Oklahoma is a crossroads for human trafficking.
Tortured, stabbed and beheaded, the remains of 19-year-old Carina Saunders ended up in a duffel bag discarded not in Mexico, where such crimes are common, but behind a Homeland Grocery in Bethany, Okla. Of the two men charged with her murder in October 2011, one, Francisco Gomez, was a Mexican national. The other, Jimmy Lee “Big Country” Massey, told police the teenager was killed to send a message to other kidnapped prostitutes controlled by the trafficking ring that they either obey their “owners” or end up dead.
“Anytime you see a headless body,” says Police Detective David Ramer of Chandler, Ariz., “the message is, ‘If you cross us, this is what happens.’” Arizona is a human trafficking corridor from Mexico and Latin America into the United States.
According to the FBI, there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. Worldwide estimates are that 27 million men, women and children are in slavery at any given time. Human trafficking, defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery, is a $32 billion industry, second only to drugs as the largest criminal activity in the world.
The U.S. State Department lists America as the number one destination for human trafficking, especially of children. California, New York, Texas and Oklahoma top the list of states most active. After rescuing children from forced prostitution in 40 cities around the nation, FBI agents discovered that nearly each city had harbored exploited children from Oklahoma. An FBI report states that it is well known among truck drivers that if you want good barbecue, go to Kansas City, and if you want young girls, go to Oklahoma City.
“There are 170 countries that buy and sell humans. One is America,” says Mark Elam, who was the guidance behind the 2008 founding of Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (O.A.T.H.). “Why such a demand? Sadly, it’s the resale value. You can only sell a kilo of cocaine once. Humans you can sell again and again.”
O.A.T.H. is endorsed by and works closely with the FBI, Immigration and Customs, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Attorney General’s Office, and with Oklahoma authorities in promoting awareness of and education about what is considered a national crisis. It launched partly as a result of a series of murdered prostitutes who worked out of Oklahoma truck stops. Pilot, Love’s and Travel Center of America are like little cities populated by truckers on the move. Parking lots are known as “Party Row.” That’s where the girls are.
FBI agents and state police of the Innocence Lost Initiative arrested more than 45 pimps and 100 prostitutes at truck stops. “Cindy,” 14, told how she had been bought and sold from one pimp to the other, how when she tried to leave the state her pimp had another girl stab her in her arms and hands.
Forced labor, baby factories and other illicit dealings in human lives account for only 30 percent of human trafficking; the real monster is sex trafficking. Children are a significant portion of the trade. Outreach workers say that of the 1.5 million runaway children in the U.S., some 100,000 will enter the sex trade yearly. The average age of a prostitute is 14-years-old. The average entry age is 12.
Jeannetta Taylor of Sand Springs, who speaks publicly of her ordeal, was coerced into prostitution at 12. By 18, she was working truck stops, the property of a Texas criminal organization. When she tried to escape, her pimp tracked her down, stabbed her 38 times and left her for dead by the side of the road.
“Jules” was beaten with a crowbar when she tried to run away and forced to watch other girls being punished.
“They would chain (a girl) to a bed and have a line of men raping her and beating her and we had to watch and that was a sign to let us know that you didn’t disobey them,” Jules told FOX 23 reporter Abbie Alford in 2010.
Increasingly, human sex trafficking in the U.S. can be traced to the Mexican border and the crime cartels. Arizona has become a freeway for drug smugglers and human traffickers. Lt. Matt Thomas of the Pinal (Ariz.) County Sheriff’s Department says sexual predators in the U.S. order women and girls through the cartels. The cartels in turn send them with a drug run across the desert to be delivered to their new owners.
Pinal County’s Chief Deputy Steve Henry explains that, due to lax federal border enforcement, “what used to be a trickle has turned into a torrent. The violence in Mexico…is here, and it’s not going away.”
Houston is a main port city for human sex trafficking, says Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City), who authored House Bill 2518 in 2010 to help victims of sex trafficking. Oklahoma with its three main major interstate highways – I-35, I-40 and I-44 – provides a pipeline out of Texas running to all ports north, east and west, a crossroads for human trafficking.
Muskogee County Deputy Sheriff Jeff Gragg monitors I-40 at least four or five hours a week, checking for drug and human traffickers.
“Eighty-seven percent of all crimes, including trafficking, are linked to drugs,” he says. “Only three percent of officers nationwide work the highways looking for traffickers. If we worked the roads more, we could make a real dent in both trafficking and other crimes.”
In early 2012, Oklahoma police and federal agents busted a major sex trafficking ring operating out of homes and apartment buildings in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. So far, six Hispanic illegal immigrants have been charged in a conspiracy to recruit, entice and transport Mexican girls for commercial sex acts in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri and Florida. One pregnant woman said she was transported from Houston to Tulsa and forced to have sex with more than a dozen men a day under threat of being murdered if she refused.
