Toussaint column: Going to BBAT to stop human trafficking
Last week, Gina D’Orazio Stryker was elected president of the Battlement to Bells Anti-Trafficking Taskforce (BBAT).
Most locals haven’t heard of BBAT, but they’ve heard of Gina. She’s the founder of Gina Cucina, a gourmet soup company that has burst from its organic Carbondale roots to appear in stores all across Colorado.
You’d understand the connection if a recipe artist and mother of four went to bat to protect family farms or support food banks. But human trafficking?
It’s a huge issue. More than 40 million people are abducted and enslaved every year (that’s what trafficking really is). Roughly 75 percent of trafficking victims are female, and 25 percent are children. The scope of this crime has surpassed illegal arms sales and may soon exceed drug sales. After all, a person can be profitably trafficked numerous times daily, while drugs can be sold only once.
Two things connected Gina to the issue: trucks and a close call as a teen.
D’Orazio Stryker grew up in Idaho, in a town about the size of Dotsero. One day, she skipped out of high school to go buy a sandwich. While at a convenience store, a man in a yellow van struck up a conversation with her, asking about local hunting and fishing. As she approached the van’s open door, Gina’s track coach saw what was happening and screamed, “Get away! Get away!”
Later, that yellow van reportedly picked up a 9-year-old girl — who was never seen again.
Human trafficking does indeed happen here: Sometimes it’s men brought to the Western Slope and trapped into agricultural labor. More often, it’s young women lured into the sex trade; they’re often moved from Denver to Colorado’s resort areas.
Human trafficking flows along interstate highways. That’s one of the reasons that a recent undercover operation — one that resulted in the arrest of nine Johns who were seeking sex with underage girls — took place in Glenwood Springs.
It’s also transportation that connects trafficking to food. As Gina says, “All food is transported by trucks. Hundreds of thousands of trucks.”
The trucking connection prompted Gina to ask FedEx to train all of its drivers to combat human trafficking. In 2016, D’Orazio Stryker won a coveted FedEx Small Business Grant and was then asked to serve on FedEx’s Entrepreneurial Advisory board. Her first request was for FedEx to train its 10,000 drivers to watch for and report human trafficking on America’s highways.
Within six months, FedEx did start training, and in February 2018, a FedEx representative came up to Gina at a conference and whispered that those efforts had saved the life of a 14-year-old girl in California.
D’Orazio Stryker has now joined with attorney Beth Klein — the powerhouse lawyer who wrote Colorado’s two anti-human trafficking laws — to bring that work to the Roaring Fork Valley. Together, they have convened the Battlement to Bells Anti-Trafficking Taskforce (BBAT), an ad hoc group of about 40 volunteers. BBAT has met twice in Carbondale to design a regional effort to safeguard youngsters from Rifle up to Aspen.
It might be tougher to reach teens than to take on big, burly truckers. D’Orazio Stryker relates an incident in which a local eighth-grader phoned to interview her for a term paper on human trafficking. Soon after, the girl’s mother called to say that the paper had been shut down; a local school administrator had forbidden the project saying that the subject was too edgy and too graphic.
If it’s too scary to discuss, then what about the reality? Once a youngster is trafficked, their life expectancy is about seven years — seven years until death, usually from overdose or suicide.
“It’s not a stranger-danger thing anymore,” D’Orazio Stryker explains. “The recruiters are called ‘Romeo pimps’ for a reason. They court a victim for three to six months, taking them to movies, buying them candy and gifts, learning what they like, learning about their friends, siblings and families. Then they nab them. They gang rape the youngster and take pictures. If the victim resists or tries to escape, the traffickers will threaten everyone the kid loves. They say, ‘We’ll get your little brother. We’ll post the photos.’ There’s such shame involved, the victims just do what’s asked of them.”
Local law enforcement officers — including Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling, who first proposed a local sting operation, Lee Damuth, Chief Investigator for the Judicial District and Rifle Police Chief Tommy Klein, who helped put on an anti-trafficking seminar last year — have welcomed BBAT’s efforts. Here’s to hoping that teachers, parents and other caring citizens will also step up to bat.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.
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