Heroes on the road and off it: truckers who help save lives

 (Source: Unsplash)

(Source: Unsplash)

Human trafficking is a severe problem across the world, and the U.S. is no exception. To the uninitiated, trafficking might sound like a crime which involves kidnapping and illegal transportation of people across the country. But this is not often the case; it can happen even without kidnapping or transportation, as a lot of victims are being sold in their own neighborhoods for commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.

Regardless of local trafficking activities, traffickers are also likely to use highways to transport victims to new locations or buyers. With the U.S. having 4.12 million miles of road stretches, it is easy for traffickers to transport their victims cross-country and to sell them on highway sidelines.

Recognizing human traffickers is tricky as well, since they come in all shapes, colors and sizes. There are traffickers who could be part of organized crime, or a syndicate, or gangs who have realized it is easier to sell people than selling drugs. Vile, but true. Peddlers understand that selling drugs is a one-time trade, but with a human victim, they have the ability to sell them again and again, making human trafficking a growing problem across the world.

But help to victims can come in from some of the unexpected corners of society: the truck drivers who are on the U.S. highways nearly all their waking hours. Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) is an organization founded in 2009, to train and intellectually arm truckers to identify victims of human trafficking. The organization helps members of the trucking industry become a disruptive force against traffickers and an informed law enforcement assistant for the cause of saving lives on the road.

“I had started an organization called Chapter 61 Ministries in 2007 along with my four daughters and a friend, to fight issues of injustice, but with an emphasis on human trafficking,” said Lyn Leeburg, a TAT co-founder. “The following year, one of my daughters and her neighbor put on a human trafficking awareness conference in Denver. One of the speakers there talked about making a grassroots effort of going and training people at local gas stations, for them to look for the signs of human trafficking, because traffickers often are moving their victims, and they have to stop for gas.”

The idea seemed relevant, as gas attendants could keep a look out for victims. But Leeburg realized that it would be a notch better if instead of training gas attendants who were stationary, they could train truckers, who were all across the nation, and the entire trucking industry, including travel plaza and truck stop personnel. With this in mind, TAT was launched as an initiative of Chapter 61 Ministries. In two years, it had grown so large, Chapter 61 was dissolved, and Kendis Paris, one of Leeburg’s daughters, took TAT through the 501c3 process to become its own organization. She then became its executive director, and the organization has never looked back since.  

“Truckers might not necessarily see the trafficker, but when they go to places like gas stations, motels, conventions, or sporting events, they can identify the signs of trafficking from a victim standpoint, and can often make the phone call that is needed for rescuing them,” explains Leeburg.

As a result of TAT’s training, there have been countless accounts of truckers turning saviors on the road. The case of Kevin Kimmel is striking. Kevin, a truck driver, had pulled up at a truck stop after dropping off his load, when he saw suspicious activity in an RV that was parked back by the trucks. The RV’s windows were tinted black, and Kevin saw men going in and out of the vehicle. He even saw a girl’s face pressed against the windows at one point, causing him to make the call for help.

This call enabled law enforcement to arrest a couple who were selling a young woman for sex and rescuing her. She was near death after the ordeal. Apparently, the traffickers had kidnapped the girl two weeks earlier in Iowa and were driving around the country, selling her on Craigslist and stopping at places along the freeway for easy access to people who bought her.

“We are basically working to train truckers on how to tell if someone they meet might be a victim of trafficking," Lessburg said. "There might be a chance that they see the trafficker in a car or off to the sides, but more often than not, they are going to be seeing the victim,”

Human trafficking is a problem that is difficult to measure because of inconsistency of maintained records. Polaris Project holds a database of trafficking crimes and also provides a human trafficking hotline that people can call when they witness a crime.

But many people, including the trucking population, understandably call 911 or the local sheriff’s office when they are reporting trafficking activity. Crimes reported to the local sheriff do not get registered at the Polaris Project’s database, making it largely incomplete. There also is the possibility of a human trafficking case being tried on a different charge--like forced prostitution or endangerment of a minor--which again makes it difficult to get a clear picture on the actual number of human trafficking cases in the country.

“At any given time, estimates put the number of kids at risk for trafficking in the U.S. every year in the hundreds of thousands,” explains Leeburg. “And then you have an additional population of people who are trafficked into this country. In all probability, human trafficking is happening in your local town somewhere near you.”

TAT has partnered with all 50 state trucking organizations and also with trucking schools, where they supply training materials.  The training comes with a video that is 28 minutes long explaining the problem and a wallet card that truckers can carry with them at all times. The wallet card has the National Human Trafficking Hotline number on it and necessary information to be provided by the trucker during a call, such as where the incident is happening, description of the vehicle and the victim, all of them things that law enforcement can get hold of and go in search for the perpetrator and the victim.

“Truckers are the eyes and ears of our nation on the highways; they are everywhere,” Leeburg said. .“If we could train the whole trucking industry to understand what human trafficking is and look for signs, they would be one of the most critical volunteer forces you could have across the nation.”

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, staff writer

Vishnu is an engineer by education, with a couple of years experience in the construction industry. But he has long since moved on to work in different domains as an entrepreneur, copywriter and most importantly, as a journalist. He has also consulted for various travel, technology, and fashion brands as a content strategist and has considerable experience with covering tech startups, having interviewed dozens of CxOs over the course of his career as a technology journalist.