Human Trafficking, It's Happening in the Black Hills

Human Trafficking, It's Happening in the Black Hills
Chasity Marcus

Not confined to other countries, human trafficking is happening in western South Dakota. Our rolling black hills and vast gray highways draw human traffickers like any other corner of the world. Crime does not discriminate against where we are for what sick folks see as an opportunity.

Hollie Strand, a Computer Forensics Examiner with Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) in the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, spends her days blocking the rapid advance of human trafficking as the second most lucrative criminal enterprise across the globe. Drugs can be depleted, but humans are “batteries that never run out.” Sadly, people are a limitless product.

Forced labor generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year, about three times more than previously estimated, according to a new report from the International Labor Organization. Sexual labor brings in $99 billion alone.

Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

According to the Department of Homeland Security website, traffickers look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, financial hardship, lack of a social safety net, and other factors causing instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in public settings. Strand’s experiences sadly illustrate this as well.

Traffickers are slippery entrepreneurs who see brazen opportunity in human trade. “Boss” or “Daddy” they call themselves and train vulnerable girls to do the same. They brag about “the life,” “the game,” of being “in the pocket.” A brainwashed victim finds her “family” then “Daddy” calls her “sister wife” or “wifey.”

To those unwittingly being groomed, negative attention beats no attention, false feelings of love reassure them as the rug of liberty is snatched from under their feet. Thoughts and actions slowly become no longer their own.

Different Styles of Grooming, Same Outcome

“Romeo” pampers his victims to develop loyalty. He lavishes them with gifts, dangling money like a carrot. How to spot his victim: an already-vulnerable young girl who suddenly displays manicured nails, hair with highlights, is wearing nicer clothing, and acting more seductively. She may appear to have more money and her behavior has changed.

Picture a vulnerable runaway needing a place to sleep. Her belly grumbles. “Romeo” drives up and reads the signs. He pounces, “Hey girl, you all alone? You hungry? You look cold. How come nobody ain’t takin’ care of you? Come here, pretty girl, I’ll keep you warm. Give you somethin’ to eat. You don’t have to worry about nothin’ no more.” His melody of open promises drowns out any internal reason.

“Gorilla” pounds his victims to inflict fear. Sometimes he might only beat the “bottom bitch” to let the whole “stable” know he is in control. How to spot his victim: an already-vulnerable young girl with marks of physical abuse, socially withdrawn, and wears a stoic mask to hide her fear.

So who is the already-vulnerable young girl?

Strand says the average age for trafficking in the Black Hills area is 14. Really, any young girl or boy that is a damaged teen, or a foster child stranded in the system, is at risk of becoming a statistic. Perpetrators seek victims with little to no protection provided by family, friends, or the community.

What Can We Do?

The first step is awareness of the problem itself and the warning signs. The next time you walk through the hallway of a school, the food court at the mall, art alley on a Thursday night, or a campground during the Rally, watch for the subservient young ones, “give them a smile,” suggests Strand. “Even a smile lets someone know they are worth something.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline suggests that if you observe multiple red flags to call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report the situation. They will likely conduct a further assessment to identify if it is a potential human trafficking situation.

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