Conrad Hoke has been crisscrossing the country as a trucker for 44 years. On his last hitch, he hauled a dump truck from Denver to Salt Lake City and back. But on the day we met, in the two-street casino town of Blackhawk, Colorado, Hoke had volunteered to tow a very different cargo — a semi-trailer exhibiting the horrors of sex trafficking and telling the stories of truckers who stepped up on behalf of survivors.
When I arrived at the Freedom Drivers Project, Hoke invited me into the exhibit, and I stepped from bright high-mountain sunlight into a much darker scene. A small pair of flip flops, dog tags issued to a victim by a trafficker, and poker chips paid to a girl too young to cash them in hung in cases on the trailer’s walls. There was a pair of large elastic jail-issued pants, worn by a trafficked woman forced to give birth behind bars.
Hoke is one of more than half a million truckers trained to spot and report human trafficking through Truckers Against Trafficking. The Denver-based nonprofit targets an industry uniquely positioned to fight the exploitation of women: Truckers travel to nearly every corner of the country and are a target market for sex trafficking.
“Our idea was to turn a passive audience into a disruptive force,” said Kylla Lanier, one of the co-founders of the organization.
Lanier, her mother, Lyn Leeburg, and three sisters were running a nonprofit aimed at stopping human trafficking when they realized there was a way to make a bigger impact. When she was young, Leeburg’s parents ran a motel along a popular trucking corridor in Texas, and the family remembered the relationships they’d formed with truckers over the years. They decided that targeting truckers was a better way to combat trafficking. In 2009, they founded Truckers Against Trafficking, because “they always found girls and women trafficked at truck stops” said Lanier, who pointed out that people are also trafficked in less visible areas. “What has propelled Truckers Against Trafficking was targeting that culture.”
Truckers cover practically every corner of the nation, and with about 3.5 million employed nationwide, they outnumber law enforcement by more than three to one. While some people see buying sex as a victimless crime, studies have shown that the commercial sex industry depends on coercion. Anti-trafficking advocates like Lanier want to change a culture that has long haunted the trucking community and society as a whole.
“(Truckers Against Trafficking) helped the trucking community see this isn’t a choice,” said Tajuan McCarty, a survivor and advocate who led trainings for Truckers Against Trafficking.* “Stopping human trafficking requires a cultural shift in how we think, and that’s what this is doing.”
Sex trafficking was an out-in-the-open part of trucking culture when Hoke started driving. “Back in the ’70s, it was all over the place.” Hoke said. “You couldn’t hardly drive in some place without getting your truck door banged on. It’s hidden now. Without training, if you don’t know, you’re not going to see it.”
Now, traffickers maintain a low profile to avoid arrest, and they turn to websites and fake businesses fronts like massage parlors. The diffuse nature of human trafficking and the increasingly digitized tactics make it more difficult to recognize and prosecute traffickers.
Law enforcement statistics are fragmented and don’t capture the true extent of human or sex trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a project of the Polaris Project, generated nearly 9,000 trafficking cases in 2017 with more than 10,000 likely victims. But that is only a small fraction of the actual number: The organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked in the United States each year.
The areas with the most trafficking are along busy highway corridors and in big cities. California’s urban areas and major highway corridors have more reported cases than anywhere else in the nation, although human and sex trafficking occur throughout the West.
While the term trafficking often evokes images of immigrants being smuggled across the border, the majority of victims in the United States are domestic. And sex trafficking is more prevalent than labor trafficking: According to 2017 data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, two-thirds of trafficking cases reported nationwide involved people being sold for commercial sexual exploitation. Data from survivor surveys show intimate partners and family members are the most likely to traffic victims.
In order to build understanding of the realities of modern trafficking, Truckers Against Trafficking trains drivers through a video tutorial. The training video pairs the story of a trafficked teen with insight from an FBI special agent and anti-human trafficking experts. Truckers must also pass a 15-question quiz. The video offers tips for identifying people, and especially girls, who are being prostituted or appear to be held against their will, and it explains how reporting trafficking-related chatter over social media and trucking communication lines like CB radios can help lead to arrests.
“Even the smallest little details that (truckers) have, that you can provide us with, can help and have helped to recover girls,” FBI Special Agent Evan Nicholas says in the video.
Eight states, including Washington and Colorado, require the training for driver certification, and parts of the program are implemented in nearly 40 states. Truckers have made more than 2,000 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and the cases generated by these calls have identified more than 1,000 trafficking victims, according to hotline reports.
Since learning about Truckers Against Trafficking and taking their flagship training course, Hoke has hauled the Freedom Drivers Project twice and testified in front of the Colorado Legislature, asking lawmakers to make anti-trafficking training a requirement for state trucking schools. “You get woke up to what’s going on,” Hoke said. The bill passed with bipartisan support in April.
Building off successes in the trucking industry, Truckers Against Trafficking is branching out into other industries with high levels of exposure to trafficking. Two initiatives launched earlier this year seek to train transit and oil-and-gas employees to spot and report trafficking. Long-distance bus lines like Greyhound are known target areas for traffickers to pick up runaways, and the predominantly male workforce of oil and gas boomtowns often harbors the sex trafficking industry.
Arian Taylor is one of hundreds of truckers who have called the National Human Trafficking Hotline since being trained by the organization. Around 3 or 4 in the morning in an urban area of California, Taylor heard screams. A car door slammed shut and tires squealed. A young woman, shivering from the cold night air, knocked on the door of his truck and “asked if I could get her home,” Taylor said.
The young woman had come to the city with a friend and her friend’s boyfriend. When money started to run out, her friend’s boyfriend tried to force her into commercial sex. After an argument, she was left alone in a bad part of town.
The girl knocked on Taylor’s window, which had a Truckers Against Trafficking decal in the corner. Taylor gave the girl water and let her warm up in his truck while he called the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “It’s not every day you have to deal with a situation like this,” Taylor said. “It was hard to process it all at once, but they kept things calm and easy for us.” Hotline representatives arranged for the girl to be picked up by a taxicab and taken to a local shelter. A few days later, Taylor got a call from Truckers Against Trafficking to let him know the young woman was home safely.
“I have a daughter a few years older, and I would hope someone would do the same thing for her,” Taylor said. “I just knew I wanted to get her home.”
*Editor’s note: Tajuan McCarty is no longer associated with Truckers Against Trafficking. After this story went to press, McCarty, who has struggled with addiction in the past and was first trafficked as a teenager, was arrested on multiple drug and fraud charges in Birmingham, Alabama.
Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News.
Photo of Conrad Hoke by Luna Anna Archer/High Country News