Analysis Culture

American human trafficking: Coming soon to a town near you

It's alive and well across the United States, even in small towns.

What images do you associate with human trafficking? Shady criminal organizations who abduct young girls off the street, forcing them into prostitution?  Distant governments forcing some ethnic minority into submission, leading them into a life of manual labor and modern slavery? Or perhaps a scene from a movie, like Taken or some Eastern European mob story.

Make no mistake, these things happen in real life every day, and they’re happening all over the world. But what about in rural America? What about in the small town in Ohio, population under 100,000? Surely trafficking isn’t a common occurrence in towns like that, right?


It may not always surround illicit crime organizations, but it certainly flourishes in every corner of the United States. Human trafficking can include something as simple as an abusive boyfriend controlling his girlfriend, and then forcing her to do things she does not want to do for monetary return.

I covered one such case in Ocala, Florida a few months ago. The “boyfriend” had gotten close to the woman, who was at a vulnerable point in her life — she had just gotten divorced, was hurting for money, and still had to take care of her young son. This guy came along, was sweet to her, and listened to her intently like no one else in her life would.

Fast forward a few months and his demeanor completely flipped. He became abusive, threatened her son, and began forcing her to do things she would have never done otherwise.

He put her on Backpage, prostituting her, had her on an online sex site that paid in cash for solo and couple shows, he made her strip at strip clubs, and he still had her working at the country club where she originally worked. He seized the mass majority of the cash from all of these places. He tattooed her, a common method of traffickers seeking to “claim” their “property.” He had her doing all sorts of demeaning acts, include sucking on his toes and crawling around his apartment where he was “king.”

Now you’re probably wondering: why didn’t she just go to the cops? She feared for the life of her son, first and foremost, but he had also seemed to have pushed her into an incredibly delicate mental state. He hooked her on drugs, kept her stressed and overworked, and manipulated her into seeing him as this massively authoritative, almost godlike figure (to her weakened mental state). To her, going to the police wasn’t an option. All of the rational escape plans a regular person might come up with aren’t going to occur to a mind that is not functioning rationally.

However, there came a time when he pushed the threats to her son a little too far, convincing her that he would surely hurt the boy. It was then she had a moment of clarity, escaped his grasp, and went to the police. Her ex-husband helped hide her and their son from the man (he had no idea this was going on until this point), and justice eventually was served.

Ocala is a small town in central Florida — certainly not a place where you would expect this type of thing to occur.

If you see something, call the police. | Wikimedia Commons

But what about labor trafficking? Surely the old-school form of slavery doesn’t exist in rural America, right?

Wrong again.

Guatemalan teens made a trip to the United States, traveling illegally, as they were promised a job in the U.S. They didn’t know any better, they weren’t aware of the ins and outs of American immigration policy, and they certainly didn’t know what they were getting into.

These were simply poor kids from Guatemala, and the type of money they were promised for their labor would have forever changed the lives of their families. The traffickers said the journey would cost $15,000, and their families — knowing what opportunities lie in the U.S. — put themselves into huge amounts of debt with the traffickers (who they thought were simply employers), knowing their teenage sons would pay off the debt and start sending money home soon, not to mention the education opportunities in America. This sounded like a game changer to them, and not only for the child but for the whole family.

As it turns out, the teenagers were kept in poor conditions in the U.S., severely overworked on an egg farm in Ohio. As is common with labor trafficking surrounding debtors, the system was created in a way where the kids could never realistically pay of those debts. They were trapped, living in cramped quarters and going to the bathroom in buckets, and they were in a strange country with a strange language they did not understand, working impossible hours under constant threat — of their own health and the health of their families.

This operation wasn’t run by some ultimate mastermind, or some Eastern seaboard mob boss with a fat cigar in his mouth — it was a few opportunists who knew of some exploitable labor in Guatemala.

PBS’s Frontline News did a thorough investigation of this particular case.

~ ~ ~ ~

Trafficking is alive and well all over the world and all over the United States. It thrives in many major cities — international crime organizations do take advantage of the vulnerable — and it also thrives in small, unsuspecting towns.


Featured image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

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2 years ago

Trafficking is increasing . Just dealt with a case last week and the week before that . We see more and more every month . Or we are getting better at interceptions

2 years ago

Super article, Luke… really exceptional write. My compliments.
geo sends

Yankee Papa
Yankee Papa
2 years ago

Luke, Something that’s been going on forever… young girls in the Philippines offered jobs in Asian and Arab countries. Some told that they’ll be trained as secretaries… others in admin or computers. So many arrive and are treated like livestock… local authorities usually on the take so girl risking her life if she goes to the authorities. Even girls that get “real” jobs… (often as maids) in many countries can be made to work with little or no pay… kept locked on the property… beaten… raped… even murdered… usually with local authorities seriously not interested. In some countries girl fleeing… Read more »

Yankee Papa
Yankee Papa
2 years ago
Reply to  Luke Ryan


I was watching a documentary about the problem in Thailand. On the rare occasions where very young girl rescued and returned to her family in the back country… some families just took the opportunity to sell the child again. Poverty is a bitch…especially if you’re a female child in some countries.


2 years ago

Exactly, dealing with this now at work

2 years ago

Glad to see you continuing your HT articles Luke. Excellent!

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