Interstate 10 is a major human trafficking corridor. Florida wants truckers to change that.
While commercial truckers haul everything Americans need, they are also some of the most important eyes and ears on the road when it comes to fighting modern-day slavery.
Tuesday marked National Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Day. Florida Highway Patrol took the opportunity to educate commercial drivers on how to recognize and report potential human trafficking that happens along the interstate system.
“These guys are a key element in combating the human trafficking situation,” said Lt. Jason King. “They see more things than we ever see.”
Commercial drivers pulling into the weigh station on Interstate 10 in Escambia County on Tuesday got the usual road safety inspection, along with additional information to sharpen their senses when it comes to looking out for human trafficking victims.
“Truckers can go places law enforcement can’t,” said Lt. Bill Henderson. “They’re in the truck stops and seeing where these girls are being trafficked.”
Truck stops can be hotbeds for prostitution, and since truck drivers frequent these stops out of necessity, troopers took extra time to discuss trafficking with them and passed out information about who to call if they see something suspicious.
Roderick Parrish from Mobile, Alabama, said human trafficking is not something that's stood out to him during stops in 27 years as a commercial truck driver.
“It’s nice to know some of the obvious signs of trafficking because we see so many things, but we may not think twice about it,” Parrish said. “If you have some insight, maybe we could recognize it better.”
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Some things drivers might do is ask passengers they encounter if they know the person they are traveling with, if they feel safe, if they are free to come and go as they wish and if their family knows where they are.
“People look down on them, but people don’t realize a lot of them didn’t choose that lifestyle,” Henderson said of sex workers. “It was forced on them.”
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Troopers aren't just checking for road hazards during roadside truck inspections.
“In commercial vehicles, they’re not allowed to have passengers the company doesn’t authorize,” Henderson said. “A lot of times, we’ll find females that some people may just think are prostitutes but they’re being held against their will.”
Red flags include controlled communication, disheveled appearance, the person not having possession of their ID card, minors traveling without adult supervision or offers of sex for a ride or a meal.
While troopers focused on educating commercial drivers Tuesday, Trooper Ethan Ellerbee said most human trafficking victims are discovered in regular passenger vehicles.
Ellerbee was one of the officers involved in a recent human trafficking bust in Escambia County on Dec. 28.
Ellerbee and Trooper Carlos Lopez intercepted a brown Ford Explorer from Texas during a routine traffic stop in which two men from Guatemala were transporting nine passengers without luggage, identification or access to cellphones.
They immediately recognized classic signs of a trafficking situation.
“Typically, this time of year the driver will be dressed well for this cold weather and the passengers will not be. They’ll be dressed in whatever they came across the border in,” Ellerbee said.
Lopez said victims are often recruited at the border to come into the country for labor jobs but find themselves in a worse situation. Their captors withhold their documentation and make them work to pay off ever-growing debts.
Henderson said when people who enter the country illegally are rescued from human trafficking, they are not immediately sent back to where they came from. Victims are protected and connected to the help they need.
With human trafficking being a multibillion-dollar industry and something that happens on our interstate system, King said Attorney General Ashley Moody and Gov. Ron DeSantis are pulling out all the stops to combat trafficking in Florida.
“They’re giving us all the extra resources we need to do our jobs,” King said.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Human trafficking reduced if truckers help Florida Highway Patrol