Categories for Investigative Reporting

‘Happening In Plain Sight:’ Victim, Officials Stress Prevalence Of Human Trafficking In Midwest

April 19, 2020


After Heather Brown set off for college not far from her hometown in Iowa, she met a man she planned to one day call her husband.

They spent their days together talking about Brown’s hobbies, goals and aspirations. She shared her love for mission work and giving back.

“I’ve always had a heart for service,” she said. “I am a peacemaker. I don’t like when people are hurting or being hurt. I want to fix it.”

Over the next few months, Brown let her boyfriend in on her secrets. She revealed her financial struggles and opened up about her problems with spending.

Her boyfriend offered to lock her credit cards in a safe but gave her the combination to access them. He told her he could help.

Then, he changed the code.

“His rebuttal was, ‘You spent a lot of money this month on stuff you didn’t need,’” she said.

At that time, it made sense to Brown. Even though she could no longer access her bank accounts, this was a solution to her overspending.

It was all part of the grooming process.

One day, her boyfriend’s dad — who she previously met — stopped by. Soon, he had her pinned up against a wall.

“If I need you for anything, you are going to come,” he told her. “You belong to me now.’”

Then, he raped her.

Brown’s boyfriend sat on the bed motionless and watched. When Brown later asked her boyfriend why he didn’t stop it, he said he would be hurt, too.

But both father and son were part of a human trafficking ring.

Weeks later, a strange man grabbed Brown as she was walking home and said, “You’re coming with us.”

She couldn’t fight. If she did, the man said, he would hurt her or her family.

That night, Brown was forced inside a bare room with cinder block walls.

She heard noises from strangers down the hall but was left alone in the bleak room. Until one after the other, men and women entered her room. Sometimes they came alone; sometimes together.

She was raped for the next 12 hours.

When it was over, her traffickers forced her to count the money they made from selling her body to more than 50 people.

In her hands was $60,000.

Force, fraud and coercion

It wasn’t until 2017, nine years after she was first trafficked, that she learned what human trafficking was.

For Brown, she was doing what she had to in order to survive. She did what she had to for love.

“This was just what I had to do to get that love,” she said. “It took a while for me to say, ‘I am being trafficked.’ Even a year ago, I struggled with that. A part of me will always love that guy I met my freshman year of college.”

In 2018, 211 human-trafficking victims were identified in Iowa, along with 60 traffickers and 39 trafficking businesses, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline. It is operated by Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C., national nonprofit that focuses on sex and labor trafficking.

The nonprofit reported that, in 2018, it worked on 10,949 cases reported through the hotline. The cases involved more than 23,000 survivors, 5,859 potential traffickers and 1,905 trafficking businesses.

Despite those numbers, the Polaris Project said the crime of human trafficking is grossly underreported and often unreported.

Suzie Wright is an advocate with Set Free Dubuque, a nonprofit organization that works to educate people about human trafficking. She has worked with human-trafficking survivors since 2001.

Over the years, she has seen the awareness level in Dubuque about human trafficking grow immensely. But what she said people are hesitant to believe is that it can happen to someone they know.

People also don’t understand that human trafficking often does not include kidnapping, Wright said. Many people are brought into the “ring” of trafficking through what the U.S. law defines as “the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against his or her will.”

For many victims like Brown, it is a person they know that pulls them in, Wright said.

“For some people, it’s the person they are dating,” Wright said. “For other people, it’s the person that is their parental figure. For others, it’s a close relationship.”

In the 19 years since Wright started serving as an advocate, every victim she has helped had been trafficked by someone they were directly linked to or dating.

“They were sold this dream of some great life and instead find themselves enslaved,” she said. “(Some) don’t realize they have been trapped into human trafficking because they don’t have the perception of, ‘It’s not my fault.’”

Hard to catch, easy to hide

Brown’s advocate, Ruth Buckles, started meeting with her in 2017 and helped her understand that she was being trafficked. Buckles explained Brown was forced into the system through fraud and coercion.

Buckles said Iowans have the wrong mindset when it comes to human trafficking. They need to start viewing it as a business. It’s more than just sex or manual labor — it’s a multibillion-dollar empire.

“This is a way for them to make a buck,” Buckles said. “People have to be willing to talk about trafficking not as a sex crime but as business and ways that people get drawn in.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline grades states as part of its victim relief report card. Illinois and Wisconsin received grades of F, while Iowa was not awarded one because the state does not currently have a “trafficking-specific criminal relief statute,” according to the site.

This means human trafficking survivors in Iowa do not have any assistance if they are arrested and charged with a crime such as prostitution while being trafficked, according to officials.

But Maureen Quann, the City of Dubuque’s assistant city attorney, said the lack of assistance for victims stems from a backward way of thinking about human trafficking.

