Hidden in Plain Sight

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Human Trafficking and Slavery in Central Texas

Investigative Report by Shelley Seale

The boy was 16 years old. His sister was 14. They had run away from an abusive home in Oregon and somehow ended up in Texas. The siblings first came to the attention of authorities when “David,” the brother, was arrested for prostitution and drug possession. Severe health problems required him to be transferred from jail to the university hospital in San Antonio.

There, David’s attending physician was appalled by the extent of injuries she discovered. In addition to being malnourished and exhibiting multiple old injuries that could only have resulted from years of chronic abuse, he suffered from significant fresh, internal injuries that required surgery to resection his bowels. Once he was treated and stabilized, David was scheduled to be reincarcerated, but the doctor couldn’t, in good conscience, send him back to prison. She knew David’s injuries were not self-inflicted or accidental—all the signs showed he had been brutally victimized.

Leticia Van de Putte
Leticia Van de Putte

That day in 2006, the telephone rang on the desk of State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). The senator, who is currently serving her fifth term, was aware of human trafficking related to border smuggling and she was already working on legislation to address it when she took the call that would forever change her perception of the issue.

“I don’t know who else to call,” David’s doctor told the senator, who revealed details about the boy’s life leading up to his arrest. He and his sister had both been targeted by exploiters who coerced them into prostitution through psychological manipulation, physical violence, and forced drug use. The trump card was his sister; the abusers threatened to hurt her if David resisted or tried to flee.

“That made me so violently ill,” Van de Putte says. “Before that, I thought trafficking was the same as smuggling: it was a business transaction, and it only happened in conjunction with illegal immigration. There was a false sense of security. It was something that happened in the Third World, not in democracies. It doesn’t happen right here with our own kids.”

Van de Putte’s misperceptions were stripped away that day. Like many of us she had no idea that human trafficking takes place in our own country, our own neighborhoods, by the thousands, every single day. It’s not something that just happens in places like Thailand or Africa or Central America. It’s a very real problem in the United States, a thriving industry that not only ensnares immigrants but huge numbers of Americans as well.

“The big myth is that (the victims are) all foreigners or illegal, but that’s not true. The majority are domestic kids,” Van de Putte says. “No one who lives in the United States wants to think there is modern slavery going on today, in their own communities.”

Human trafficking pervasive

Slavery is often thought of as something from ancient history. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.” The Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1865. Today, slavery is universally illegal everywhere in the world—yet it still exists everywhere in the world, as underlined by a comprehensive 392-page Trafficking In Persons Report issued in June 2009 by the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that approximately 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States annually and the numbers of U.S. citizens trafficked domestically are even higher: Nearly two-thirds of victims of sex trafficking in the United States are U.S. citizens. Experts have estimated that from 100,000 to 300,000 children each year are victimized in prostitution in America, according to The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children, issued in May 2009 by Shared Hope International.

Twenty-five percent of all human trafficking victims are in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These victims end up in sweatshops, domestic servitude, restaurants, construction, agricultural labor, and the commercial sex industry, which includes prostitution, pornography, massage parlors, exotic dancing, and live-sex shows.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second-largest criminal industry, after the drug trade, although according to the FBI, trafficking in persons has become the number one criminal industry.

Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but whichever official statistic you want to accept, all agencies agree on one very troubling fact: human trafficking is by far the fastest-growing criminal enterprise.

Profit the motive

“You sell a gun once and that inventory is gone,” says Austin Police Department Sgt. Ruben Fuentes. “With drugs, you use it once and it’s gone. With a person, she can be used over and over and over again. There’s a lot more money in that commodity. That’s why so many criminals are moving from dealing drugs or guns to the sex trade and human trafficking.”

Fuentes has supervised the APD’s Human Trafficking Unit for the past eight months, since it was created after last year’s passage of House Bill 4009. The bill was written by Sen. Van de Putte and Rep. Randy Weber (R-Pearland) after a less comprehensive bill passed in the 2007 session that did not require establishment of a task force or training for law enforcement personnel.

“There was a lot of resistance when I first started working on these issues,” Van de Putte says. “The attitude was one of denial; people looked at me like I was crazy. They said, ‘This just doesn’t happen here, and if it does it’s with illegals, so why do we care?’ Law enforcement (personnel) said they didn’t need to be trained. There was a lot of resistance, but I’ve seen a complete turnaround since then.”

HB 4009 created a major statewide Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force presided over by the Attorney General. The task force includes representatives of the governor’s office and numerous state agencies, as well as health care workers, social workers, and law enforcement agencies. The bill created training programs for judges, prosecutors, victim service providers, medical service providers, and law enforcement personnel. It also created a method of funding awareness campaigns.

“Once that law passed, human trafficking hotline calls from Texas went up by 60 percent,” Van de Putte says. “That shows how much it was needed.”

The legislation also addresses the needs of minors and domestic victims. Rep. Weber’s office reports that 18,000 children enter the sex trade in Texas every year, and the majority of those are female runaways between the ages of 12 and 15.

