Documenting human trafficking victims in McLennan County remains an elusive task as officials dub the modern-day form of slavery a crime hidden in plain sight.
Partnerships between area agencies are gaining steam, though, as U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials announced last week at the McLennan County Commissioners Court meeting plans to launch a Waco-based office.
The news came three months after the department formalized a partnership with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, which allows two deputies to work in step with federal officials to catch individuals selling people for sex or forcing them into prostitution.
While many view human trafficking as moving people across the border, officials say, there are varying degrees, including the high number of sex trafficking crimes in McLennan County that agencies have partnered to stop.
Natalie Garnett, UnBound Waco assistant national director, said most people don’t want to admit sex trafficking is happening in Waco.
The crime is difficult to discuss and often hear about, Garnett said.
It’s important for the general public to be aware of the area’s situation, she said.
“If the whole community knows about it, I think we can collectively say, ‘This is not something we’re OK with,’ ” Garnett said.
UnBound works in prevention, professional training, survivor advocacy and community activism.
McLennan County Sheriff’s Capt. Bubba Collier and McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said the rate of sex trafficking incidents in McLennan County is high.
“I think it’s more than any of us think,” McNamara said.
“I do too,” Collier replied.
McNamara said when the department started stings in November 2014 he never dreamed of the responses detectives would get when they started posing as underage children online.
In three stings during the past year, the department arrested 94 people for human trafficking-related crimes.
People committing the crimes are from all walks of life, Collier said.
The criminals don’t just swoop up and destroy a young person’s life overnight. It’s a grooming process, Collier said.
He said it can start out as a young person answering an ad for a role in a movie or a modeling gig that slowly develops into selling the young person to others for sex or forcing them into pornography.
McNamara said it’s not just about prosecuting the criminals but trying to save a life.
“You get some of these girls that are so hard-core they will cuss you out and tell you to take a hike. And they like whoring. You’re not going to get them out of it, they just like that lifestyle. They’re making a lot of money. But the young girls that we know are basically victims of a pimp,” McNamara said. “So when we see a young girl working for a sorry character we’ll call UnBound and get them to come in and try to determine if that person is savable or salvageable, rather than throwing them in jail and sending them to prison. We try to save the young lady if at all possible. We have been successful in getting some of them.”
Awareness and education about the crimes happening next door is also a big push by Homeland Security in an effort to protect victims and bring traffickers to justice.
Brian Vicente, Homeland Security assistant special agent in charge in San Antonio, said working human trafficking cases is about more than punishing criminals. He said they put equal, if not more, weight into rescuing victims, getting them out of a situation and connecting them to resources to get them the help they need.
Since one agency can’t see everything, partnering with other organizations allows the department to broaden its scope and help more people, Vicente said.
With 26 offices domestically and more than 40 offices worldwide, Vicente said, the Interstate 35 corridor and Interstate 10 are some of the most widely used for transportation of victims. Many victims are fearful of coming forward, as traffickers have a way of instilling a mental constraint on the victims, allowing them to force, defraud or coerce the victims into the sex trade or forced labor, he said.
Many of the victims have experienced so much manipulation, whether through drugs, false promises or exploitation, they don’t realize they are a victim of trafficking or what’s happening to them, Garnett said. She said the organization works to help connect the individuals to resources that can help.
But they have to want it.
Garnett said for the past three years that she’s met with victims brought in by the sheriff’s office, she’s noticed one similarity.
“I am so surprised every time at how resilient these victims are,” Garnett said. “They have gone through so much and learned to survive.”
Garnett said she always expects the victim to be hostile or falling apart emotionally by the time she sees them. Instead, most of them are just lost, she said.
There’s so much deception and manipulation these victims experience, it leaves an often-lasting impact of neurological trauma, she said.
Often, Garnett said, when she meets with victims they are torn between two realities. One reality is the recognition that they want and need a better life, but the other is a strong bond they’ve developed toward the perpetrators.
Garnett said UnBound partnered with the sheriff’s office about a year ago to increase the effectiveness of its work. She said they respond to calls from the sheriff’s office to come meet with victims in hopes of offering them assistance to improve their lives.
Garnett said most of the teenage trafficking victims the group sees have a much older boyfriend, someone who has developed that relationship before exploiting the young person. Often, the young person has the partner’s name tattooed on them or a tattoo of a money bag, bar code or the word “daddy,” she said. Truancy issues are often a problem for victims, she said.
Every community struggles with sex trafficking, Garnett said. It may seem like the problem is growing and expanding, but it’s likely officials are beginning to recognize its existence more than before, she said.
“In the past three years, the awareness has skyrocketed,” Garnett said. “In the past year we’ve educated over 2,000 community members, reached more than 600 youth, trained 560 professionals.”
Vicente said there are other indicators community members can look for to find victims, for instance if a child or individual has stopped regularly attending school functions or church events or has become withdrawn. Signs also include the person always being accompanied by someone, or someone is always speaking for the victim, he said.
“Individually, it may not mean anything. Collectively, a person’s demeanor, like many things in our lives, tells a story,” Vicente said.
Residents can call Homeland Security’s hotline, or local or state authorities.
Vicente said for every person who may be identified or rescued, it’s unknown how many more are still out there. That’s why it’s considered a hidden crime.
“You can’t put a number on it,” he said. “The best way to combat it is the way we’re doing it through the task forces with these investigations.”
Collier said it’s important for community members to look after their children as well.
“As a parent, monitor your kids. Look at their phone. Look at what they’re watching on TV,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a parent.”
McNamara said there’s no way to shield children completely from the world.
“But you can do all you can to protect them from people like this. Warning them that there are people like this out there may save them,” McNamara said. “We try to get the word out that there are people like this out there preying on our young people. Hopefully, we’ll get the point across.”