“Sooner or later, there will be more legislative efforts to shed more light on it,” she said. “Sooner or later, we will recognize that it is not always voluntary, but as long as there is always a market over here, it will be a business. You have to find ways to kind of shift the market and find that balance and stop punishing the victim.”

Quann said when a business owner is convicted of human trafficking, their fine is similar to a person being trafficked, or “prostituted.”

“We’re always punishing this person as much as we are punishing the marketplace,” she said.

In Iowa, an adult who knowingly engages in human trafficking is guilty of a class D felony. The maximum prison sentence is five years.

A person who takes part in “prostitution” can be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor, which is punishable of up to two years in jail.

That’s where things get tricky for law enforcement, said Dubuque Police Chief Mark Dalsing. The distinction between force and choice is not always clear, and many victims do not see themselves as such.

“When you’re dealing with such sensitive issues of sex and drugs and the acts they have been forced into, there is some embarrassment level,” Dalsing said. “There are some repressed memories. With all the negatives that go along with it, there is still a bond in many of the cases. It’s really challenging. It’s really similar to domestic assaults.”

Iowa nice

Over the years, Brown said, she was not the only one being trafficked by the “ring” she was part of. She saw hundreds of boys, girls, men and women in the same situation as her.

And the traffickers often come across as regular, everyday people, she said.

“The reality of it is those are the people,” she said. “I have been sold to doctors and lawyers and law enforcement and school teachers and to pastors. It doesn’t discriminate.”

More than 10 years ago, Kim Hilby, an assistant sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Dubuque, picked up a book about human trafficking and was horrified.

Hilby approached the faculty at the university and asked about beginning a course on human trafficking. Most were supportive, but some questioned her.

“When we first started, professionals and community members would say, ‘I don’t know why you are doing this. It doesn’t happen here,’” she said.

Initially, Hilby had no research, data or statistics to present to her class because they weren’t available. Her teaching was based off of experts such as law enforcement, survivors and advocates.

She said the conversation regarding human trafficking really has just begun in Iowa and throughout the Midwest and that enough funding still is not allocated to tracking the problem.

“We just have no money for people to do anything as far as research is concerned,” Hilby said.

It takes a village

For years, Brown searched for help. But it wasn’t until a family friend asked her to join a Bible study that she finally found someone to listen.

Her friend directed her to a victim advocate who introduced Brown to Buckles — the person who saved her life, Brown said.

But every time they met to talk at a coffee shop, Brown was being watched. The traffickers tracked her car and her phone.

“I paid a price. … The raping afterwards, the burning on my skin, the cuts, (it) was intense, and it was to try to scare me from talking with her,” she said.

For the past few years, Robert “Woodstock” Bader, the owner of The Crow’s Nest tattoo studio in Dubuque, has offered free tattoo removal services to survivors. He has seen their cuts, burns and brands left from their traffickers.

“Those people will literally put brands on people,” he said. “I’ve seen scannable bar codes as if the person was like cattle. These people were actually tracked.”

Other local businesses are working to help fight human trafficking. Staff at Dubuque hotels such as Hotel Julien Dubuque and Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark have taken human trafficking training put together by the Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Recently, the Iowa House of Representatives approved a bill to offer hotels in the state an incentive to complete a human trafficking program, said Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque.

If the bill passes the Senate, hotels in the area can register beginning Jan. 1, 2022, to take part in training to learn how to spot human trafficking. Government employees then only would be reimbursed for stays at such hotels.

“Dubuque has a good tradition of groups coming together to work on problems,” Isenhart said. “Dubuque is kind of a destination, we like to say. This is another way we can make our community more appealing.”

But it wasn’t just hotels that Brown was raped in. It was campgrounds, homes and gas station restrooms.

She also said human trafficking does not discriminate.

“I think the biggest thing is that everybody fits the profile of either a victim or a buyer or seller,” she said. “Nobody is above it, and nobody is below it, and the reality is that it’s happening in plain sight to the girl next door.”

Save one more

When Brown traveled to the state Capitol with Buckles to tell her story, people approached and said, “You’re a smart person. How did this happen to you?”

But they don’t understand the bonds or how traffickers controlled every part of Brown’s life.

When Buckles started speaking out about human trafficking, she was alarmed to see how many people opened up about it.

“Once we started talking about it to other people, we started hearing the words, ‘Me, too,’” Buckles said. “Before Hollywood ever had a #MeToo movement, Iowa had a #MeToo movement for sex trafficking.”

Among those to speak up was Brown.

“If I don’t stand up and speak out, how is it going to stop?” she asked. “I am just a small part of the bigger picture. At the end of the day, I do it to try to be able to save one more (life).”

Abused Farm Workers – Fainting And Freezing In The Fields

November 29, 2019

In 2016, “Roberto” legally came to the United States for the same reason many immigrants do — to earn a living and a slice of the American dream. But Roberto, a native of southern Mexico, says he suffered a nightmare of coercion, financial exploitation, threats and mistreatment while working on a Georgia farm and, later, at cabbage patches in southeastern Wisconsin.

