Skip to content

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Highway to Hurt

Smuggling is a serious crime, but when the cargo being smuggled is human, the crime can go beyond serious, into the realm of the tragic.

A particularly horrid example of this came about last July, when authorities found the gruesome results of a criminal smuggling enterprise: 39 undocumented immigrants, nine dead (a tenth died later) and the rest needing hospitalization, lying in a tractor-trailer parked at a Walmart in San Antonio, Texas. The trailer had contained an estimated 70 to 200 illegal aliens total during its journey, according to court records.

A few weeks later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials reported that the San Antonio incident was only one of four that had occurred in nearby areas, all within a few weeks' time. Although the other three did not involve loss of life, they were still disquieting; in one of the incidents in July, border agents in Laredo, Texas, found 72 people from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, and El Salvador locked inside a trailer. Border security leaders pledged to fight the problem.

"This horrific crime ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished," ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said after the San Antonio incident. "[ICE] works year-round to identify, dismantle, and disrupt the transnational criminal networks that smuggle people into and throughout the United States. These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle."

How do these human smuggling operations work? Often, the process begins a few months before the smuggling, in a country such as Mexico, Guatemala, or Honduras, where sizable numbers of people are looking to emigrate, according to an investigation and review of court documents by the Associated Press. Those seeking to cross the border get to the Mexican-U.S. border region, and then cross by foot or river raft. They are then picked up by a tractor trailer somewhere past the border. The stressful traveling conditions make them vulnerable—dehydration, hyperthermia, and asphyxiation have been among the causes of death in truck cases.

One analyst, the U.K.-based global risk firm Verisk Maplecroft, warns companies that an increase in human smuggling activity could have ramifications for supply chain security. "Under the Trump administration, businesses with supply chains that rely on low-skilled, temporary migrant labour will face increasing risks of modern slavery in their workforce," the firm says in one of its risk reports for 2017.

Verisk Maplecroft outlines the risk involved as follows. The construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, or stricter enforcement of deportation rules, will not reduce the appeal of migration for thousands of Latin Americans. But it could increase trafficking costs and deepen migrant worker debt, making migrants more vulnerable to exploitation. Suppliers in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitality, and transport would be most exposed to supply chain risk.

Emigration-related schemes are not the only form of human smuggling that ICE and its allies are fighting. Human trafficking for the purposes of coerced sex trade operations also continues—a practice that groups like Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) are trying to help eradicate.

The group, a 501c(3) nonprofit, takes an all-hands-on-deck approach and partners with members of the trucking and truck stop industries, law enforcement officers, and trafficking survivors to fight human trafficking. The group's educational efforts include a 36-minute video that offers an overview of the trafficking issue, as well as four-hour training sessions for law enforcement officers such as the state highway patrol, according to Kylla Lanier, deputy director and cofounder of TAT.

Included in this training are case studies from officers who stopped a truck for a violation, and then upon closer inspection detected a trafficking incident. In the case studies, officers give a breakdown of the indications that tipped them off, and offer advice and best practice guidance for other officers.

For example, the passengers in the truck may exhibit some telling signs and behaviors, Lanier explains. "If the passengers are young, are they afraid to look at you? Are they acting like normal kids, or are they looking really scared?" she says. Sometimes, the passengers may have branding tattoos or bruises from physical abuse, and may be carrying many hotel key cards. Officers who speak with the driver and passenger separately sometimes find out that their respective stories do not match, or even make much sense.

Traffickers also exploit locations as well as victims, she adds. They will look for rest stops and other areas that are not well lit, without visible security, and which have a captive audience of drivers rolling through. "That's where they will bring their victims to," she explains. TAT works with truck stop industry partners to help make their facilities more safe and secure.

TAT also works closely with sex trafficking survivors; the group has two on staff. Survivors are key in the antitrafficking movement, because they can change perceptions about the sex trade.

Prostitution is "a vicious evil system" that has been whitewashed as a victimless crime, Lanier says, in part through unrealistic portrayals like the movie Pretty Woman. In reality, the vast majority of those in the trade are being prostituted against their will, in hotels, motels, and rest areas, and are "cruelly raped and beaten within an inch of their lives," she explains.

"It's not the oldest profession," Lanier says, "it's the oldest oppression." One study found that the rate of post traumatic stress disorder among prostitutes is equal to that of war veterans, she adds.

Given this, having the survivor's voice in the issue is vitally important, because they can discuss the victim's experience and point of view and "what's going on behind the scenes," Lanier explains. So, when people assume the survivor turned to prostitution to support a drug habit, the survivor can tell them it was just the opposite "being forced into the sex trade made the victim turn to drugs and alcohol."

Such compelling stories from survivors have helped the antitrafficking cause spread awareness, and the cause has made inroads. And on the legislative front, other advocacy groups such as Polaris pressured the U.S. House of Representatives into reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was created in 2000, in July 2017.

But in the end, demand for prostitution needs to be reduced so that further inroads can be made, and that will take "a societal paradigm shift," Lanier says.