If you have ever seen the movie "Taken" starring Liam Neeson, 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 global business and in the real world Neeson's special set of skills won't save victims of this crime.
It is happening in Iowa, centered between several major trafficking hubs such as Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City and Chicago. Iowa also features two major interstates, I-80 and I-35, that extend to reach every border in the United States.
Trafficking has been witnessed in Iowa communities such as Lamoni, Lennox, Dennison, Mason City and Fredericksburg, according to Senior Criminal Investigator Mike Ferjak, for 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.
Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., left, with, from back left, Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Ted Poe, R-Texas, Kristi Noem, R-S.D., Erik Paulsen, R-Mn., House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., speaks about combating human trafficking during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, ahead of a House vote on anti-trafficking bills. Law enforcement says Iowa is quickly becoming a part of this global problem.
On 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 regard 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 forced labor, peonage, debt bondage or slavery. It can also include 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.
Becoming a Victim
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, Ferjak said. 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 (jewelry, clothes, etc). Then a shift occurs, Ferjak said, 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 victim's head with lies and manipulation, he said.
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 farther on through the country. Victims are worked until they are completely worked over or they die, Ferjak said.
The girls are forced to sell drugs, he said, as a way to bring in more money. The girls are then fearful to go to police because they are not just a victim but a forced criminal. Girls are also sold to perform sexual acts upwards of 15-20 times a day, he said.
Iowa a 'Safe Haven'
The Internet plays a huge role in the supply and demand of the human trafficking world. Websites 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, Ferjak said. One being the use of the Internet as the "marketplace" for these sorts of transactions. It is nearly impossible for police these sites as when one ad or site is taken down another pops up. Rural areas such as several 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. 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.
Another problem is that victims are not turning to the police, they are actually doing the opposite due to the manipulation and fear that has been placed in their minds, he said.
Between January of 2011 and December of 2013 there were 300 reports of human trafficking per month in the state of Iowa, he said.
Operation Iowa was coined as the program to make Iowa the most hostile place for human trafficking. Education is key to this issue, Ferjak said, and local police departments will be getting trained on how to better identify human trafficking with a curriculum set to roll out in June.
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.
Ferjak recommends, 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. 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. He said the crime 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, he said.
Allison Graham is a reporter for the Toledo Chronicle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org