Randy Weber
Randy Weber

“People need to know that no matter where they live, or how safe they think it is, this is going on all around us,” Weber says. “One of the things I was really shocked to learn was that experts estimate there are more human slaves right now in the United States, than there ever was back at the height of the (transatlantic) slave trade.”

The young domestic victims are mostly like David and his sister—runaways and throwaways, kids who have left behind years of abuse and trauma only to be victimized all over again. They are vulnerable and easily manipulated by those who “befriend” them, offering food and shelter and, of course, a job.

The National Runaway Switchboard, a federally designated national communication system for runaway and homeless youth, estimates that more than 90 percent of runaways have been sexually abused in the past; they have no one to trust except the person who is selling them for money.

Wende Hilsenrod of Texas Association Against Sexual Assault trains law enforcement and other agencies who work with victims. She reports an even more disturbing trend: “High school boys are becoming the pimps and perpetrators more and more,” she says. “It’s kids who used to deal drugs, but there’s more money in this.”

In Fort Worth in 2008, several teenage gang members were arrested for forcing girls as young as 12 into a prostitution ring, targeting runaways and those with unstable homes. The girls were gang-raped as initiation, and if they refused they were beaten and their families or friends threatened. The gang members were charged with compelling prostitution but, because of a plea bargain, human trafficking charges were dropped. The perpetrators will be free by their nineteenth birthdays. It was later discovered that the gang members and their victims had been held at the same juvenile detention center.

Fraud, force or coercion

So where does that line cross from prostitution into human trafficking? Sgt. Fuentes says that the three elements of trafficking are fraud, force, and coercion.

“Slavery—some form of forced labor—is the element that defines human trafficking,” he says, whether that is the sex trade or some other work. Though trafficking may often be thought of in relation to crossing borders, it’s not defined by distance traveled. “Smuggling can become trafficking, but it’s not necessarily a component.”

All of the experts seem to agree that prostitution is almost always trafficking, because it virtually always involves fraud, force or coercion of the victim by the pimp. “When you thoroughly investigate the situation, there is no such thing as a prostitute,” Hilsenrod says. In fact, she and every other expert contacted said they have never come across a commercial sex worker who was not in some way manipulated, abused or otherwise forced into the business—and of course, all of their earnings are kept by their traffickers.

Why, then, are the victims of trafficking so often the only ones who are arrested and criminalized? Perhaps the most shocking example of this disturbing aspect is the case of “B.W.,” a 13-year-old girl who was arrested in Houston in 2007 after she waved down an undercover police officer and offered him oral sex for $20. B.W. was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile lockdown facility. Meanwhile, her 32-year-old pimp walked away with no charges, despite the fact that physical examinations of B.W. revealed several STDs, multiple abortions, and other injuries.

According to Texas law, a minor under the age of 17 cannot legally consent to sex. Any sexual act conducted with a minor in Texas is considered statutory rape. Even if the minor seems willing, a child is easily influenced by adults. Therefore, it seems inconsistent that the same minor who cannot legally consent to sex can be charged for a sex crime, while the adults who are selling and buying that sex are rarely prosecuted. If no money changed hands, these adults would likely be considered rapists and pedophiles; yet these prostituted victims are just as traumatized.

Robert Sanborn
Robert Sanborn

“The courts are drawing some fine lines in regards to prostitution,” says Robert Sanborn, Ph.D., president and CEO of Houston-based Children at Risk, an organization that helped write the 2009 anti-trafficking bill. “These pimps are really traffickers of domestic children. It’s not teenage prostitution. But there’s still some gray area in terms of the law, because we have one law that says it’s illegal for you to have sex with a child under the age of 17, but at the same time they’re prosecuting some of these teenagers. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s one of the things we’re going to try and clear up in the next legislative session. It seems superfluous to have to write a law that strengthens another law already in existence.”

The Texas Supreme Court eventually overturned B.W.’s conviction. But criminalizing prostitutes instead of prosecuting their traffickers, and the customers who fuel the market, continues. Sgt. Fuentes and Lt. Gerardo Gonzalez of the APD openly discuss how difficult it is to find, let alone prosecute, either the pimps or johns.

HB 4009 amended the Penal Code, Chapter 20A, to make trafficking of persons a second-degree felony, and makes it a first-degree felony if the person trafficked is a child younger than 18 at the time of the offense—regardless of whether the actor knows the age of the child at the time the actor commits the offense—or the commission of the offense results in the death of the person who is trafficked.

Despite the fact that the penalties are stiff, law enforcers say it’s difficult to prosecute traffickers.

“The biggest frustration for law enforcement is getting the victims to talk,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of people in that predicament are very transient—they’ve been moved around, they’ve been isolated from the rest of the world. They don’t know who they can trust, it’s just word on the street.”

The victims have also been brainwashed and threatened by their traffickers, and coached very well on what to do when picked up by authorities.

“First we have to find the pimp, and then we have to get the victim to talk—which is the hardest part,” Fuentes says. “We have no case if we have no victim.”

