$150 billion human trafficking industry flows through Birmingham

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Human trafficking is the second most profitable illegal activity in the world, falling behind illegal drug activity, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and protect human rights worldwide. (Adobe stock photo)
Human trafficking is the second most profitable illegal activity in the world, falling behind illegal drug activity, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and protect human rights worldwide. (Adobe stock photo)

Kathy Jackson was a typical college student in the mid-1980s when she went to Chicago for spring break to attend a jazz festival with a group of friends she had met in college.

She did not expect to become trapped in a human trafficking ring for more than three decades.

“I really thought they were students at the college [I attended], but they were not,” recalled Jackson. “They were finding out information about me—where I was from, who my mom is, who my dad is, what they do for a living, typical questions. When you’re in college, you don’t have a reason to wonder why people would ask.”

Jackson said initially she was reluctant about the trip to Chicago.

“My gut was telling me not to go,” she said. “But the free spirit in me was like, ‘No, it’ll be fun. I can work on what I need to do later.’

“We were in this nice hotel, and they were saying we were going to lunch. I said I was going to go study, and they said, ‘No, no come. It’ll be fun.’ I was reluctant again, but the free spirit in me said, ‘It’s nothing.’”

Jackson said they went to a beautiful condo—where she was assaulted, raped, and repeatedly beaten.

That was the beginning of a devastating odyssey, during which Jackson was trafficked all over the world.

“There are only two continents I haven’t been on and only five states I haven’t been in for more than a day,” she said.

Now living in Alabama, Jackson said she has a full-time job and attends Miles College.

$150 Billion Industry

Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. It is the second most profitable illegal activity in the world, falling behind illegal drug activity, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and protect human rights worldwide.

Human trafficking, often called modern-day slavery, involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. About 21 million people around the world are victims. Sex slavery is a big component of human trafficking, contributing $100 billion of the $150 billion brought in by the illegal activity.

Gen. Charles Krulak—a co-chairman and ambassador for the Human Rights First Bankrupt Slavery Campaign, an effort to combat and disrupt modern-day slavery and human trafficking—said Birmingham is a major hub in the Southeast for human trafficking because two of the busiest interstates for trafficking intersect here.

“[Interstates] 65 and 20 are the busiest interstates for trafficking, and they meet right here,” said Krulak, a former president of Birmingham-Southern College. “Those people who think we’re a relatively small Southern city, don’t realize that Birmingham sits right on two of the most traveled trafficking interstates.”

I-20, due to its direct connection between Atlanta and Birmingham, is one of the main routes for traffickers. And I-65, I-59, and I-459 all interconnect with major ports and cities, making it a magnet for illegal trafficking activity.

The truck stops along the interstates are big hubs for sex trafficking, as well, Krulak said: “You also see a lot stuff taking place in Talladega.”

Carolyn Potter, executive director of The WellHouse, a faith-based nonprofit that offers a variety of services to women and girls who have been sexually exploited through human trafficking, said, “There is a lot of trafficking happening … on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, [which is considered] a nice part of Birmingham. These are women who are advertised on sites like Backpage.com—Craigslist, too.”

Typical Model

“In the U.S., we have found that there is a typical model,” Potter said. “The average age is 12 to 14 in relation to females. It’s usually a young girl who has come from an abusive, dysfunctional family setting, and she’s easily lured into trafficking because of it. Sometimes she’s a runaway or a girl on the street. She is vulnerable. The trafficker will pose as someone who will care for her. … And he will take care of her: he will buy her stuff and make her believe that he will never hurt her.”

Usually, after he has emotionally bound the girl to him, the trafficker, or “pimp,” makes her sell herself.

Drugs are often a factor with victims, Potter said. Many of the women rescued by The WellHouse have been victims of child or sexual abuse or some type of domestic violence. Many are homeless, struggling with substance abuse, or dealing with mental-health concerns.

“There is still a mindset to view these girls as prostitutes, but these are people who are actually struggling,” Potter said.

One way to identify women who are possibly trafficked is by looking for any brandings, Potter said.

“Sometimes the pimp has his name branded or tattooed on the victim,” she said.

“[Interstates] 65 and 20 are the busiest interstates for trafficking, and they meet right here,” said Gen. Charles Krulak, a former president of Birmingham-Southern College. “Those people who think we’re a relatively small Southern city, don’t realize that Birmingham sits right on two of the most traveled trafficking interstates.”
“[Interstates] 65 and 20 are the busiest interstates for trafficking, and they meet right here,” said Gen. Charles Krulak, a former president of Birmingham-Southern College. “Those people who think we’re a relatively small Southern city, don’t realize that Birmingham sits right on two of the most traveled trafficking interstates.”
It Can Happen Anywhere

The big misconception about trafficking is that it’s somebody else’s kid, it will never happen where we live, Krulak said.

“[Some people think], ‘We’re safe. We live in Mountain Brook or Hoover, and it takes place only in poverty-stricken areas.’ But it can happen anywhere at any time,” he said. “Everybody’s child is a potential trafficking victim, and it can happen quickly. If you go to the Summit [shopping area], for instance, you may see a parent who wants to slip into a store, so he or she tells the kids to wait outside [of the store] or don’t run off, thinking that they are safe. It takes literally seconds for someone to grab a kid and throw him or her into a truck. Within 24 hours, that child could be on their way to South America.”

Trafficking is not new, Krulak said.

“When I grew up, the side of a milk carton would have a picture of a little girl 4 or 5 years old and the word ‘Missing.’ People would think the child had wandered off, run away, or been kidnapped. What people didn’t realize at that time was there was a chance those children were taken, and now they’re 30 years old and have been sex slaves since they were 4 years old.”

Independence

The WellHouse has 24/7 crisis line that anyone—victims or witnesses—can call. Many of the calls are from law-enforcement and social services agencies, Potter said.

“We have an over-the-phone assessment process to see if someone is being trafficked or has been trafficked, and is in need of the services we provide,” she said.

If the victim does need a service that The WellHouse provides, the organization makes arrangements for a pickup, even if it involves a flight or a bus trip for someone out of state.

“Once we get them here, we have a deeper process to see how we can help them. We might need to get them to the drug-treatment place, for example,” Potter said. “If they stay with us, we help them regain personal information like a Social Security card, a driver’s license.”

The WellHouse helps women get medical care and counseling, and also provides immediate needs, such as food and clothing. All of this is done during the short-term program, which lasts about 60 days. During a long-term stay, women receive deeper counseling, job training, and life skills. They also are encouraged to set goals for themselves, such as getting their own home or going back to school.

“We had a young lady last year who decided she wanted to go into the Navy,” Potter said. “We had a volunteer who had retired from the Navy, and she would come out weekly to train with this girl. The young lady [recently] graduated from boot camp and told us she will be shipping off to Japan in a couple of weeks. Another girl just graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham; she now has a job and a vehicle, and will soon be moving into her own apartment. The goal is to help women successfully transition into independent living.”

Women who are not quite ready to leave can go into transitional living, which helps them prepare to live independently.

“Ideally, most women would stay about two years, especially if drugs are involved, because there’s a need for a body healing, a mind healing, and chemicals realigning,” she said. “The longer they are with us, the better.”

For more information

The WellHouse has a 24/7 emergency hotline: 1-800-991-0948; the National Human Trafficking Hotline has a toll-free, 24/7 number through which support is provided in more than 200 languages: 1-888-373-7888.

Birmingham Times staff writer Monique Jones contributed to this report.