The fastest growing criminal enterprise in the 21st century is human trafficking. Surprised? So was I. Even more of a surprise is the role played by the United States. Each year, 50 thousand people are trafficked into this country, making America a main destinations for modern-day slaves. The top city through which these victims enter the US is the glitz-and-glamorous city of dreams, our very own Los Angeles.
But in the words of Tzighe, a victim of trafficking here in LA, “there is hope.” Hope, which sometimes comes from rather curious places.
“She was young. I don’t know how young, because it was dark and it’s hard for me to tell black peoples’ age,” began one trucker’s story. Help was coming, I thought, from a world that was drastically different from my own—comfortable, liberal, all-embracing LA.
It was Lyn Thompson who realized that truck drivers have an unusual proximity to human trafficking, and are thus ideal for identifying victims. Her initiative Truckers Against Human Trafficking aims to stop sex trafficking—especially forced prostitution—by reaching out to these members of the trucking industry.
As a result of the organization, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to which Lyn’s awareness campaign directs truckers, has received countless calls from drivers across the country concerning human trafficking activity. Since the LAPD and the FBI rely heavily on tips and leads, these calls have proven fundamental to the liberation of trafficking victims nationwide.
Here’s what’s remarkable about this. These people care. These truck drivers from middle America are incredibly concerned and morally compelled to take action. Obviously not all of the truckers care, but a few of them do, and these few are spreading the word through the network of truckers like gospel through a grapevine.
“Personally, I think anybody that ignores it, I’m not sure I wouldn’t want to give them a bloody nose,” said Scott Weidner, President of Transport for Christ.
As I spoke to these individuals with backgrounds so drastically different from my own, I guiltily found myself wondering why they got involved. Why do they care?
So I asked them. I asked them the question that I have so often asked myself. Their answers are dispersed throughout the words that follow. I suspect that for the truckers, it’s a matter of human dignity and personal pride that leads them to feel sympathetic towards the sex slaves; more sympathetic, that is, than the average American newspaper reader—sympathetic enough to take action.
Truckers Against Human Trafficking began as an initiative of Chapter 61 Ministries, an anti-slavery organization in Oklahoma. Women in Trucking is an affiliated group, as is Transport For Christ, an organization working to diminish the demand for prostitution among truckers. “We started this seeking God,” explains Lyn Thompson, a devout Christian from Oklahoma and the founder of Truckers against Trafficking. “Everything we do is based in prayer.” Again, a foreign world, I thought. But it occurred to me that Lyn’s reason for caring—religion, conservativism—had something fundamentally in common with my own concern. I care about sex trafficking because I care about sex. That’s the fault of my conservative, religious mother (who grew up in the bubble of Jewish Costa Rica), and the resulting sex-is-special upbringing from which I no longer try to break free.
In October 2008, Lyn and her co-founding 5 daughters put on a human trafficking awareness conference, where Phil Gazely, Social Justice Advocate on Human Trafficking, was invited to speak. Phil mentioned the role of gas station attendants in identifying trafficked victims, which he hopes will become “a movement.” The gas station outreach idea began in the mind of Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves and a key player in America’s fight against human trafficking. Lyn decided to take the idea one step further.
Since then, she’s been educating truckers about the issue, and raising awareness nationwide via radio shows, websites, webinars, awareness conferences, and wallet-sized cards with detailed instructions on how to identify a victim.
Why truckers? A massive amount of sex trafficking takes place at highway rest stops, truck stops and gas stations. Usually, victims of sex trafficking put on a smile for their buyers; they’ve been threatened from their pimps that if they do otherwise, they will be beaten and tortured, or their families will be killed. But if a girl sees one client repeatedly, a relationship may begin to form, and eventually she might trust him enough to confide. Transient populations—like truckers at a truck stop—are ideal in the eyes of traffickers, because the men won’t be there long enough to “remember her face, or form a bond,” explains Lyn.
In addition, the victims “are transported primarily across interstate freeways,” says Phil Gazely. “What we’re doing is getting people to be our eyes and ears.”
Truckers, then, are in a two-fold unique position to spot victims of trafficking. The initiative is to educate these truckers about sex slavery, to help them identify the signs, to inform them that the “prostitutes” they encounter are not all there of their own volition.
One massive truck stop in Ontario, just half an hour outside of LA, is particularly notorious for “prostitution.” In fact, prostitution got so bad, that the city of Ontario had to put up a fence around the station to keep the prostitutes out. Nevertheless, the problem persists. Chaplain Michael DeBay, who permanently ministers out of a trailer at the Ontario truck stop, told me “I hate to say it but they’re like cockroaches, those prostitutes.”
