Among the most profitable industries listed in the “Invest in Texas” brochure, one particularly lucrative business is omitted: human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings with commercial purposes such as sexual exploitation and forced labor. With revenues estimated by the United Nations near $32 billion, it is the second largest criminal activity in the world after drug trafficking.
Texas Senator Leticia Van de Putte hosted a panel discussion at the UTSA Downtown Campus, including police officers, attorneys, human rights experts and social workers. They discussed ways to enhance the fight against this type of organized crime.
The U.S. has become a pivotal point in the transportation and destination of the victims of human trafficking. Around 25 percent of all victims are brought and held here, deep in the heart of Texas. The I-10 corridor is considered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be one of the main places in the nation where cases of human trafficking occur.
“People don’t want to believe this is happening,” said Kirsta Melton, assistant district attorney for Bexar County. The activity is far more dramatic when the demographics of the victims are considered.
“More than half of the trafficked are children, especially girls,” said Van de Putte. “This is modern day slavery; it is an issue that people need to know about. Folks think this is only a problem of immigrants, when the fact is that 60 percent of the victims are runaways.”
A recent report by Children at Risk, an organization led by Dr. Bob Sanborn, reveals that 450,000 children in America run away from home each year, and one in three is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home.
Often, the vulnerable position of children towards strangers renders them helpless to respond to traffickers. “Most children don’t know that what is happening to them is illegal,” said Melton, to Christian Burchell, president of Texas Anti-Trafficking In Persons.
“These people use whatever they have in their means to force their victims into prostitution or unpaid work; sometimes they’ll threaten a girl with killing her little brother or her parents until she complies. Sooner than the girl realizes, she is being sold to strangers every night in a truck stop,” Burchell said.
“It is a very difficult crime to prosecute because often you have to convince the victim that she is a victim. The condition of many children is denial and often includes being dependent on drugs given by their traffickers,” Burchell said.
One of the cases Melton is currently working is a 13 year-old girl who accompanied an elderly woman to buy cocaine. She was held in a bathroom and sold for sex to regular customers for more than a week. One hard fact given by the panelists states that little girls are often sold eight to twelve times a night.
Aaron Barasa, an investigator from the Bexar County Human Trafficking Unit, thinks the fight against traffickers goes beyond patrolling southwest San Antonio. The Internet has become one of the main ways criminals advertise their victims. As police become better trained in online tracking, so do criminals.
Last September, Craigslist’s adult section was nationally censored. Some anti-trafficking groups considered the censorship as a victory; however, to Barasa and other panelists the success of this action is figurative.
“Where there is an action made by law enforcement, there is a reaction by the organized crime. There is always another website,” Barasa said.
“Whenever there is major event, such as conventions or big sports games, say the Super Bowl, there is a spur of web pages weeks before the event happens. In that way, those interested know beforehand which bars to go, whom to ask for, what is the code,” Burchell said.
Van de Putte said, “This is a very organized criminal industry.”
One factor that allows human trafficking to occur is social unawareness and common misconceptions about the circumstances in which the crime ensues. Pimping, for instance, is widely celebrated in popular culture.
“I don’t mean to bash the music industry, but the last hit songs are all about pimping,” said Burchell. In the past few years, terms associated with prostitution have been widely accepted and have found a place in the popular slang of many Americans.
This acquisition of gangster terms could well render trafficking to be seen, to a certain extent, as more normal than it really is.
Studies by several non-profit organizations concerning human trafficking have shown that the main reason potential witnesses do not report suspicious activity is that people think the victims are willfully involved.
The summit also gave insight on forced labor, which tends to be less common than sex trade. Burchell said that one of the main reasons human trafficking is still common is that every human being is capable of performing a task; a young man may be sold to a rancher as easily as a girl to a sex parlor.
Burchell said, “You don’t hear much about forced labor because sex trade is far more dramatic; however, people who are forced to work are being held captive right now. It is also a nightmare.”