Houston Region is a Hub for Human Trafficking

Woman with tape over her mouth

Houston has one of the largest number of sexually-oriented businesses per square mile in the country, and victims of human trafficking can be found in big cities and small towns throughout the entire area and in all 50 states, prosecutors and advocates said at a recent “Hot Topics” event at Sam Houston State University.

"Human trafficking is modern day slavery," said Ruben Perez, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. "It involves commercial sex or labor servitude induced by force, fraud or coercion. It is not the transportation or movement of immigrants across the border., which is alien smuggling, not human trafficking. But, smuggling cases can turn into trafficking cases."

Hot Topics, “Human Trafficking: 21st Century Slavery in Texas,” was sponsored by The Political Engagement Project at SHSU, one of only nine campuses in the U.S. to support a committee to promote political knowledge, political participation and political leadership. The SHSU organization is sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation and has hosted seminars on China, The Middle East and Health Care.

During the recent National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four basketball playoffs in Houston, prostitutes were out in force to serve out-of-town guests. Many of the prostitutes arrested by local and federal authorities admit that they entered the business as young as 12 and 13 years old. Some women are branded or tattooed like cattle by their pimps. According to one victim right advocate, pregnant women are brought in from Mexico, and pimps raise the babies to turn them out in the trade at age six or seven, speakers said.

The problems with human trafficking in the sex trade are not limited to the city. A case is currently being investigated in rural Wharton, and New Braunfels is a hotbed of activity during the summer months, a victim rights advocate said.

It’s estimated that 12.3 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, forced in labor, bonded labor and sexual servitude. In the U.S. alone, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, with 14,000 to 17,000 victims trafficking into the United States. International victims are immigrants from other countries, and domestic victims are U.S. citizens already living in our community. Many trafficking businesses are forms of organized crime with many members involved in generating large amounts of money.

"If you have spas, massage parlors, cantinas and an immigrant population in your area, you have human trafficking," Perez said.

Houston’s task force, the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA), is one of 38 in the country with a local law enforcement entity and a victim service organization funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The HRTA relies on the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the YMCA as grantees in this effort. Federal partners include the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of State Diplomatic Security, the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service. The task forces are charged with rescuing victims and prosecuting traffickers.

Houston is a hub for human trafficking because of its proximity to the Mexican border, its international airports, its diverse labor force and lack of zoning, said Edward Gallagher, Coordinator of the Houston Task Force and Deputy Chief in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Southern Texas.

In addition to the sex trade, human traffickers also use people for services and work. The HTRA investigated and prosecuted foreign nationals from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia for bringing Indonesian servants into this country and treating them as slaves and concubines.

Victims are afraid to come forward because many don’t know the language, don’t know how to use a phone or who to call, or fear deportation or police. Human traffickers also use intimidation tactics, such as beating of victims or threatening families members back home, or shooting their victims up with drugs to get them addicted.

"For victims who come in south of the border, many don’t even know where they are," Perez said. "The traffickers know the victims’ families and say bad things will happen to their family members. The worst ones are beaten. All these factors come into play."

Dottie Laster of The Bernando Kohler Center and Kathryn Griffin-Townsend of “We’ve Been There, Done That” work with the victims of human trafficking and have horror stories on how men, women and children are used.

Girls are approached in parks, arcades and malls in the U.S. and foreign countries and courted by older men, who encourage them to run away from home. Once under the pimp’s control, they are turned out to make money for the household. One man targeted an older, overweight teenager for six month before she ran away and tattooed her over her right breast. When she “aged out” of child prostitution at age 18, he sold her to another pimp for a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.

"It is just as lucrative as the weapons and drug trade," Perez said. "In fact, we find they use the same routes….Human beings are recyclable. As long as the woman is not pregnant, she can be used over and over and over again."

Laster is consulting on the Long Island serial murder case, which is now unfolding with up to 10 bodies discovered. She said the case stalled after four women who were prostituted were found and was recently reinvigorated. Law enforcement officials re-searched the area and found five or six more bodies, including that of an 18 month old child.

“We believe Megan was beaten,” said Laster of Megan Waterman one of the victims. “Her young daughter recalls being wrapped in blanket with her puppy and beaten. This missing mother was a hero. She died protecting her child.”

Laster is awaiting word about another prostitute, Shannan Gilbert, who may have been one of the victim. Gilbert called police for help from the area and was on the phone for 23 minutes pleading for her life. Police arrived 45 minutes later and didn’t find her.

Laster believes the murders are part of an organized human trafficking ring, and this is the dumping ground for problem prostitutes.

Griffin-Townsend, a former prostitute and drug addict, has turned her life around and now runs “We’ve Been There, Done That,” a Houston organization which helps to rehabilitate prostitutes on the streets. One of her clients is young woman, who was brought into the business by a U.S. soldier and passed around to military men, ranging in age from 22 to 55 years old. Another is a 12-year old girl who has had sex with 150 men.

"She just wanted someone to love," Griffin said.

"It destroys more lives than the victims," Laster said. "It destroys the community. It is a cancer."

Member of The Texas State University System