Two major interstate highways, interstates 35 and 80, cross through Iowa, making travel in and out of the state quick and efficient. The same interstates are the main reasons, according to the local law enforcement authorities, why Iowa has become one of the crossroads of human trafficking in the United States.

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall prey to traffickers, both in their own countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or a destination for victims.

Why is Iowa a hotspot for human traffickers? 

The Midwest is vulnerable because of the confluence of different states and the volume of transportation hubs that can help traffickers easily move victims across state lines and even internationally.

I-35 stretches from the northern border with Canada (Duluth, Minn.) to the southern border with Mexico (Laredo, Texas). 1-80 takes the crown as the longest interstate travel route from San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey. Along I-80 in Iowa, near the Illinois border, is what is known as the “World’s Largest Truck Stop,” with parking for 900 big rigs. There one could find restaurants, showers and even a dentist. According to the national media and law enforcement authorities, hundreds of victims are trafficked via these two highways through Iowa every single day.

As stated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, after drug trade, human trafficking is tied up with the weapons trade as the second-largest criminal industry in the world, generating about $32 billion each year.

Many of the human trafficking victims are children. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice reveals that on an average it is between the ages of 12 and 14 that U.S. citizens are first lured to commercial sex.

What are Iowans doing to combat human trafficking?

It is important to understand what human trafficking is, identify the signs and learn how to report suspicious behavior and situations. Last year, the Iowa Secretary of State’s office introduced a program to educate businesses and employees on the signs of human trafficking.

Iowa Businesses Against Trafficking (IBAT) was established with the purpose of encouraging businesses to educate their employees, customers and industry partners on the signs and impact of human trafficking in Iowa.

As a member of IBAT, businesses are advised how to share facts, tips and the actions that can be taken against human trafficking. The Stanley Center for Peace and Security, a nonprofit organization based in Muscatine, Iowa, joined IBAT early this month, adding themselves to the list of more than 600 businesses that have become part of the cause.

“This is a civil society-driven effort, supported by state government, agencies and corporations, to better understand and identify the signs of human trafficking,” said Jennifer Smyser, Vice president and director of policy programming strategy at the Stanley Center, describing their new project. “We are asking businesses across the country to not just become a part of a campaign, but also make sure their employees understand how to recognize the signs of human trafficking and what to do when confronted with such a situation. We realized that this project is something that corresponds with our areas of focus and interests.”

As she further explained, the U.S. supply chain relies on trucking much more than any other transport method and the interstate highways in Iowa unfortunately have built up connections with human trafficking and other illegal activities. “That is why, here in Iowa, human trafficking is a real thing,” she added.

An analysis done in 2021 regarding laws against the sex trafficking of minors gives most states, including Iowa, a “failed grade” when it comes to tackling the billion-dollar human trafficking industry.

Shared Hope International, a non-profit organization that focuses on the trafficking of youth and children, credits states with better progress since its last 10-year analysis, but still gave a “failed grade” to Iowa and 38 other states, as well as Washington, D.C.

The poor grades were chiefly tied to the failure of states to see trafficking victims exactly as victims of a brutal trade in which youth and children are sold for sex with no means of escape from the frequent rapes, beatings and sometimes death.

Please note: The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-373-7888 or you can text 233733 to report a human trafficking crime.  You also can call 911 to report a suspected human trafficking crime.