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Her head had been bashed in by her pimp. Gas flares illuminate the pump jacks in the distance. Just up the road, she says, is where a woman was imprisoned in an RV for several months by a gang of drug dealers. Then we pull into the parking lot of the Grand Williston Hotel, once notorious for the broken lock on its back door that allowed johns to come and go unnoticed by front-desk personnel.

She tests the back door. It still opens. From to , when oil prices skyrocketed and technological advances in hydraulic fracturing brought an unprecedented boom to the oil fields of North Dakota, Jae, now 23, could have hit her quota with three tricks. Tens of thousands of workers flooded sleepy towns, seeking entry-level jobs that paid six figures. The influx of cash-flush men brought a huge demand for prostitutes. At one point, Williston and the surrounding area had the highest gender imbalance in the U.

Sex trafficking, according to the U. Department of Justice, occurs when a person performs a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion. For underyear-olds, it is any kind of commercial sex act. While sometimes perpetrators and their victims cross borders, sex trafficking, including activities such as pimping, does not necessarily involve transport.

While much of the criminal activity is international, the U. The lack of solid data makes it hard to craft an appropriate response, says Bethany Gilot, human-trafficking prevention director at the Florida Department of Children and Families. Gilot compares sex trafficking today to domestic violence 30 years ago: people had to understand that it existed before anyone could talk about it as a problem. In popular imagination, trafficked women tend to be foreigners brought into the U. In fact, many are American-born women and girls. Lazenko has worked with women across the racial spectrum—Latina, Asian, Native American and Hispanic.

Each case represents a life torn apart, lived under the threat of violence, without free will and defined by rape. Windie Lazenko knows the reality better than most. At 13, she fled what she describes as an abusive home life in California for what seemed like the safety of a friendly couple she had met through a local motorcycle gang. She asked TIME not to identify the gang for fear of retribution. The couple sheltered her in exchange for small domestic chores that soon became sexual.

When Lazenko was 16, they branded her with a tattoo that read property of and sent her to dance at a strip club. Nobody at the club questioned the presence of an underage girl, or the tattoo. Soon after, the couple started prostituting her to friends and fellow gang members. She ran away. After a period of reflection and recovery, Lazenko started working with anti-trafficking organizations in , learning on the job how to minister to victims and campaign for awareness. In she was working for a support organization for sex-trafficking survivors in Florida when she started hearing strippers and sex workers talking about the money to be made in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana.

Figuring that wherever there was a demand for prostitutes, pimps and traffickers were sure to follow, Lazenko drove to Williston on a reconnaissance mission. Police investigators, Lazenko says, often ended up alienating and retraumatizing victims with insensitive questions about the of johns they had slept with or why they never tried to get away.

Lazenko ended up staying in Williston to found 4her North Dakota, a one-woman organization dedicated to helping trafficking victims. She started button-holing hotel managers, front-desk personnel, bartenders and baristas for impromptu training on how to spot s of trafficking. She instructed them on what to do if they suspected someone was being sold for sex. And she gave presentations to the Williston police department about how to treat potential victims, and went with federal investigators on raids.

Today Lazenko spends most of her time on the road, traveling between conferences on sex trafficking and conducting training sessions for cops and social-service organizations. She has testified before state lawmakers and served as an expert witness in sex-trafficking cases in Florida, Arizona, Montana and North Dakota. Trafficking can start with something as simple as a flattering comment on Facebook. Often, a Romeo will persuade a girl to move with him to a new town.

Then, when she feels she has nowhere else to turn, he forces her into prostitution. When she got to North Dakota he started beating her, then forced her to have sex with his dealer in exchange for a couple of grams of methamphetamines. She was 17 at the time. She fell in with a pimp who offered her security in exchange for a portion of her earnings.

When he started taking everything, she no longer felt safe enough to resist and started taking the drugs he supplied to numb the pain. Other women go into prostitution willingly, only to get trapped by a pimp. Then she met a boyfriend who abused her and stole her proceeds. The investigation is ongoing. Sometimes the perpetrator is the person closest to the victim. Danielle Knoblauch, a year-old mother of three from Chicago, followed her husband to Dickinson, N.

Working in the oil field, he soon became addicted to meth, which is common among employees toiling through hour days. He lost his job, then started selling drugs to feed his habit. Knoblauch, who has a wiry build and the nervous energy of someone who has lived through too many traumas, says she spent three years being traded for sex between motorcycle gangs, dealers and a Mexican cartel.

She says she was forced to work as their mule, ferrying cash, guns, drugs and other girls between North Dakota, Colorado and Mexico. Most people cannot comprehend what it means to be trafficked, says Knoblauch, which contributes to a sense that victims are complicit in their captivity. Because believe me, they probably asked themselves that a million times. Knoblauch stayed partly because of threats her captors made against her children.

