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The Trucking Industry: A Focus On Smuggling And Human Trafficking


You might remember a story last month about 10 immigrant found dead in a trailer in San Antonio, Texas. The trailer belongs to a small-town trucking company in Iowa, and the tragedy has left the trucking industry and its drivers increasingly focused on the problem of smuggling and human trafficking. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Along Interstate 80 in Iowa, near the Illinois border, is what calls itself the World's Largest Truck Stop with parking for 900 big rigs. There are restaurants, showers, even a dentist. Driver Roosevelt Phillips is here on this day. He's from Pittsburgh. He says truck stops like this one are a community.

ROOSEVELT PHILLIPS: We talk about everything. I mean, you know, I'm an adult, so I'm talking to another truck driver. We talk about whatever comes up.

MASTERS: From politics to the news of the day and strange activity they see on the road.

RACHELLE BIGGS: Truck drivers are not naive people. We see everything.

MASTERS: That's Rachelle Biggs. She's a program specialist at The Des Moines Area Community College Transportation Institute. Biggs has been at the college for almost a decade, following 16 years as a trucker. She remembers hauling loads in the Southern United States back in the 1990s and being stopped by border patrol.

BIGGS: They checked my trailer and my truck. And at the time, I thought, wow, that's that's kind of crazy. You're looking for people? I'm - that's the last thing in the world I'd ever do.

MASTERS: What was not talked about back then is now a subject in her classes. The curriculum is called truckers against trafficking - human trafficking. That's when people are coerced into being sex workers. Kendis Paris helped write the curriculum.

KENDIS PARIS: Smuggling is a crime against a border, whereas trafficking is a crime against a human being.

MASTERS: The deadly case in San Antonio involves smuggling, where people paid to be taken through border checkpoints. Paris says that's harder to spot than trafficking.

PARIS: These people were not let outside of the trailer, so it's hard to raise up an army of truckers or truck stop employees or anyone for that matter.

MASTERS: An army of truckers on the lookout for criminal activity at truck stops. Back at the World's Largest, Brian Bickham is climbing back into the cab with his truck. Like all the truckers I spoke to that day, he's familiar with the case in Texas. He's never been approached to smuggle anyone but says he often sees postings at truck stops about reporting suspicious behavior that could indicate trafficking.

BRIAN BICKHAM: I've only encountered it maybe two, maybe three times.

MASTERS: And when you've encountered it, what do you mean by that?

BICKHAM: You know, women women coming up and approaching you and stuff like that. But, you know, you never know if that's actually human trafficking or somebody willingly.

MASTERS: Truck driver Roosevelt Phillips says he's heard of people who have run all kinds of illegal cargo to make money. They all end the same.

PHILLIPS: Everybody - all the stories that I've heard, the people got arrested. So why you would want to do something like that, I don't get it.

MASTERS: As for Pyle Transportation, the Iowa company that owns the tractor trailer that 10 people died in in San Antonio, they're not talking. But the story has more and more truckers talking in and out of truck stops like this one about smuggling and trafficking. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Walcott, Iowa.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This report states that human trafficking is “when people are coerced into being sex workers.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s definition of human trafficking also includes “coercion to obtain some type of labor.”] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 14, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
This report states that human trafficking is "when people are coerced into being sex workers." The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's definition of human trafficking also includes "coercion to obtain some type of labor."
Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR