By Marc Robertson
One fourth of all human trafficking victims in the United States are presently in Texas.
Up to 17,500 people are being transported illegally into the United States each year for the sole purpose of enslavement in labor or the sex trade. Thousands more are brought into the country and left to their own devices. Failing to survive on their own, many turn to prostitution or become victims of debt bondage with little hope of recovering.
The human trafficking industry has fast become one of unprecedented growth, drawing estimated profits of $32 billion a year in this country, divided among those who recruit, train, enslave and control their victims.
Many of those victims are children.
In the United States alone, aside from those being brought into the country from elsewhere, an estimated 300,000 children become victims of human trafficking and enslavement in the sex trade or in forced labor each year.
The average female victim of human trafficking for the sex trade is between 12 and 14 years of age.
There are presently 2.8 million runaway children in the United States. Law enforcement, health services and other agencies investigating the crisis have concluded that one third of those runaway children – more than 930,000 – are lured into a sex act within 48 hours of leaving home.
Statistics gathered over the past decade by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of State, the National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Office of the Attorney General and the House Committee on Human Services and other agencies have been assembled as part of an educational program for police officers across the country in an effort to help combat what many describe as a humanitarian crisis.
Sheriff’s deputies, investigators, police and victims’ advocates from La Salle, Frio and other South Texas counties gathered at the Talbert L Bar Ranch on Friday, June 24 for an intensive course on the current human trafficking situation, regionally and nationally, and examined ways in which to improve intervention and prosecution.
The Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course (SAFVIC) is funded by the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Governor and was hosted in La Salle County by 81st Judicial District Attorney Rene Pena, who offered sobering facts by way of introduction for those in attendance.
“Breaking the cycle of violence is very difficult,” the district attorney said. “We already have 13-year-olds getting involved because it’s an easy way to make money.”
DA Pena said he is determined to increase law enforcement intervention in the crime cycle, a policy he says will be better achieved when officers are trained to recognize the signs of human smuggling, human trafficking, and forced labor or sex trade enslavement.
“There is a low risk of getting caught, especially when you are dealing with a segment of the population that is almost invisible to most people,” Pena said. “Parents are paying for their children to get across the border into the US, and handlers immediately have an opportunity for crime. They can extort more money, and the parents will pay up. Then the children can be put into the sex trade.
“A fourteen-year-old girl can earn a hundred dollars per customer,” Pena said. “She may earn that ten times a day. She is being forced to work every day. That child alone is generating $365,000 per year for her handler.”
The district attorney said he renewed his efforts to break South Texas crime organizations after a recent investigation resulted in the indictment of 29 defendants on charges of theft, money laundering, organized crime, human trafficking for the sex trade, and human smuggling.
The principal difference between smuggling and trafficking in humans is that smugglers primarily only help transport people illegally for profit across a national boundary or through a territory. Traffickers are those who deal in the trade of humans for enslavement, either in labor, the sex trade or other enterprise. While smugglers are defined as people who transport others over any distance, traffickers need not to have moved their victims in order to profit from them.
DA Pena and seminar presenters Tina Hartman, prosecutor for the 81st Judicial District, and Sgt. Bill Grayson, 26-year veteran of the San Antonio Police Department, concurred that victims of human smuggling may quickly become victims of human trafficking when they are taken advantage of for illegal profit, enslaved in debt bondage, forced to take part in prostitution or pornography, or otherwise abused.
The district attorney used as example a case in which his investigators were recently involved and which centered on South Texas. The crime ring, he said, is believed to be one of many operating in the region.
“I can tell you with confidence that there are over eighty people in this ring alone,” the district attorney said of the organization that was uncovered in a local investigation and for which prosecution has begun. “They are smuggling at least 250 people per month into the United States. The majority of those involved are US citizens.
“They are making millions,” Pena said of those running the smuggling organization. “It’s as much as the drug trade.”
Hartman prepped seminar attendees for the course by outlining what she described as the obstacles that stand in the way of successful investigation and prosecution.
“These are going to be the hardest cases you have dealt with,” the prosecutor told her audience. “None of these victims is going to tell you that they have been trafficked. Typically, your cases of abuse or neglect begin with an outcry, but how do you investigate a case where nobody is calling in to say they are trafficked?
“We have to look for the red flags,” Hartman said. “Those are the first pieces. You are going to investigate all the places where they hide, places they use, internet pages that they’re on.”
Hartman noted that while investigators may focus on pursuing those responsible for crimes in smuggling and trafficking, she believes it is also vitally important that victims be given attention in order to help prevent them being drawn back to an underworld life of danger and enslavement.
“Some are scared of their traffickers,” the prosecutor said of those who have fallen victim to enslavement. “Victims are the most street-smart people we have met. They will not give you consent [to look at their property]. You have to get warrants, subpoenas.
“Victims are usually drug-addicted and may be in love with their handlers,” Hartman said of other scenarios she has encountered. “They believe they are in love and that their handlers love them, which is how they begin to justify their actions.
“Many have sexually transmitted diseases,” she said of sex trade and forced-labor workers. “A lot are pregnant. Traffickers are recruiting girls from one district to work in another.”
Hartman said she believes officers investigating cases of human trafficking will find the task daunting but will also realize its benefits.
“It takes a lot of work,” the prosecutor said, “but it’s rewarding when you can get them off the streets and into a family home.”
“Nearly every country in the world is affected by human trafficking,” Sgt. Grayson said. “The US is probably the most popular destination because we are a nation with this much disposable income. There are more slaves today than in our history.
“Human trafficking is a growth industry for organized crime today,” the San Antonio officer said. “Traffickers are always adapting, and they are using the internet.”
Seminar attendees were shown examples of how pre-teens and teen children are marketed in the sex trade over the internet, many of them in obvious advertisements for sex services on popular trading pages. In many cases, the advertisements offer massages and other personal services but are illustrated with images of scantily clad or provocatively posed children.
“Think about some of the most horrific things that a man could do to a child,” District Attorney Pena said, drawing audience attention to the crisis on a personal level. “Now think about that being your child.”
The district attorney reported that Texas presently has approximately 80,000 registered sex offenders, more than 60,000 of whom have been convicted of having engaged in sex acts with children.
Eighty percent of sex trade victims are female, according to Sgt. Grayson.
In order to help identify victims of the sex and forced-labor trade, Sgt. Grayson said investigating officers should take note of typical vulnerabilities, among them histories of family dysfunction, records of child abuse and neglect, histories of drug abuse, long-standing distrust of authority and law enforcement, and an apparent break from the family unit, such as in the case of young runaways.
“Thirty percent of children who end up in shelters and seventy percent of street youths are controlled by a pimp,” the sergeant said. “There are millions of runaway kids in the streets of this country. How are they surviving out there? It’s called survival sex.”
The sergeant outlined typical scenarios in which the vulnerable are lured into enslavement, including illegal immigration by smuggling, desperate living conditions and an apparent need for new attachment. Traffickers are generally persuasive, he said, and are skilled in manipulating the inexperienced. In some cases, immigrants with little or no understanding of the English language and no understanding of the American culture or US law are pressured into working off debts they may have incurred through transport and accommodation. Later, they are charged high fees for food and supplies, thereby extending a debt they may never pay off, according to Sgt. Grayson.
In many cases, the San Antonio officer said, criminals who don’t want to be found in possession of contraband may pass guns and drugs to children, thereby avoiding responsibility, ensuring that others face charges for having the goods and that minors remain obedient to their handlers, pimps and traffickers.
Victims of human trafficking for the labor and sex trades are often housed in substandard accommodation, are forced to live in crowded spaces such as small apartments and hotel rooms, are unable to take care of their essential medical needs, may be forced to take narcotics, may never be in possession of identifying documents, rarely if ever have any cash of their own and are often physically abused by their handlers and by their superiors in a primitive hierarchy.
Grayson said parents, school counselors, guardians, law enforcement officers and others taking note of “red flag” indicators that children may have become victims of trafficking or other forms of abuse or enslavement should note any injuries, bruising and ligature marks; pay attention to tattoos bearing telltale signs of enslavement, membership in an organization or possession by a handler, including forms of branding; and pay attention to indicators that children may display signs of apparent wealth by having expensive clothing or jewelry but never having any spending money of their own; and inappropriate dress for the time of day or season.
Victims also display an unusual or heightened sense of fear, undergo depression and anxiety, experiment with or become involved in drug use, give false names and addresses, may be runaways or homeless, and are not attending school when they appear to be of school age, according to Grayson. Further indicators may include assault, domestic violence and antisocial behavior, he said.
For the most part, according to the sergeant, victims of human trafficking are “invisible to society.”
“Victims can be male or female, foreign or US nationals, and any age,” Grayson said. “Basically, they may be anyone who goes unrecognized by the public or by law enforcement. They have lost their identity.”
Those most likely to suffer the greatest at the hands of smugglers, handlers, pimps and others engaged in organized crime are children, the officer said, because the young have little understanding of the law and are unable to fend for themselves outside the controlled environment.
“At age twelve, you really don’t understand what resources, social services, are available to you,” Sgt. Grayson said. “If you are a foreign national, you may be unemployable in the US. You lack social mobility. You have been lured by false promises of employment.”
