Human trafficking, once a sporadic crime, has become a global phenomenon that reaches into local communities and connects with the worst elements of society.
In San Antonio and other communities, law enforcement officials are devoting increasing attention to these crimes of exploitation, often focusing on the perpetrators and victims of pervasive sex-trade operations.
“The community sees sex trafficking as prostitution; however, it is not,” said vice Detective George Segura, who works with a joint federal taskforce on sex trafficking.
“Prostitution is a choice, but trafficking is forced on the person,” he said.
Segura, a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, said much of the trafficking crosses national borders, with predators from the United States going to foreign countries to recruit, blackmail or otherwise coerce their victims into slave-like situations.
San Antonio’s location — almost the midpoint on the cross-country trek between the coasts — puts it in prime position for sex-trade perpetrators, he said.
In a 2011 report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights identified Interstate 10 as a major human trafficking route.
Roney Ochanna, a detective in the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, said traffickers often keep their victims on drugs to keep them from fighting back.
Ochanna said young victims often are vulnerable because they tend to trust adults who befriend them for the wrong reasons.
Data compiled by the federal government show a predictable profile of victims. Most are the age of 24; a large majority are female; and a majority are of ethnic or racial minority groups.
The data also show that most perpetrators are under 35, male and also come from ethnic or racial minority groups.
According to the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force’s report to the Texas Legislature in January 2011, 323 identified sex trafficking victims in Texas were younger than 18 years old.
In response to the findings of that report, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, introduced legislation in each house that would sentence those guilty of human trafficking offenses to life in prison, would allow courts to treat underage sex trafficking victims similarly to sexual assault victims and allow parents and guardians of victims to file a protective order against their child’s trafficker.
In addition, legislators successfully proposed bills that established two or more acts of human trafficking in a period of 30 days or more as a felony and exempted human trafficking from the statute of limitations.
In San Antonio, victims of sex trafficking have some alternatives once they are rescued from their perpetrators. One of those is the Rape Crisis Center, which has established a new program to help teens caught up in sex trafficking.
Carmen Vasquez, associate director of the center, said predators are very smart. “They’re looking for girls coming from broken homes, or who have financial needs,” she said. “They target them and start up a relationship with them.”
In many cases, Vasquez said, the youth targeted have little parental supervision because of work situations. This allows predators to seek out youth at malls or outside of schools and offer them something that develops a connection between the predator and the youth.
Once youths have become victimized, they require sustained counseling, which is difficult after placement in foster home environments or being returned to their families.
“We start off with one counselor so they can trust at least one to work out difficult things,” she said. During counseling, the victims try to recover the control in their lives, the control of their bodies, decisions and emotions.”
Vasquez said that without the provisions in place for victimized youth to stay safe, the chances of them becoming perpetual victims is high. “When people have been in an abusive situation for so many years,” she said. “They don’t know who to trust and can trust the very people who have control over you.”