Traffickers use many tactics to destabilize their victims, from sleep deprivation to starvation, violence and drug addiction. They disorient victims by alternating demonstrations of love with violence or neglect. In psychology, this is called a trauma bond. The point is to take away any sense of free will. There is no one to cry to, no one to ask for help. Sex trafficking is a moving epidemic. Traffickers in the U. Big annual sporting events like the Super Bowl or the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are a draw, according to anti-trafficking organizations.

So are boomtowns. When the price of oil goes high enough to justify new wells, industry workers, and the traffickers that service them, flock to the new El Dorados. Local law enforcement was overwhelmed. Attorney from to Within hours of launching Operation Vigilant Guardian, Purdon had to shut it down, because cops were running out of places to put the johns. Many in Williston have sought to downplay the issue, worried it will drive families away even several years later. That includes public officials. North Dakota learned about trafficking the hard way, says Purdon, but now the state is up to speed.

State services for victims are skeletal. Youthworks, the only nonprofit agency in North Dakota to offer services for human-trafficking victims, has one program officer for the entire western half of the state. It assisted 79 victims of sex trafficking in , but budget cuts threaten its meager resources, says assistant executive director Christina Sambor. Meanwhile, activists worry that rising oil prices will bring traffickers back. At a Williston hotel in April, Lazenko asks a manager if another oil boom is on the horizon.

Washington has made sporadic efforts to address trafficking on a national scale. In January , Senator Heitkamp teamed up with Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine to introduce legislation that would require training for hospital, emergency-room and clinic workers to recognize s of trafficking. Congress was able to pass separate bipartisan legislation, which President Trump ed into law in April, that makes websites like Back.

But sex trafficking remains one of the hardest crimes to crack down on, says Alice Hill, a former federal prosecutor and judge who ed the Obama Administration in to help found the national Blue Campaign against human trafficking. Victims are reluctant to come forward or face their abusers in court, because of the stigma associated with prostitution and the threat of criminal charges. Which is why much of the work to assist victims is being done by survivors like Lazenko, who combine their personal experience with tailored therapy. For women who have gone through the trauma of trafficking, it can mean the difference between healing and suicide.

Such was the case for Knoblauch. Facing charges of drug possession in North Dakota, and desperate to free herself from her captors, she became an informant in , providing evidence that led to the indictment of 13 high-ranking members of transnational organized crime, according to an agent with the North Dakota bureau of criminal investigations who worked on the case. Meanwhile, Knoblauch was starting to unravel, haunted by terrifying dreams and unable to go out in public without panic attacks.

An investigator suspected she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In late he recommended she call Lazenko. They talked for two hours. For Knoblauch it was a revelation. They thought I was lying.

They treated me as an addict and a whore. Often there are setbacks. In , after months of effort, Lazenko was finally able to get Jae away from her pimp and into a GED program for former sex workers in New York City. But Jae felt out of place and condemned by her family. She returned to North Dakota, and to prostitution. If Jae links up with another pimp, Lazenko is prepared to step in. Otherwise, she says, Jae must make her own decisions. These days Lazenko is torn. She has alienated some North Dakotans with her vocal crusade but feels she still has work to do in the state.

At the same time, she hears disturbing stories about sex trafficking in and around Odessa, Texas, where shale drilling in the Permian Basin is bringing plenty of potential customers. A law-enforcement sting there in March netted more than 60 arrests on sex-trafficking offenses, including nine men who were soliciting sex from children under the age of In August, Lazenko went to Odessa to deliver a series of sex-trafficking awareness trainings.

One afternoon in April, Knoblauch invited Lazenko over for a cigarette-fueled therapy session. Giving Lazenko a tour of her windowless basement apartment, Knoblauch paused at a leather trunk her boyfriend had given her for special keepsakes. Across the top he had inscribed her favorite motto, Hold On, Pain Ends, and used the initials to label it a H.

Lazenko wrapped her in a hug. Now the healing starts. A few days later, the two booked an appointment at a tattoo studio. Knoblauch leaned over the back of a chair and brushed her hair out of the way as an artist stenciled H. Knoblauch grimaced in pain as the needle passed over her spine. Lazenko squeezed her hands. Lazenko laughed. It ends. at letters time. She Survived Sex Trafficking. A truck stop in Williston, where Lazenko often searched for women who had gone missing.

At the height of the oil boom in North Dakota, men outed women by as many as 20, fueling a demand for prostitutes in once sleepy towns like Williston. Left: People wait for the doors to open for at a job fair in Williston, North Dakota, April 23,

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