Traffickers and other handlers, including pimps, are likely to reinforce in their victims a distrust of police, thereby further ensuring that their illegal activity will go unreported.
“Traffickers exploit their victims based on their vulnerability,” Grayson said. “They will use threats, intimidation, if they have to. They are driven to this by the attraction of high profit at low risk.”
While likely candidates for involvement in crimes against humans may be members of street gangs or other brotherhoods, investigators have uncovered cases in which parents marketed their own children for sex. In one example, Grayson said officers uncovered the sexual marketing of a child under 12 months of age.
Human trafficking crimes are not limited to those who carry out offenses against the innocence and liberty of the enslaved but also include those who enable the crimes to occur. Facilitators may include employees at truck stops who are aware of sex trade or forced-labor pickup taking place at the businesses, hotel or motel clerks who are aware of or who permit sex traffic to occur on their premises, parents who profit from prostituting their children, and anyone who may profit from recruiting illegal laborers or sex traffic victims.
Both Grayson and Hartman noted that South Texas’ trade corridor is a magnet for human trafficking as well as a channel for human smuggling. Places most likely to attract organized crime along that route, they said, are truck stops and motels along IH-35. Online and social media advertising for child sex often attracts potential customers to motels at which they have agreed to meet their victims; truck stops are popular sites for impromptu encounters with “lot lizard” prostitutes who lie in wait for drivers and as sites where drivers may meet victims with whom they have made arrangements in advance.
Felony charges are filed against those who sell or purchase a child for sex or labor traffic, additionally if the victim is under 14 years of age; and felony charges are filed against anyone who causes a child under the age of 18 to commit prostitution, regardless of how old they may have believed the child was at the time.
First degree felony charges are filed against those who traffic a child for sex or labor, with sentencing of prison time between five and 99 years, and also if a person dies as a direct result of trafficking. The ‘3G’ marker on many felony charges against traffickers indicates that the offense is of such severity that a convicted person must serve at least half of the prison sentence before being able to apply for parole.
Second degree felony charges apply to those who traffic adult victims for sex or labor. Charges of aggravated sexual assault may be filed against anyone whose victim is over the age of 13 and has any mental or physical handicap or defect.
All convictions in sex-traffic offenses require national sex offender registry by the guilty.
The law also provides punishment for invasive recording of a person without consent and helps protect victims of so-called revenge pornography (distribution of another person’s private images or video as an act of malice) as well as for threatening to distribute pornography as a form of extortion.
Felony charges apply to anyone in possession of child pornography.
Protective orders are available to victims of sex or labor trafficking; parents may apply for protection of their underage children; and victims of all ages may apply to have their names altered in all case files to help protect their identity, although victims are often required to testify in court, according to Hartman.
Protective orders helping separate trafficking victims from their abusers may last a lifetime, the prosecutor said, and can be granted to victims of sex traffic as well as labor traffic. Medical examinations take priority when officers begin investigating cases of abuse; emergency medical treatment needs will be determined at the first opportunity by trained healthcare professionals. Victims are referred to counseling services and other agencies for help.
“Victims will resist telling officers anything, at first, because they have been led to believe by their handlers that they will go to jail,” Hartman said. “Sometimes, custody is the safest for them, while we move to take action against the organized crime, but the victims are not the ones who go to jail.
“We work hard to ensure that officers taking action against human smuggling and human trafficking are sensitive to other cultures,” the prosecutor said. “We have to understand that some victims are unfamiliar with the US system.”
“Our policy is to save the kids first, period,” District Attorney Pena said in summary at the close of the seminar, adding that he believes parents can be proactive in helping prevent children becoming vulnerable to trafficking by monitoring their use of the internet and their appearance on social media sites such as Facebook and Kik.
“A lot of victims have a really hard time getting out of their situations,” Hartman said. “They know that the offenders have friends on the street and may find them.
“It’s very hard to rehabilitate victims,” the prosecutor added. “Fifteen-year-olds don’t know what love is or what a healthy relationship is. They have been persuaded that they don’t need to go to school any more. They have been lured into a life that they may never escape.”
Attending the seminar from La Salle County were Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez, Chief Deputy Malcolm Watson, Lieutenant Joey Garcia, Investigator Homar Olivarez, Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez, Deputies Miguel Limon, Elvira Gonzales, Daniela Flores, Eddie De Leon and Jose Avila; Victims’ Advocate Rosario Morales, Constables Oscar Tellez, Guy Megliorino and Rene Maldonado; Texas Ranger Randy Garcia and Jail Administrator Cody Graham. US Border Patrol agents, sheriff’s deputies and police officers from Dimmit County, Frio County and Pearsall were also in attendance.