July 24–The news of 10 people found dead inside an overheated tractor trailer in San Antonio over the weekend, while striking and tragic, is by no means the first time would-be immigrants have been discovered trying to cross the border in a truck.
Cross-border smuggling also isn’t the only type of human trafficking to have been tied to the trucking industry: Forced prostitution is also all too common at truck stops across America, prompting industry-wide efforts to address the issue.
While the underlying causes of human trafficking are complex, ranging from instability in Central America and Mexico to competing priorities by U.S. law enforcement, it seems there’s some alignment between traffic in trucks and traffic in people.
Indeed, in Texas, both border crossings by trucks and the number of human trafficking cases have risen in tandem over the past five years:
Comprehensive, long-term data on human trafficking isn’t available. The FBI has only aggregated local law enforcement statistics on the crime since 2013, and it took a while for police departments to participate. But the National Human Trafficking Hotline has published statistics since 2012 which can be correlated with data on truck border crossings published by the Department of Transportation.
In theory a higher volume of border crossings by trucks — which generally occurs when the economy is doing well and trade increases — could also create more opportunities for people to be smuggled in trailers, and thus a greater likelihood of things going wrong.
Of course, two trends rising at the same time don’t prove that one caused the other. “They intersect, but I don’t think there’s a direct correlation,” says Melissa Torres, director of human trafficking research at the University of Texas’ School of Social Work, who is in the middle of a comprehensive project to map human trafficking across Texas.
However, one detail of the San Antonio case may provide a clue: The driver of the truck was an owner-operator, contracted by a trucking company to haul a load from point A to point B. The business model has become more common over the years, because it allows trucking companies to not worry about keeping workers on salary when orders dry up — but it also means they can’t exert as much control over the driver’s practices, making it more difficult to ensure compliance with the law.
“in any business that we’ve dealt with, the supply chain needs to be looked at,” Torres says.
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