At night, truckers at the Ontario station and elsewhere find themselves uncomfortably solicited by a bang on their truck door, or a shout over the radio: “any guys looking for some company?” In the words of Stephen King, truck driver, “You’d be in your truck and they’d be beating on your door and you’d tell them no, go away.” But most truckers didn’t turn down the knock at the door. The organization Transport for Christ is devoted primarily to preventing truck drivers from turning to prostitutes.
“There’s always a good handful of truck drivers,” says Chaplain DeBay, “that make it bad for the rest of them”—that is, by having sex with prostitutes, thereby tainting the trucker reputation. I’ve come to learn that truckers generally care a great deal about maintaining an honorable reputation. Dave Bowman, trucker and head of Christian Truckers Network, alludes to the problem: “Now we’re getting our reputation damaged and tattered by a small group of truckers who will haul anything for a buck including human slaves.” In other words, truckers are not only the heroes, but the villains of the story. Or at the very least, accessories to the villains. And it’s up to the truck driver to reclaim their dignity—much like the sex slave whose dignity has been ruthlessly stolen from her.
In LA, an estimate of 10 thousand women are currently being forced to work as prostitutes. But the typical truck driver has no reason to suspect that when he calls for a prostitute over the radio, he may well get a sex slave instead.
“Most truckers think these women are doing it just to make money, and treat them just as prostitutes,” says Stephen King, who has been a trucker for 15 years. Now that he’s been taught to recognize the signs of trafficking, he has spotted a great deal of suspicious activity.
In August, Stephen was chatting with a man who (due to the economic crisis) had recently lost his home and was living out of his car at a truck stop. He told Stephen that he had seen a vulnerable young girl offering her services. The two men reported the situation to the national trafficking authorities. Later, they learned the girl was 15 years old and being held against her will.
At a different truck stop, Stephen spotted 2 girls with a suspicious man. This caught his attention because one of the girls had a black eye. When the man went to the bathroom, the 2 girls entered the chapel, where they found Stephen, approached him, and said “we need help.”
Because these girls are being moved all the time, they have no idea where they are. An inability to identify surroundings, coupled with the confusion that naturally follows, provides an important red flag for truckers who are on the look out.
One anonymous trucker reported the following. When a young woman asked him if he wanted to buy her services and he declined, she said “you see that white Cadillac over there? I’m gonna get the hell beat out of me if I don’t bring back a certain amount of money.”
Similarly, Keith Thomas, a trucker from Indiana, reported a “young girl knocking continually and desperately on his truck door.” Had he not heard about Truckers Against Trafficking earlier that week, “I would not have thought of human trafficking. I didn’t even know human trafficking existed until I heard Lyn on the radio.”
* * * * * * *
The above cases might lead one to believe that once awareness has been raised, truckers merely help out because the crime literally comes knocking at their door. After all, it’s harder to take action when sex trafficking is merely a headline in an easily closeable newspaper.
LAPD’s Kimberly Agbonkpolor, Program Manager of the LA Metro Task Force Against Human Trafficking, explains: “As long as we as a community ignore [trafficking] it will continue to flourish.” A fundamental step which is often overlooked is the acceptance of human trafficking. “We as a society still cannot grasp how slavery can exist today; we see it as something that we have abolished hundreds of years ago,” explains Daphne Phung, Founder and Executive Director of California Against Slavery.
But, if these vast amounts of women are being forced to sleep with 25 men per day, “someone has to see it,” says Kimberly. The truckers do. But it takes more than that; Kimberly describes a fear-induced silence in some communities, which prevents people from reporting instances of human trafficking.
In other words, the blunt proximity to human trafficking is only the foundation of the truckers’ concern. What enables them to overcome the fear, potential repercussions, or even laziness to report suspicious activity is, I propose, a personal connection to the crime.
Bear with me for a few paragraphs as I indulge in an anecdote to prove my point:
I was mid-interview with a victim of human trafficking in LA. As she told me her horrific story, her face was only a few inches away from mine. Curiously, at the moment when her second wave of tears was on the verge of erupting, I found my mind wandering. Shit. I’m going to be late to this dinner. The dinner was in half an hour, with a friend of a friend of a friend, who was quite well connected. I still had to pick up a bottle of wine—or a box of chocolates—where does one buy fine chocolates in this part of Los Angeles? How much money should I spend on them? Oh my god, It’s 5:42. If she’s not done talking by 5:43 I’m going to have to interrupt her.
“She was never convicted! My trafficker did six months of house arrest, and that was it!” The tears had begun.
Perla is a woman of remarkable strength who thought she was following the American dream when she was transported from Mexico; instead, she was locked up in an LA sweat shop and forced to work as a slave. After 40 days, she managed to escape, in spite of threats from her trafficker that her children would be harmed.
“Perla, I’m so sorry, but I have to go,” I said. “Do you think you could finish up in about one minute?” I really did feel bad. I felt worse than bad. I felt horrified—what the hell have I become. Here was a victim of modern-day slavery, and I didn’t even have the courtesy to let her finish her story. This was a tale of extreme injustice, of helplessness and hopelessness; this was a violation of basic human dignity.
Why didn’t I seem to care?
After tormenting myself for a bit, it dawned on me that something was missing from this case. Sex. Perla had not been forced into prostitution, but into sweat shop labor. Even with the injustice of trafficking literally staring me in the face, I was simply not as moved as I had been when, for example, I spoke to a woman, Gaby, who at 13 had been forced to have sex with 10-20 strangers a day. When Gaby was done with work, her pimp would put salt on her vagina and tie her up before simultaneously beating and raping her. I’ll admit: Perla’s story, which was not one of sexual exploitation, didn’t haunt me in the same way.
Consider who else cares, enough to take action. Daphne Phung, founder of California Against Slavery,* was appalled to learn that when young girls are bought and sold for sex, the girl frequently gets blamed instead of her trafficker (as a result of society’s inability to grasp modern-day slavery in America). Daphne first encountered trafficking when she began writing her senior thesis on sex slavery in Southeast Asia, where she was born.
More directly, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking in LA uses a survivor-centered approach to combat the phenomenon, training liberated victims to speak out against human trafficking.
Over the past year, I have spoken to so many who fight against human trafficking (social activists, victim therapists, human rights lawyers), and I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone who cares enough to take a stand is personally connected to the issue.
What about our truckers. How does trafficking relate to them—especially the non-Christians, or the ones who sleep with consenting prostitutes—on a personal level?
Many help out of guilt. I spoke to several truckers who had slept with a prostitute at least once in their past. After they learned about human trafficking, they began to wonder whether they had purchased sex from a consenting woman. “I didn’t realized they were being forced into it,” said one trucker.
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There is one part of the story that I have not yet explained. One has to wonder why these good-natured, altruistic truckers are prone to prostitution in the first place. The answer is simple: Loneliness.
“They’re out there on the road and they’re lonely. And these prostitutes—they know it,” says Chaplain DeBay. As Keith Thomas put it, “you’re gone so much that your kids grow up when you’re not around. I’ve been married 30 years to the same girl, and that’s pretty fortunate. Most of these guys don’t make it with the same wife, because they’re away so often.”
Another driver sat in her truck for 5 days without stepping outside or speaking to anyone.
Hell, these truckers are so lonely that in addition to rambling on, they started throwing my questions right back at me: how did YOU get involved in fighting human trafficking? And I was happy to talk to some of them, more than others. (Becoming a trucker is a lot like becoming a professor—many times, people go into the profession due to a lack of social skills.) During one interview, I thought to myself, Poor thing. He just wants somebody to talk to. So I listened for a little while.
Chaplain DeBay said, about a driver who had come to confession earlier that day, “I’ll probably never see that guy again. That’s the beauty of this in a way.” Thus it seems that the victims of trafficking aren’t the only ones whose faces are forgotten within the transient world of the truck stop.
IN SUM AND
“I know God hates injustice,” says Lyn Thompson. It’s her closeness to God, and His presence in every aspect of her life, that fuels her. “It’s not just a Christian issue. This is an issue of humanity,” says Scott Weidner. And, for the truck drivers, I can’t help but return to the words of Dave Bowman, “It is a matter of pride in being a trucker.”
Truckers against Trafficking reaches out to drivers with “you can be a hero.” A hero has pride. A hero has dignity. A hero does not sleep with sex slaves or transport them. Why not become a hero.
* * * * * * *
The tale of Truckers Against Trafficking, then, is a 3-part story; that of the victim, the visionary, and the hero. But these storylines were not as separate as I initially expected them to be. Even I, the spectator, managed to become intermingled.
When I spoke to Keith, I was touched by his dedication to basic human decency, and to helping others. “It’s a ‘me’ mentality out there,” he said. “If you’re continuously thinking about ‘me,’ then your life gets pretty miserable.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of wisdom right there,” I said, to which he replied with a blush of a laugh. I went on, “I’m a writer and I think about those issues all the time—helping others, making your own happiness. You know what I mean?” He did.
And then I thought: I’ve really come to like this trucker who’s on the other end of the phone, somewhere out there on the road. I rather hope things turn out alright for him.
Against all odds, a trucker ended up being the person in this story with whom I identified most. Perhaps it’s through forming these personal connections with one another, by digging deep to the basic shared level of human dignity, that little by little, we too can become heroes. ν
* California Against Slavery needs
signatures by March, for their proposal to strengthen anti-trafficking laws in
CA through ballot initiative.
Sign now at californiaagainstslavery.org
or visit castla.org to get involved.