She told her audience the geographic location of Atlanta has contributed to the city’s label: East Coast hub for cocaine traffic, a description once fitting Miami.
With open highways and an airport within spitting distance, Mexican drug cartels transport cocaine worth hundreds of millions into the city and, after selling it, a staggering $30 billion finds its way back to Mexico.
Worse, more money changes hands in the insidious world of sex trafficking than in dark addictions to cocaine. The state of Georgia is in an unenviable position as one of the four top trafficking states in the country.
That Interstate system, bringing traffic to a dead stop on too many Friday afternoons, is also the perfect conduit for human trafficking, moving children around in vans without calling attention to the evil of selling lives into prostitution.
Runaway girls are easy targets, Yates says. Within three days of leaving home, they are often picked up by pimps who force them into a life of sex for money.
Advertising on the Internet, sex traffickers set up meetings with parents and daughters, promising jobs in the big city and work in hotels or restaurants; only to lead girls, some as young as 12, into lives as no more than slaves to strange men.
Yates and her staff are working with local law enforcement officers to hone skills in attention to details, stressing differences between prostitutes and girls caught in the web of sex trafficking too afraid to cry for help.
Human trafficking and millions changing hands in cocaine sales are high on the shame list, weighty sorrows for a city burned to the ground in a terrible war and rising from ashes to reign over commerce, but urban success does not guarantee living within the law.
Georgia has too many guns in the wrong hands and it is a state tied to six times as many people dying from abusing prescriptions as those using illegal hard drugs.
Yates maintains a prescription drug monitoring program should be on the list of Georgia’s priorities, citing 25 percent of the state’s high school seniors as those using prescription drugs to get “high.”
Picture a gathering of high school students who pilfer prescription drugs from their home medicine cabinets, dump them into a communal bowl along with pills brought by their friends. Everyone takes a turn choosing, at random, the “pill granola” giving a buzz. No one has a clue what combination of drugs is being swallowed.
Sally Yates has seen enough to know prosecution is necessary, but prevention is the answer. In this country, we spent $74 billion last year on incarcerations. Two-thirds of those who are released from prison will be returned.
Yet, early childhood education programs in our schools, particularly those in inner cities where poverty is the neighborhood thief, can’t compete as investments in future lives as budgets are cut.
Last week, Child Trends, a research group, gave us a reality check on the lives of a fictional high school graduating class, numbers that should haunt us. Of the 100 seniors, 71 had been assaulted. Twenty-two lived in poverty, 10 had been raped. Thirty-nine had been bullied, 28 sexually victimized, three or four girls were pregnant and one had had an abortion.
These are the histories young lives could bring to the workplace, to relationships and to citizenship. Still, knowing inner-city shackles stunt dreams and seeing affluence and boredom allow teenagers to experiment with drugs and intimacy, there are responsible adults who still show up, working to protect children’s lives and futures.
Sally Yates is one.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.