Many victims are illegal immigrants who face language and cultural barriers. They may believe law enforcement is corrupt, or fear deportation because of their illegal status. But Gonzalez stresses that immigration has no bearing on these investigations.

“A victim is a victim; your status as a citizen has nothing to do with it,” Gonzalez says, regarding the procedures for police investigations.

Help for victims snarled in law

The Austin Police Department works with many social service agencies that are part of the task force created by the 2009 legislation, to provide benefits and resources for the victims.

It’s possible that foreign victims of trafficking could be allowed to stay in the United States indefinitely as a refugee on a T Visa, and even be joined by their families if they have complied with any reasonable request for assistance in the investigation or prosecution of acts of trafficking, according to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Minors under the age of 15 do not have to comply with such requests to be eligible for a T visa.

For both international and domestic victims, the needs are great and the resources few, especially safe houses and specialized services.

“Funding and services available to each victim run out in about 18 months,” Hilsenrod says. “Often the police cases themselves last much longer than that.”

Another glaring contradiction is the fact that most resources to help victims are available only for those charged with a crime. “You have to criminalize them in order to get the victims away and safe, and get them help.”

Sanborn of Children at Risk echoes Hilsenrod’s frustration.

“You have to get arrested to get any sort of treatment; yet the more that Children at Risk works to decriminalize this, the less chance that we will be able to help them. It’s sort of the conundrum we have. We know they’re victims, but we have to say they’re not the victims, they’re criminals, in order to treat them.”

The Office of the Attorney General released a report to the 81st Legislature (2009), The Texas Response to Human Trafficking. The report contained 46 recommendations to combat human trafficking, one of which is reducing both supply and demand of human commodities. Rep. Weber is frank in his assessment: “The john needs to go to jail, in my opinion.”

Law enforcement lacks resources

When asked why the Austin Police Department doesn’t go after the customers more aggressively, Lt. Gonzalez’s answer focuses mostly on the extreme lack of manpower, and the need to close the supply at the top levels. “Hiring a prostitute is a misdemeanor, not a major crime,” he says. “…we could have the entire Austin police force working on this, and it wouldn’t be enough.”

Lack of public awareness and reporting is also a problem. Because trafficking is such a hidden crime, law enforcement often doesn’t know where to look unless people report suspicious activity. In June 2010 a brothel at an apartment complex in North Austin was busted; the women in the apartment were being switched out every week, held captive there, and forced to have sex with eight to 10 men a day. Fuentes says that after the raid, many neighbors told officers they had thought something strange was going on. “They all saw men coming in and out constantly, but no one reported anything.”

America’s dirty little secret is that the Internet is a major vehicle for trafficking and commercial sex. Many children and enslaved prostitutes are sold through the Internet, which provides an unfettered playground for predators. The popular website Craigslist has come under fire but has made efforts to screen its adult services ads. These ads are expected to earn a third of Craigslist’s revenue this year, more than $36 million, according to the research group AIM, cited by CNN in an August 4 report.

But the argument offered by this site, like others, is that responsibility for content placed in the public forum does not rest on the website owners. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster responded to CNN by writing an opinion piece in which he claims Craigslist does its part by requiring phone verification for each adult service ad, offering anti-exploitation resources, and fully cooperating with law enforcement agencies.

Yet here in Austin alone, the police department has rescued several victims located through Craigslist and another website, Backpage, where commercial sex can be ordered as easily as a pizza delivery.

“There are even websites that have ratings systems,” Fuentes says. The “customers” trade information on the best places to go, tell exactly what can be gotten for what prices, and coldly rate the product the same way restaurants are rated on Yelp. One such site has an entry in which the poster writes, “The choices of women were not great (too thin, too ugly, too fat). She was noticeably un-enthusiastic. A waste of money.”

In a time when sex offenders are tracked and pedophiles are feared, thousands of times a day men pay to have sex with enslaved children. When caught, “They’ll say, she told me she was 18,” Fuentes says. “She looked 18.” That’s no bar to prosecution, however, as police can file the charges and leave it to the district attorney’s office to decide how to dispose of the case.

Even when the prostituted victim is of legal age, customers create the demand, not seeing or caring about the signs that show enslavement and abuse.

Sgt. Keith Suitt, the new supervisor for APD’s Human Trafficking Unit who is taking over for Fuentes, says the tolerant mind-set about prostitution can be one of the toughest hurdles to overcome. “People believe it’s a victimless crime,” he says. Yet how is it a victimless crime when everyone involved in ending it tells you they’ve never seen a sex worker who wasn’t victimized?

If people could see behind the scenes at what has happened to the young, wrecked lives of the Davids and the B.W.s, if they could see the faces of their own children in these faces, they might not think the transaction of sex for money was such a victimless one after all.

“We have a lot more to worry about than the known pedophiles,” Hilsenrod warns,“it’s these unknown, hidden traffickers who are much more of a threat.”

This Investigative Report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The Austin Bulldog has many other investigative projects waiting to be funded. You can bring these investigations to life by making a tax-deductible contribution.