“Houston is one of the nation’s worst areas when it comes to trafficking,” said Sergeant Antonio Gracia of the Houston Police department at the March Kingwood Positive Interaction Program (PIP) meeting and he explained there are many converging reasons for the magnitude of the activity here. They include but are not limited to being in proximity to Mexico’s border along with being the home of two international airports, a major seaport and the intersection of multiple interstate highways. In addition, Houston has a diverse labor sector, all within a big, bustling and sprawling community with a large immigration population.
Gracia explained the vice division investigates illegal gambling, including bookmakers, the use of gambling devices in local bars, areas of entertainment, and illegal casinos, illegal card games, carnivals and various other businesses. In addition, the vice division investigates escort services, massage parlors, modeling studios and topless clubs suspected as being fronts for prostitution. Its general vice squads are also responsible for conducting street prostitution stings in conjunction with the appropriate divisional tactical units. They investigate all forms of pornography and are also responsible for enforcing and investigating the city’s sexually oriented business (SOB) ordinance. Crimes involving human trafficking are spread throughout all vice division areas of responsibility. The Human Trafficking Task Force is a specialized part of the vice division that focuses on the challenges of investigating and enforcing the crimes of human trafficking.
“I’ve been with the vice division for at least 10 years doing everything from general enforcement both nights and days, special procedures and training and working on the Human Trafficking Task Force. Now I am the supervisor over the task force,” Gracia said. The HPD vice division is one of the largest in the nation as is its Human Trafficking Task Force.
Gracia described the specific crimes of human trafficking by quoting its definition from the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The act is federal law and human trafficking crimes are also federal crimes in addition to any other crimes with which they are associated when committed.
“Human trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for sex, labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or commercial sex or in which the person induced to perform such act is under the age of 18,” Gracia said.
The number of human trafficking crimes and their costs are massive. Gracia used Texas as his example with a chart depicting a recent year. It showed there were approximately 79,000 victims of sex trafficking and 234,000 victims of labor trafficking for a total of 313,000 victims and a cost to the State of Texas of $6.6 billion. Gracia pointed out most victims are usually not readily visible to the general public but there are “red flag” indicators which people can use to be alert to the possibility there may be human trafficking going on in plain sight.
Red flags for sex trafficking can be: visible unexplained injuries, branding with tattoos, sexually provocative clothing, an inability to make decisions without approval and possession of hotel keys, rolls of cash, multiple phones or refillable gift cards.
Red flags for labor trafficking can be: works excessively or long, unusual hours, living where workers work or in large groups, transportation of workers to and from work by their employer, identification documents held by a third party, workers not allowed or able to speak for themselves and fear of authorities.
Gracia closed his presentation by pointing out the best things to do to combat human trafficking are simple and easy to remember:
“See something? Say something. Do something,” he said. Gracia explained if one sees something that could be suspicious, say something. Try to determine if the person is or is not a victim. If so or you are still suspicious, do something. That something is to report the incident or your concern confidentially to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a national hotline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and able to communicate in 200-plus languages. The hotline is available by phone, text or online chat:
Text: “BeFree” (133733)
Live Chat: humantraffickinghotline.org
The Kingwood PIP meets the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Kingwood Church of Christ. The public is invited and encouraged to attend by its organizer and sponsor, the Kingwood Division of HPD.