September-October 2014

Why does human trafficking matter?

Rene Peña

District Attorney in Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle, and Wilson Counties

It is a crime against humanity. It is a crime against everything that we as human beings find most sacred. We all have the right not to be abused mentally or physically; not to be tortured, killed, or sexually assaulted; and not to be forced into a life of despair, pain, and torment. We all have the right to be safe and secure in our homes and in public. For those of us in law enforcement and prosecution, the issue is that human trafficking exists on a large scale and is difficult to detect and ultimately to prosecute.
    It matters because we are losing a generation of human beings. It matters because human trafficking is a significant part of the criminal enterprise model we fight every day. It generates millions of dollars for the enterprise.
    Anyone who has turned on a television in the last several months knows that the Texas border has seen an increase in immigrants crossing into the United States. Some of the immigrants are hard-working people looking for a better life, some are people fleeing from danger in their home country, some are criminal aliens trying to avoid detection by law enforcement, some are terrorists, and many are victims who need to be rescued. Most law enforcement in South Texas has encountered human smuggling or trafficking at some point in their career. However, how many of those people are actually being trafficked in Texas?
    Before we go any further, let’s distinguish between human smuggling and human trafficking. Human smuggling primarily involves transporting undocumented individuals into the United States for a fee.1 Essentially, a human being becomes cargo that a smuggler is paid to transport. Unfortunately, many of these individuals are threatened, tortured, and physically abused along their journey into the United States. In some instances the alien-smuggling operations demand more money to release the individuals from stash houses, force the individuals into involuntary servitude, or even worse, force the individuals to engage in sex acts with strangers for money to pay off their travel debt. As the debt keeps increasing, the smuggling victim has become a victim of human trafficking.    
    Human trafficking involves forcing another individual to engage in labor or prohibited sexual conduct through threats and coercion.2 Essentially, a human being becomes a product sold repeatedly by the trafficker. The business of human trafficking is real and exists here in Texas.  
    So you might be asking yourself, “Why do we have difficulty detecting the people involved in human trafficking?” First, there has been a lack of awareness that human trafficking exists. Texas has enacted more effective laws and has begun training law enforcement personnel on human trafficking and smuggling, but there are still many barriers to overcome. The general public may assume immigrants are coming to the United States to make more money and find a better life, but all too often the reality is that the victim’s dream of a better life will soon turn into a nightmare filled with abuse, mistreatment, and often times sexual assault.  Making detection even more difficult for law enforcement is that at first glance the victim appears to be going willingly with the smuggler or trafficker. Moreover, the victim rarely wants to engage in conversation with law enforcement because they fear deportation and retaliation from the traffickers. In some cases, a language barrier prevents the victim from communicating with law enforcement at all. All these factors combined make it difficult for law enforcement to combat this growing epidemic.  
    Although detection of human trafficking or smuggling can be difficult, law enforcement has found some successful strategies. Identifying the victim is the first step in this process. The second and critical part of this process is victim services. Examples of services are child advocacy centers, proper housing, medical services, and psychological services. As you may surmise, these victims are in many cases poor or displaced, making them ideal targets of a criminal enterprise. The most effective tool when combatting any organized criminal activity is the use of confidential informants and undercover officers. Once law enforcement recognizes a human trafficking operation, it is imperative that we gather intelligence on how the scheme is working, who is involved, and on what resources it depends. With such information, the State can obtain and effectively execute search warrants on locations involved in human trafficking.  More importantly, this intelligence helps the State identify victims from the perpetrators (because oftentimes a victim may “promote” into a recruiter and later into perpetrator role).  
    For an effective human trafficking and smuggling investigation, law enforcement must also remember our federal partners who can provide invaluable resources and assistance. The majority of the time, the victim will need immigration relief, and the State cannot proceed on a human trafficking case without a victim. Our federal partners can also provide assistance with search warrants, wiretaps, court orders, and the detection of fraudulent documents. In addition, many of these investigations will lead to criminal organizations operating in multiple jurisdictions.  
