trafficking?
Human Trafficking is participating in a venture to recruit, harbor, transport, supply provisions or obtain a person for any of the following purposes: 1. Forced labor or service that results in involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery, 2. commercial sexual activity through the use of force fraud or coercion.
The average age of a victim of human trafficking is 11-14 years old and the majorities are female. Human trafficking is all about money. In the U.S. alone, human trafficking is a $12 billion business.
How it works
Victims are "initiated" into human trafficking through a process called seasoning. Most victims are girls who are on the run from an abusive home life. It doesn't matter if you are from a poor family or an affluent family. A recruiter, referred to as a "bottom girl" seeks out victims. The bottom girl is usually between the ages of 19-26 and they are the money holder working for a "pimp." There is a 24-48 hour honeymoon period where the victim gets whatever they want (jewelrey, clothes, etc). Then a shift occurs. The pimp will tell the victim that he has bills and it costs money to keep buying these items and the victim should help pay. What happens next is the victim usually says no and as a lesson to the new victim the bottom girl that befriended the victim is beaten. If the victim says no again then she will be beaten. The pimp fills the victims head with lies and manipulation by saying things like "you are my special girl." This is what the psychology world refers to has Traumatic Bonding.
On average girls are moved every seven to nine days so they may start off in Des Moines, be moved to Texas, then Florida, and further on through the country. Victims are worked until they are completely worked over or they die.
The girls are forced to sell drugs as a way to bring in more money thus sucking them further into this life. The girls are then fearful to go to the cops because they are now not just a victim but a forced criminal. Girls are also sold to perform sexual acts upwards of 15-20 times a day.
Latch Key Trafficking: this is when a student is "working" after school hours before parents or supervision arriving home from work for the day. This sort of trafficking is usually organized by someone the victim knows such as a family member (35-40% of the cases are headed by a family member).
Why isn't more being done?
The Internet plays a huge role in the supply and demand of the human trafficking world. Websites such asbackpage.com which is similar to Craigslist, are sites that traffickers use to "advertise" girls. On an average day in Iowa there are 200 ads on these websites. This is a very hard crime to catch for several reasons. One being the use of the internet as the "marketplace" for these sorts of heinous transactions. It is nearly impossible to police these sites as when one ad or site is taken down another pops up. Rural areas such as several of our small town Iowa communities are considered "safe havens" for traffickers to operate undetected.
In order to conduct a "sting" to take down one of these human trafficking rings it would require at least 40 officers to complete the operation. Obviously in small town Iowa, police departments don't have these resources and according to Ferjak there is not one single department in Iowa that could undertake a task like this on its own. Ferjak is currently working on ways for local departments to pool their resources.
Part of the problem also is that victims are not running to the police with open arms. They are actually doing the opposite due to the manipulation and fear that has been placed in their minds. Victims have been told that they are criminals because they have been forced by their pimp to sell drugs. There is also a fear for their loved ones as pimps often threaten victim's families and, according to Ferjak, these criminals do not make empty threats.
Between January of 2011 and December of 2013 there were 300 reports of human trafficking per month in the state of Iowa.
What Iowa Is Doing
Operation Iowa was coined as the program to make Iowa the most hostile place for human trafficking. Education is key to this issue. Local police departments will be getting trained on how to better identify human trafficking with a curriculum set to roll out in June 2014.
Also in this legislative session a law changed that allows county attorneys to label victims of human trafficking crimes as Children In Need Of Assistance. This opens a whole new problem, as according to Ferjak there aren't many places for these victims to go. If a victim is labeled CINA they more than likely will not be living in their own home with their family. One option is foster care but they often run from their foster care homes. The next option is detention facilities but there aren't many around the state.
What you can do
First lets be clear on what you SHOULD NOT do. If you see something suspicious (like a young girls at a truck stop in the dead of winter dressed in a mini skirt and high heels) do not approach the situation yourself, call the police. Remember this is all about money and you do not want to step between a trafficker and a half of a million dollars. Human traffickers are very dangerous people and you should not put yourself at risk. With that being said, Ferjak recomends, if you see something, say something and look for the absence of normal. Call the police and/or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The bottom line is that it is better to speak up and be wrong than do nothing at all. If you are right you could save a victim from this horrendous crime.