(Video above: “I-20: The Sex Trafficking Superhighway”)
Anna* grew up in what she describes as a “middle-to-upper class family” in Alabama. On her sixteenth birthday, her parents got her a Honda Accord.
“I had my wheels, I had my freedom,” she says.
But like many American teenagers, Anna’s relationship with her parents was sometimes frayed over things like what clothes she was allowed to wear and what time she had to be home on weekends.
She expressed her frustrations to a friend named Maggie*.
“I confided in her that I needed a job to pay for my car insurance and more clothes,” recalls Anna. “And she told me about her job and how easy the money was.”
The “job,” as Maggie described it, was basically to “go on dates with some guys to make some easy money.”
“I met this guy and he introduced me to a whole new world,” Anna says. “He bought me… anything I wanted. And I loved him. This guy was ‘The One.’ He convinced me to leave home and I guess I was willing to do anything, so I did.”
Three months later life as Anna knew it was over.
Anna knows now that her friend Maggie — the one who introduced her to this dreamy older guy — was what is known as a “Bottom Girl,” someone sex traffickers use to lure girls into their trap.
The Well House, an Alabama-based ministry for victims of prostitution and sex trafficking, explains how it happens:
The Bottom Girl introduces the girl to a new friend at a party. This new “friend” quickly wins the admiration of the victim through different means, typically lavish gifts and the promise of “grown-up” life experiences.
Through this enticing, trusting relationship, the trafficker entices the teen to run away from home. And he or she will put them up in an apartment. Once the trap has been set, there’s no easy means of escape.
And so enters I-20, the perfect means of transportation for this valuable “product.”
“I didn’t even see it coming,” says Anna.
And she is not alone.
“You’ll have these girls running up to you at a rest area asking you if you need any company,” says Harold*, an eighteen-wheeler driver and a member of Truckers Against Trafficking. “I-20 is a growing problem… A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see 15, 20, 30 girls working these truck stops… The only thing law enforcement has done about it (in some places) is put ‘no parking’ signs on some of the side streets…. It’s sad.”
I-20 is a 1,513 mile stretch of highway that runs halfway across America, from West Texas to South Carolina.
The stretch of I-20 between Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, which is used by over 10 million people each year, has the unenviable title of being the Sex Trafficking Superhighway, “America’s number one road for human sex trafficking.”
And business along I-20 is booming. Sex trafficking is the world’s fastest growing illegal activity. It is a $13 billion per year business in the United States alone, and 75% of the victims are being trafficked as sex slaves.
Shockingly, in 2013, four times the amount of people were sold as slaves in America than the year before the Civil War.
“It isn’t what you think it is,” says Jen*, who was sucked in after answering an ad for what she thought was a legitimate modeling agency. “(It’s not) some troubled girl running from an abused family life. It’s clean and it’s nice. These pimps are altering their techniques to snare vulnerable girls any way they can. It could be anybody — some new friend you made on Facebook; some awesome guy you met at the beach or the mall. It could even be your best friend.”
Next week, Alabama leaders will meet in Montgomery for the 2015 Alabama Human Trafficking Summit.
“The reason people are so unaware of this is it takes place in the shadows of society,” said Alabama State Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia Hills), who chairs the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. “The purpose of our meeting next week is to heighten awareness. We want law enforcement, first responders, former victims, even folks in the medical profession to help people to know what to look for and inform them about what resources are available to victims of trafficking. We’ll also share some success stories about how some people have been able to overcome this type of victimization.”
For more information on the event, visit EndItAlabama.org.
*Names have been changed, but the stories are real.