    In 2011, our office prosecuted a case that started out as human smuggling and turned into an aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault. Juan, the victim in the case, made his way from Honduras to Nuevo Laredo, where he paid a man $3,000 in advance to bring him across the Rio Grande River. Juan, along with 10 other men and one woman, walked from the border until they were picked up and placed like cordwood in the bed of a pickup truck for transportation.  Juan said the woman in his party was either sick or drugged and was kept isolated from the rest of the immigrants with the smugglers. They were all taken to a compound made up of three mobile homes in a rural area near Poteet, where they were all slowly transported on to further destinations. Because Juan had paid in advance, his smugglers decided they could get more money from his family and kept him in a locked room for almost three weeks. The smugglers periodically called Juan’s family to demand more money, but there wasn’t any more.  
    Eventually, Juan saw an opportunity to escape when the door to his room was left unlocked. He ran from the room and jumped out a front window of the mobile home.  Unfortunately, a meeting of numerous men was occurring outside and Juan was immediately caught. He was kicked and beaten unconscious. Juan woke up to hear the men talking about disposing of his dead body, and when the men moved away from him, Juan picked up his broken, bleeding body and ran to a neighbor’s house for help. The neighbor called law enforcement and officers came to the scene. Law enforcement called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as the agency was known then, for assistance. Local law enforcement parked down the road from the compound and watched vehicle after vehicle leave the scene. Law enforcement believed it was too dangerous for them to approach. More importantly, they believed the case was now a federal matter, so they waited for ICE to arrive. ICE had to assemble its team and drive at least a half hour to get to the compound, so by the time they got there, only the women and children residents remained at the scene. Local law enforcement believed ICE was handling the entire case; ICE agents knew they were there only to handle a smuggling case. Consequently, no evidence was recovered from the three mobile homes and the area surrounding them—no photographs or videos were taken, no blood from the ground or glass was sampled, and no one was even certain which of the windows had burglar bars on them.  Fortunately, Juan recovered from his injuries and made an excellent witness for the State. The jury returned guilty verdicts on aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault charges. The defendant in the case was sentenced to 60 years and 20 years, respectively, for those charges.   The prosecutor spoke with the jury after the trial and most jurors pointed out what was painfully obvious: that there had been no communication between the agencies, merely assumptions about what each agency would do.  
    What did we discover during this trial? That law enforcement needs to be better trained on how to handle these types of cases, that local law enforcement has to understand the roles of the different federal agencies, and that communication between agencies is key. Had Juan not been such a strong witness, this defendant would have walked. Incidentally, during the course of this investigation, we also discovered that the defendant, who had been voluntarily deported numerous times, had been sexually assaulting his wife’s little sister for years. He pled to 50 years on that case.
    You may be asking yourself, “Why would criminal organizations be involved in human trafficking?” Criminal organizations exist to make money. Mexican cartels have historically been involved in human trafficking and smuggling, and as part of the trafficking and smuggling operations, the cartels have built a partnership with Texas prison gangs to further the cartels’ smuggling activities. It is difficult to provide statistics on these criminal organizations’ involvement with human trafficking since we have only recently begun to document human trafficking cases, but what we do know is that the individual members of the gangs have been attracted to the easy money associated with human trafficking. According to the 2014 Gang Threat Assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety, members from Barrio Azteca, Black Gangster Disciples, Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Sureños, and Tango Blast have all been involved in human trafficking in Texas.
    As long as there is a demand for forced sex, criminal organizations will work to supply the victims. Trafficking provides a high return on a perpetrator’s investment. The victim can be sold multiple times a day, every day, for years on end. According to statistics reported to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the drug trade in Texas in 2012 profited over $1.24 billion. According to the 2014 Human Trafficking Assessment by the Texas Department of Public Safety, an individual human trafficker with only two victims could earn between $1,120 and $8,960 per week, which translates to $53,760 to $430,080 per year.3 According to the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, an individual trafficker in Dallas could earn $12,025 a week, or $577,200 per year.4 If an individual trafficker can make around half a million dollars annually, we can only imagine the revenue the human trafficking trade makes as a whole every year in Texas. With such high profits, low risk of detection, and renewable resources, the human trafficking trade will continue to grow.
    So in the end, dealing with trafficking or smuggling requires a comprehensive approach where the vested institutions, whether they be law enforcement, prosecution, victim services, or federal partners, collaborate to effectively detect, investigate, and prosecute human trafficking.


1 See Texas Penal Code §20.05.  
2 See Texas Penal Code §20A.02.
3 See Texas Department of Public Safety 2014 Human Trafficking Assessment.
4 The Urban Institute, “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities,” March 2014.