Not Only a World Crisis Human Trafficking Happens in Lee County, Too

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Greg Markley

By GREG MARKLEY

In the classic 1942 movie Casablanca, the protagonist Rick (Humphrey Bogart) owns a café in the Moroccan city, in December 1941. He says to a fellow café owner: “I don’t buy and sell human beings.” A black marketer who also sells exit visas, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) responds: “That’s too bad, that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

Human trafficking is not a “leading commodity” in Alabama as it is in many other states. In 2021 statistics, it has a rate per 100,000 of 1.66 cases. But beware: Vicious people do “buy and sell human beings” here. New Hampshire has the lowest number of cases at 15; its rate is 1.09 cases per 100,000.  The highest rate is in Nevada, at 7.50 cases (per 10K), according to World Population Review.

Referred to as “modern day slavery,” human trafficking is when traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services. Sex trafficking has been found in brothels, fake massage businesses, strip clubs and street prostitution. Labor trafficking has been found in domestic work, large farms and factories.

“In Alabama, interstate highways, including I-20 and I-65, are prime locations for human trafficking when traffickers move their victims from state to state,” noted Steve Marshall, Alabama’s attorney general since 2017. “Many times, traffickers place their victims at truck stops and outside convenience stores with high traffic.”

Brian Askew, 40, of Auburn, was found guilty by a jury on June 22 of first-degree human trafficking for causing a 13-year-old girl to be repeatedly raped by men on his property, the Lee County District Attorney’s Office said. The girl was a runaway from the county’s Youth Development Center. Askew is scheduled for sentencing this month; his sentence could be life or life without possibility of parole. Five others implicated will be tried later, an AP story said.

So, if you see a person who is disoriented or confused or shows signs of mental abuse: call the police or sheriffs’ office. If you stumble across someone who is scared or timid, even afraid to make eye contact: quickly report it. If you notice day or night that an individual lives in a small space with several others but lacks personal possessions or control of their driver’s license or passport: just do it, contact law enforcement agencies.

 “Human trafficking is a real and present problem in Lee County, and there is more work to be done,” said Lee County DA Pro Tem Jessica Ventiere. “However, today we are thankful the victim has a fresh start, and we pray for her continued healing.” Askew’s was the first human trafficking case tried in Lee County.

Ford Boswell is senior advisor for communications and marketing at Alabama Trucking Association. He emphasized that in 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill sponsored by the association requiring all new students studying to obtain a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) to complete trafficking awareness training. This applies to whether attending a CDL trade school or a training program. Upon receiving a CDL, they learn the “red flags” of human trafficking.

Hear CB radio talk about a “commercial company” or see flashing lights that may signal a buyers’ location? Check it out! Signs of branding or tattooing of a trafficker’s name on a victim’s neck? Look into it! Find a van or RV that seems out-of-place or a vehicle dropping someone off and picking them up after 15 or 20 minutes? Call the police! ATA’s Boswell advises “no hesitation”; the faster a trafficking case is opened, the faster justice can be done.

“The trucking industry has stepped up,” Boswell said. “Professional truck drivers are the eyes and ears of America’s roadways, serving a vital role in ending modern-day slavery. Through our work and support for Truckers against Trafficking, our industry is an effective and powerful ally and an asset to law enforcement.” He reported that truck drivers have identified 1,296 human trafficking victims and made nearly 2,700 calls to the national hotline.

 From dawn to dusk, Alabama truckers traverse interstates and local roads in all 67 counties. Sometimes they see a potential human trafficking situation. Many with “100-mile” coffee cups beside them, call the police to report a possible crime. That is their modus operandi no matter if in what they refer to by slang as Bean-Town (Boston, Massachusetts); Choo-Choo (Chattanooga, Tennessee); or B-Town (Birmingham, Alabama).

Truckers shine as “trained spotters.” But the best way to curtail trafficking does not come only from public officials or truck drivers.  Ivey and  Marshall would agree. Winning the fight against human trafficking must come from us all. (See something suspicious? Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.)

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 11 years.  gm.markley@charter.net .

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