South Dakota is most recognized for its open ranges, miles of lush farmland, and as the home of 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest. These same serene rolling hills and towering pines awaken with sounds of rumbling as they host the largest annual tourist attraction in the state every summer.
Boasting the unofficial start of its 76th year this week, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attracts hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists from across the country to gather for the week-long rally, which runs officially from August 8-14. While most of these motorcyclists tour the natural beauty of the Black Hills, enjoy outdoor concerts, and spend their tourist dollars at vendor tents, local bars, and restaurants—there is also a disturbing reality taking place. Hidden in the shadows from the music and crowds, are DCI agents and other law enforcement officials standing vigil and conducting undercover sex sting operations.
Regrettably, the Sturgis rally has become one of two South Dakota events that drives human trafficking within the state. However, the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally and fall hunting season in South Dakota are not the only times the state sees human trafficking.
The two major interstates that run through the state, I-90 and I-29, are “part of the ‘Midwest Pipeline,’ the superhighways used to deliver trafficking victims to cities across the country, ” according to this fact sheet.
A growing epidemic
This is not an isolated issue; rather, it is a growing epidemic. The Division of Criminal Investigation has been conducting undercover sex stings in South Dakota for several years, even allowing KELOLAND News to be a part of the undercover operations in Sturgis.
Although there has been an agreement in place with the Attorney General's office preventing them from showing the public all the operations' details, the Attorney General feels strongly that bringing public awareness to the forefront of this horrific issue will make a difference in the fight against human trafficking.
"When you have large events like this, there's a criminal element, and we've experienced in the past some child predators out and about in the community. We've taken it upon ourselves in law enforcement to do certain operations really to protect children." – South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley
In the past few years:
9 arrests were associated with the 2013 Sturgis rally.
Victims ranged from 12 to 15 years of age.
5 indictments came from the 2014 Sturgis rally.
Dozens of girls and women have been discovered as victims of sex trafficking in South Dakota.
There were 30 federal sex trafficking cases in South Dakota between 2009-2014.
Protecting Native American women and children
South Dakota is also home to 9 Native American reservations and designated tribal land areas...more than any other state. Native women and children are at higher risk for trafficking than any other racial group. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, over 40% of those trafficked in the state have been Native women.
The state of South Dakota has a Human Trafficking Task Force, established in 2013, with a mission “to facilitate a collaborative effort to prevent trafficking of persons within the State and Tribal nations, prosecution of perpetrators, community education and awareness, and to protect and provide services to trafficking survivors.”
Their website offers tips to spot a possible trafficker as well as warning signs to recognize victims.
There are also other organizations raising awareness about human trafficking in South Dakota, particularly during the Sturgis rally. The South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic and Sexual Violence is working to help prevent trafficking, and this year, Native Hope is joining the cause.
Native Hope is sending a team to Sturgis this week to promote awareness of human trafficking, especially among Native women, ahead of the rally. Director Julie Muldoon says:
“Human trafficking of young Native American girls is a real issue here in South Dakota. Our goal is to help raise awareness, as well as to fund programs that offer girls the support they desperately need."
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