Authorities in Oklahoma City recovered cell phones, cash, condoms and poker chips in the sting. Poker chips, police explain, are calling cards for Mexican cartels. A “John” buys a poker chip and goes to a secondary location to pick out a girl.
For various reasons, such as fear of deportation and violence, few victims ever voluntarily go to the police. Mary Noble, shelter manager for the Cherokee Nations Youth Shelter in Tahlequah, one of a network of such facilities in Oklahoma that provides temporary emergency care for abused or homeless children, says she rarely encounters victims of trafficking, not because such cases are rare, but because the activity is so tightly controlled by the underworld.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is affiliated with some 3,000 organizations nationwide that work against the growing flood of trafficking. Media Director Megan Fowler says the hotline has received some 50,000 calls since 2008, few of them from actual victims.
“We have to rely on law enforcement,” she says. “If during a traffic stop, an officer notices a woman or girl is not allowed to speak for herself, that the man controls her ID, that could be an indication of something wrong.”
“I stop a guy with a background and he has young girls with him,” Gragg adds, “I ask the kids things like, ‘Is this your dad?’ If they say no, it requires more investigation.”
Recent statistics reveal that there are 3,160 convictions for sex trafficking worldwide during a typical year. Only one person is convicted for every 800 victims being trafficked.
“Human trafficking is extremely profitable and carries few risks,” says O.A.T.H.’s Mark Elam. “The ones that are driving the market are not dealt with. Only two percent of the pimps and Johns are ever arrested.”
While O.A.T.H. stresses awareness, other national organizations take a more proactive approach. Kendis Harris, executive director of Colorado-based Truckers Against Trafficking, which was launched by Harris’ mother Lyn Thompson in 2011, says truckers are the nation’s eyes and ears. As part of its ministry, Truckers Against Trafficking uses big rigs as blinds and employs film crews in undercover surveillance of truck stops where juveniles are often forced into prostitution against their will.
“Our goal is to mobilize truckers and people working truck stops to be aware of forced prostitution of women and children,” Harris explains, “and take an active part in fighting it.”
Human sex trafficking involves more than truck stops, seedy apartments and crime cartels. It includes other forms of sexual exploitation as well, such as pornography.
Agent-in-charge Steve Tanner of the OSBI Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, which began operations in 2007, deals primarily with child porn and works about 200 cases a year. Social networking sites, he stresses, provide opportunities for predators to prey on and manipulate children.
“Predators become ‘friends’ with their intended victims and wait for the right moment to entice them out of the house. Child porn trafficking is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Child molestation and child pornography typically go together –as child porn is child molestation. A part of society that believes sex with children is not wrong.”
“One-third of 30 million children online will leave home at some point to meet someone they do not know but meet online,” says Kern.
Eric Yarborough, Assistant District Attorney of Oklahoma’s Third Judicial District in Mangum, Okla., sees another form of sexual trafficking as particularly chilling because it involves family members as exploiters. Mothers will encourage their juvenile daughters to get pregnant in order to collect more government assistance checks. One 16-year-old already had three children, the oldest of which was 5.
“It’s a form of pimping, of exploitation and trafficking, of your own kids.”
After a 30-year-old man was charged for the statutory rape of an 11-year-old girl, who became pregnant, the family of the victim protested his arrest.
“He’s a good man,” the girl’s mother insisted. “She wanted it.”
Her mother was drawing welfare on her daughter and new granddaughter.
A mother and daughter, both addicts, were caught shoplifting. Authorities learned the mother routinely drove her 16-year-old to Texas to pimp her out for extra money.
“The first thing that goes is the maternal instinct when a woman gets hooked on (drugs),” Yarborough says. “They will sell themselves or their children to get more. A lot of statutory rapes go unreported.”
Elam agrees. “A family member who becomes the pimp – mom, dad, brother, husband, uncle – can start the victim as young as 3 or 4 years old. Most of the time they are drug-dependent.”
Elam, named FBI’s Citizen of The Year in 2011 for his work against human trafficking, believes a number of social factors contribute to Oklahoma’s being near the top of the scale in child trafficking. Among these, he says, is the fact that Oklahoma leads the nation in the incarceration of females. Kids without mothers are six times more apt to follow the dark side than other children.
He points out further that in the United States, Oklahoma is ranked No. 2 in teen pregnancies and homeless children, No. 3 in divorce and No. 4 in women murdered by their husbands. The state is ranked No. 46 in per capita income, No. 49 in education and is considered the third hardest place in North America for a girl to grow up. These factors create a vulnerable population for human trafficking and other crimes.
Organizations against human trafficking, children’s shelters and law enforcement agencies cannot win the battle alone. Elam emphasizes the point that it will take a general awareness of the public throughout the nation and the world and the intervention of the law-abiding public. Nothing short of a coordinated alliance among organizations, law enforcement and citizens can stop 12-year-old girls from hooking at truck stops and teens like Carina Saunders from ending up beheaded in duffel bags.