Roberto arrived in the United States legally under an H-2A visa, which allows seasonal farm laborers to work for specific employers. Roberto says he was forced to pay a fee and turn over the deed to his parents’ property to an intermediary in Mexico as security for his continued work in the United States.

When Roberto arrived in Georgia, the situation was not at all what the recruiter had described. There were hundreds of workers — all men, all from Mexico — living together in cramped barracks and isolated from nearby towns, he said.

“The same day you arrive, that same day they ask you for your passport. They take all of your personal documents,” Roberto said of the contractors, who hired out workers to farms growing squash, cucumbers and cilantro in southern Georgia.

The boss warned Roberto they were there only to work and, “No matter what, they don’t want us talking to any strangers — people that are not from the work site. And that we couldn’t leave either  — work, and then back to the house.”

Roberto — not his real name — is among 14 men from Mexico who were allegedly victimized by a labor-trafficking scheme that transported legal temporary farm workers from Georgia to work illegally at a Racine-area farm, according to an indictment in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin announced May 22.

He spoke exclusively to Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch in 2017, before the indictment, and has asked through his attorneys to remain anonymous to avoid potential retribution. At their request, WPR and Wisconsin Watch delayed publication of the interview to avoid compromising the investigation.

To read the full story by Alexandra Hall and Sarah Whites-Koditschek on Wisconsin State Farmer: Click Here

Thousands More Jeffrey Epsteins Are Still Out There

November 20, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein got away for years with raping underage girls, and the public is properly outraged that powerful people seemed to shrug and let him off easy.

But the problem isn’t one tycoon but many tens of thousands of men who pay for sex with underage girls across the country. And society as a whole reacts with the same indifference that the authorities showed in the Epstein scandal.

“We see it as this singular narrative about this one guy,” said Rachel Lloyd, who wrote a superb book, “Girls Like Us,” about her own experience being sexually trafficked as a teenager. “There’s a much larger narrative out there about girls, often girls of color, who are commercially sexually exploited, often with impunity.”

“It’s part of the same behavior, part of what we allow as a society,” Lloyd added. “He got away with it because society said he could, and that’s what other johns think as well.”

Lloyd now runs a first-rate program, GEMS, in New York for girls and young women who have been trafficked. The people she helps haven’t been whisked off to Caribbean islands on private jets, but the pattern is the same: sordid exploitation of vulnerable girls by older and more affluent men who get away with it.

Indeed, girls across America are often treated even worse than in the Epstein case: Some end up arrested for prostitution while their rapists get off scot-free.

If we want to channel our outrage at the Epstein case in a productive way, we could: A) ramp up prosecution of pimps who traffic children; B) prosecute johns who rape girls and boys; C) assist programs for survivors of trafficking; and D) support initiatives that help vulnerable youths avoid being victimized by predators.

To read the full story by Nicholas Kristof on The New York Times: Click Here

Cocoa’s Child Laborers

October 25, 2019

As Halloween approaches, do you know who made the chocolate you are buying to hand out? Many of the world’s largest chocolate candy companies are still complicit in using child slave labor. Read more…


They escaped ISIS. Then They Got Sucked Into Baghdad’s Sex Trafficking Underworld

August 19, 2019

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) Nadia’s handshake is strong, but her voice trembles as she says hello. Leaning against a window, she describes in painful detail the twisted journey that saw her evade the grip of terrorists only to fall victim to Baghdad’s sex trafficking underworld.

Stories like Nadia’s have become all too familiar in the wake of ISIS’ defeat in Iraq. The decline of the militant group has given rise to another evil: human trafficking networks that thrive on the spoils of war, the displaced and the desperate.

And she was the perfect mark.

Nadia was living in Sinjar, northern Iraq, in 2014 when ISIS rounded up thousands of women and girls like her from the Yazidi ethnic minority and forced them into sexual slavery. But she says she managed to escape, fleeing with her family through scattered hills to an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. CNN is not using Nadia’s real name out of concerns for her safety.

Still, she was haunted by the fate of others who were not as lucky. She said she started sending money to a man she believed was a trusted friend, who she had met while on the run from ISIS and who said he was coordinating humanitarian aid for other Yazidis. Encouraged by their conversations and propelled by her desire to help, she began organizing demonstrations at the camp, demanding the release of Yazidi women.

Then the calls started. “I would get the threats by phone,” Nadia said, explaining that she wasn’t sure who was harassing her. “I wasn’t afraid for myself, but for my little sister. They said, ‘If you don’t come, we know where your sister goes to school.'”

