SIX YEARS ago this month, Operation Dark Night shook the residents of this community.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) discovered a human trafficking ring that spanned from Florida to the Carolinas. 11 victims were rescued, and 40 customers were taken into custody.
“People thought what was actually going on in the apartment was drugs,” remembers Dan Drake with the U.S. Attorney’s office. “It was prostitution of young girls, victims of human trafficking, lured from Mexico with promises of a new life in America. We felt there was a need for training, not just for the community, but for law enforcement.”
That’s when Drake, Bill Gettis and Jose Gonzales with the Savannah Interagency Diversity Council (SIDC) decided to take on the issue.
The fourth annual Savannah Traffick Jam is an all-day conference that invites experts in human trafficking to share their stories with the community.
“Human trafficking is a big issue here in Savannah,” says Gettis. “A lot of people here just don’t think it happens here, and that’s why we wanted to shed light on it.”
Savannah is a hot spot for trafficking for several reasons.
“With the port here, I-95 here, a large tourist population, a lot of large events like St. Patrick’s Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Oktoberfest—to a trafficker, that’s like a haven to them,” says Gettis.
“Human trafficking is the second fastest-growing federal crime next to drugs,” says Drake. “If we knew how bad it was here, then we’d be putting all these people in jail. We have a suspicion that it’s here.”
“A little more than 50% [of victims] are U.S. citizens,” says Gonzales, with Homeland Security and the Blue Heart Campaign. “It’s quite prevalent, and the reality is it’s only growing.”
The Traffick Jam includes two sessions: one for law enforcement and one for the general public, which the law enforcement side joins after 10 a.m.
“There’s a reason why the officers have the first part of the conference by themselves—they start at 8 a.m. and go over case studies, how to handle a potential survivor or trafficker, interview techniques, and what resources they can reach out to locally, as well as statewide and nationwide,” says Gonzales.
The Traffick Jam will include representatives from the hospitality and transportation industries, as well as a survivor of human trafficking herself.
Addie Smith with Shared Hope International was the victim of sex trafficking nearly twenty years ago in Barcelona, Spain, when she was studying abroad in college. Walking home one night, Smith was approached by two people, who then attacked her in the middle of the street.
“Knowing what I do now, they were watching me for trafficking,” Smith shares. “Another man came along speaking Spanish to them, and I knew by the tone of his voice he wasn’t there to help me. He was with them in some way. That’s where the money exchange took place.”
Because Smith had previously known about trafficking, she knew what was about to happen.
“They made a money exchange, and he paid for me for several more hours,” says Smith. “They did let me go, and I honestly believe it’s because they traumatized me so badly that by the time they got done, I wasn’t worth much.”
Smith will share her story on Saturday, which she notes took her years of counseling to be able to do so.
“It took thirteen years,” she says. “I still catch myself off guard now questioning how much I was worth. I’ve had to learn coping mechanisms.”
Smith’s story is a testament to the fact that anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, regardless of age or any other factors.
Dr. Karen Lambie and her husband, Tom, volunteer with Shared Hope International and know a lot about sex trafficking, particularly as it relates to children.
“Any children can become a victim,” says Karen, “and it doesn’t happen to just children. But there are certain populations of children that are at high risk, like foster children. A lot of these children feel, and are, neglected, and it’s very easy for these traffickers to lure these kids in.”
From there, traffickers manipulate their victims into staying.
“Traffickers use mind control, psychological and emotional tactics to keep their victims,” says Karen. “It’s like the victim is on an invisible, very short leash. A lot of victims become afraid to run away from the trafficker—that’s Stockholm syndrome, or trauma bonding.”
Traffickers have been known to tattoo their victim to mark them as property, hook their victim on drugs, videotape their victim as blackmail, and threaten their victim with physical violence.
It’s important that people who are around children and young adults know about the signs of human trafficking.
“The signs are pretty much the same signs as drugs,” says Tom. “Change in friends, loss of interest, drop in grades.”
“If they start dropping out of activities they’ve always been interested in,” adds Karen.
Drake reminds that trafficking also includes the labor and the servitude phases as well as the sexual phase.
“You go into a restaurant and have a man cleaning the tables,” says Drake. “Is he there because he wants to be, because he applied for this job, or because he was promised to come to America for a better life and when he gets here, he has to work his feet off? You hear of ICE making raids and finding undocumented laborers, finding people in factories, that aren’t being paid minimum wage and threatened with deportation. It’s modern-day slavery.”
It’s important to be on the lookout for signs of trafficking, but the most important part is to report what you see.
“The biggest thing is getting someone to step up and say, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it looks strange to me,’” says Drake. “Report it. We would rather check something out and find out it’s innocent. [Operation Dark Night] went on in Savannah for a long time before someone picked up the phone. We started picking up information and were able to develop a case and get a successful prosecution, and it took one phone call.”
“The human psyche always wants to go to the good,” says Gonzales. “When we see someone who’s domineering, we want to say it’s a jealous boyfriend. We always look to make good of what we see—it’s just the human trait we have. However, one of the biggest things we need to reiterate to the attendees is that there’s no harm, no foul. There is no foul if you report something that turns out to be a situation with a jealous husband. But, you may be the last person who sees that person alive.”