Webster's Dictionary defines human trafficking as organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited (as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor).
In Minnesota, the St. Paul-based Civil Society reports that nearly 50 percent of all trafficking victims are children, with sex trafficking the most lucrative.
Just last week, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, seven men were arrested after being accused of answering escort ads offering young girls for sex. The ads were placed by law enforcement in a planned sting operation.
The suspects, ages 19 to 54, sought out girls ages 13 and younger, with one offering to pay up to $300 to have sex with a 10-year-old child, authorities said.
"Ten years old is a girl; 12 is a girl," said Sara Wahl, executive director of the Southwest Crisis Center in Worthington. "That's very young. (Pimps) wouldn't have them that young if people didn't request it."
A recent study produced by the FBI notes that the Twin Cities ranks 13th in the nation in the number of children involved in prostitution or sex trafficking. While some might believe these crimes happen only in metropolitan areas, the local crisis center says that isn't the case.
Thi Synavone, program director at the Southwest Crisis Center, said she recently worked with two teenage girls who were sold for sex to provide the family with extra money.
"The mom was actually selling her own children for that," Synavone said. "It happens in our communities here, but it's not something that's advertised."
Synavone said the girls didn't see themselves as victims, but rather as doing a job to help support their family.
"They didn't like it, they didn't want it, but they didn't see themselves labeled as victims," she said. "What we see here are things people wouldn't consider sex trafficking."
Each day in Minnesota, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people are involved in sex trafficking, according to the website for Breaking Free (breakingfree.net). More than half of those victims had their first experience in prostitution before they turned 18. The average age of children trafficked for sex is 12 to 14, Wahl said.
"Backpage.com and Craigslist are (Internet) sites everybody has access to," she said. "You can get what you want if you're willing to pay the money. Yeah, it's happening in rural Minnesota -- it's happening here."
An estimated 83 percent of girls who end up as victims of sex trafficking are U.S. residents -- children or teens who end up on the streets due to family situations or various other factors.
"What we're dealing with is not buying and selling women from other countries, it's girls who are here who are having trouble in school, who are homeless," Wahl explained. "Homeless and truancy are the two biggest factors for girls who get into sex trafficking."
Page 2 of 3 - "They're forced or coerced to give sex for money," Synavone added.
In October, the Southwest Crisis Center is planning a Sex and Labor Trafficking 101 training in Worthington. Speakers will be brought in to talk about what's happening and what can be done to stop it. Meanwhile, a victim of sex trafficking will speak next Wednesday at Minnesota West Community and Technical College during Culture Corner. Bukola Oriola's story of labor trafficking will be the second part to this series.
While Oriola lives in the Twin Cities, similar stories can be found in southwest Minnesota.
"It's actually happening in people's homes," Synavone said. In one incident, the crisis center was contacted after local law enforcement was notified of a domestic situation.
It wasn't until the woman was interviewed at the crisis center that it was revealed she was brought to the U.S. for marriage and, shortly after arriving here, her husband trafficked her for sex with some of his co-workers.
"She was locked in the basement -- locked in the house and couldn't get out," Synavone said. When an opportunity arose for her to escape, she did so and called police.
The crisis center's first encounter with human trafficking was five years ago, when the agency was asked to aid victims of labor trafficking in South Dakota who wanted to relocate to southwest Minnesota. The contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continued for three years, during which time the office assisted five victims.
Each of the victims came to the U.S. from another country after being promised a better life in America. Once they arrived in South Dakota, their documentation was taken and they were forced to work and turn over their income to the man who brought them here.
"They were required to stay in a one-bedroom apartment ... and they would work as long as 20 hours a day," Synavone said. "It was just like working for nothing."
The bishops conference gave the Southwest Crisis Center funding to assist the victims with everything from safe housing to resources in education, religion, language, culture and budgeting.
Call to action
In February, a man was found transporting a young Central American girl on Interstate 90 near Albert Lea. After being questioned, the man said he was transporting the girl to Worthington, where he was to meet people at a gas station who planned to take the girl on to South Dakota.
The route taken that day is the same route Worthington native Mindy Kuhl drives to get to college in Winona.
"It was just crazy that I could have been driving past someone with trafficked victims in the back of their van," said Kuhl, who will graduate in December with a major in social work and minor in child advocacy studies. She has been interested in helping victims of sexual and labor trafficking since high school.
Page 3 of 3 - Kuhl isn't surprised that Nobles County has received reports of both labor and sex trafficking.
"I just believe it happens everywhere," she said. "Worthington is in a prime spot with I-90 and highways 59 and 60. There's gas stations along the highways, and there's just a lot of easy locations to transfer (victims)."
Kuhl campaigned on behalf of Minnesota's Safe Harbor law, visiting Reps. Rod Hamilton R-Mountain Lake, and Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, in April as part of an assignment through her policy analysis class at Winona State University. The law, enacted in 2011, failed to protect all sexually exploited children. As the law was written, those under age 16 were considered victims, while those ages 16 and 17 were often classified as delinquents. Changes made this past legislative session ensure that even those ages 16 and 17 will be classified as victims if they were used in sex trafficking, but also that funds be set aside to help victims of sex trafficking.
With just one more semester to complete before she graduates, Kuhl is considering a future in helping victims of human trafficking, but she's keeping her options open.
"My interest (in human trafficking) grew as I traveled around the world," she said.
Two years ago, during a trip to Mexico, she learned about femicide and violence against women, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.
With increased border patrol, Kuhl said Hispanics are taking extreme measures to get into the U.S., including paying drug cartels to transport them across the border.
"You're not guaranteed safe -- they might rape you, sell you to someone else," she said. "It's just really risky.
"That sparked my interest even more."