When she received a letter from an NGO supporting her application for asylum in the United States, she reached out to her friend, asking for help to get to the embassy in Baghdad. “He said, ‘My sister, I can take you. I know a guy in the Iraqi parliament, I can take you to him.'”
On the road to the capital, she sensed something was wrong. “He kept stopping to talk on the phone and send messages,” she told CNN. “I said, ‘Take me back, I want to go back.’ He said, ‘No, it’s ok, it is about a group of Yazidi girls I freed from Fallujah, they are waiting for us in Baghdad.'”

To read the full story by Arwa Damon, Ghazi Balkiz, Brice Laine and Aqeel Najm on CNN: Click Here

Human trafficking is all over Wisconsin, but subtle. You might have seen victims and never known.

June 24, 2019

Even victims don’t know they’re being trafficked. So how can you spot the crime and the perpetrators?

Colleen Stratton grew up in Kohler, one of the most affluent communities in Wisconsin. She met her trafficker when she was about to turn 25. By then, she’d already struggled with abuse, self-harm and addiction.

She met that man in Florida after her parents sent her there for addiction treatment. Stratton skipped out on treatment and stayed in a beach-side hotel until her money ran out.

Her trafficker, she said, didn’t have to groom her. She was already homeless and detoxing from drugs and alcohol.

“He said he was going to take me back to his house and help me get on my feet again,” Stratton said. “A week later, he was raping me and having others rape me.”

Her trafficker also “owned” four other women and kept them in his “stable” — a term used to describe a group of people being trafficked by the same person.

He would take her to walk the streets, to truck stops and motels.

“I thought that I was just a prostitute,” Stratton said. “I literally just thought, ‘OK, I’m prostituting myself so that I have a place to stay, so that I can have drugs, so that I don’t get beat.'”

Though Stratton didn’t realize it, she’d entered the dark world of human trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimated 40.3 million people were victims of trafficking at any given point in 2016. The signs are subtle but it’s taking place all around us, in towns of all sizes in Wisconsin.

You may have seen someone being trafficked and had no idea it was going on.

To read the full story by Diana Dombrowski on The Sheboygan Press: Click Here

UK Joins Forces With Nigeria To Fight Human Trafficking

May 6, 2019

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN)The UK government and Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency launched a new media campaign to prevent women and girls from being exploited and sold into modern-day slavery.

The Department for International Development (DFID) said the ‘NotForSale’ campaign aims to encourage Nigerians to find jobs at home instead of risking their lives to travel to foreign countries in search of work.

DFID said it was committed to ending human trafficking for all nations, and it was working with the UK National Crime Agency and the Nigerian government to tackle the “root causes of dangerous migration,” while preventing vulnerable women and girls from being targeted by traffickers.

Julie Okah-Donli, director general of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) told CNN many vulnerable Nigerian girls, some as young as 10, were being lured by human traffickers to work as domestic help and servants in Britain.

“The UK is a destination for forced labor. These traffickers take Nigerian girls from villages and disguise them as their children, but when they get to the UK, they don’t let them step of the house for years and force them to clean and cook. There are cases where these victims were sexually exploited,” Okah-Donli told CNN.

She said posters for the campaign, which feature inspirational stories of successful Nigerian women, would be placed in schools, mosques, malls, and billboards in Nigeria’s Edo and Delta states, where human smuggling rings operate with impunity.

To read the full article by Bukola Adebayo on CNN: Click Here

Child Slaves Risk Their Lives on Ghana’s Lake Volta

March 11, 2019

Sold by their parents, around 20,000 children work on the lake, enslaved by the fishermen they call “master.”

Dawn breaks over the water. Adam leads a column of five other boys through the high, golden grass to the softly lapping edge of Lake Volta in Ghana’s central region. The group of boys will spend the better part of the day fishing under a hot equatorial sun.
They’ve come from different towns, at different times, but they all have one thing in common. Each one of them was bought by the same fisherman to come and work as his slave.

Enslaved on the lake

“Every morning we wake up and we go to the lake, we paddle, remove the nets,” says Adam. “Then we come back, remove the fish, prepare the nets for the next casting and around 4pm, we go back to cast the net.”
Adam doesn’t know his own age, but appears to be about 12-years-old. He estimates he’s worked for Samuel, the man he calls “master,” for around three years. “I don’t want to be here,” says Adam. “I want to go to school, but I’m forced to be here.”
Adam is just one of 20,000 children on Lake Volta who the International Labour Organization reports are working for slave masters.
Most of the children come to the lake from hundreds of miles away. They are sold by their desperately poor parents to human traffickers, sometimes for as little as $250, which in this area, is what it would cost to purchase a cow.
CNN joined Adam and five other enslaved children working for Samuel, to witness what a typical day on the lake looks like for them. It started in the pre-dawn hours. The young crew loaded the gear onto a wooden boat and pushed off into the water.

To view the full multimedia story by Leif Coorlim, Petter Rudden, and Michal Przedlacki on CNN: Click Here