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Trafficked: Web of Despair
WESLACO - Human trafficking can be happening right in front of us. But identifying the crime and building a case against the trafficker is a challenge facing multiple law enforcement agencies.
“We all know it’s a problem. We just don’t know how big of a problem it is,” said Sheldon Zhang, a sociology professor at San Diego State University.
There’s no comprehensive data to provide numbers. Victims don’t self-identify for many reasons, including fear of retaliation.
“These people are threatened, beaten. Their family members back home are threatened,” said FBI Special Agent Alfred T. Tribble Jr.
Human trafficking in the U.S. isn’t limited to foreign nationals. There are domestic victims of labor and sex trafficking.
And as the case of one Corpus Christi girl shows, it can even happen within families. “I know I was being trafficked by my mother. That she wasn't stopping the abuse and she was fully aware of it,” the victim said.
WEB EXTRA: Special Human Trafficking web section
Several branches of federal law enforcement investigate human trafficking. The CIA, the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security all work together in fusion centers.
The FBI alone increased its caseload 274 percent from 2009 to 2012. Despite the number of investigations and the law enforcement resources, it’s difficult to build a case against a human trafficker.
The CHANNEL 5 NEWS I-Team spent almost a year uncovering challenges law enforcement faces, talking to trafficking victims and discovering ways the public can help identify crime that may be happening right in front of them.
It’s been decades since Araceli Herrera was held against her will and forced to work in a home. She admitted it’s still very difficult to talk about. “I try to don't remember that,” she said.
As a young girl, she grew up in crushing poverty in Mexico. As an adult, she made a one-way journey from Mexico City to the United States. She was robbed of her money along the way, but Herrera still pushed ahead.
In Matamoros, she met a coyote who told her she could work cleaning a home in Odessa and use the money to pay him back. She made multiple attempts to cross the river.
“It was very dangerous. Almost we die in there,” she recalled.
Border Patrol agents repeatedly caught her and returned her to Mexico. On the Fourth of July in 1990, Herrera successfully made it into the U.S.
Herrera was in a group with several others who made it to Harlingen. They were supposed to leap onto a moving train, but Herrera was too scared to make the jump. She was left behind and alone.
She said she didn’t have any idea where to go. “No others, no family, nobody. I know nobody,” she said.
Herrera started walking north along Highway 77. She met two men who also crossed illegally from Mexico. They trekked for days through summer heat and the brush, around the checkpoint. They eventually made it to the town of Sarita.
Herrera hid under a house, while the two men she met went to make a phone call from a store. The men never returned.
Eventually compelled by hunger and thirst, Herrera knocks on the door of another nearby home. A man answered, and that chance meeting began her descent into terror and anguish.
“I said, 'Sir, can I get some water please?’ He took me very hard and getting me inside the house,” she said.
The man gave her food and water, but he would not let her leave. He told her no, because she owed him for the food.
Herrera said the man blocked the front door and pushed her. “I feel really sad and scared, because I can't go,” she told us.
Herrera soon learned why she was being held against her will. She recalled, “He was very angry with me, talking very aggressive to me. ‘Give me the telephone number. I'm going to call to your family. You have to pay me. You cannot go. No until you pay me.’”
When the man was unable to reach Herrera's mother in Mexico, he forced her to write a letter.
Herrera remembered writing, “Mom, somebody got me. I am in Texas, but I don't exactly. The town is Sarita. And mom can you get some money and send the money. I tell you how. He's watching me, because he knows Spanish."
The money never came. Herrera said as days dragged into weeks she wondered if she’d ever be able to leave.
She said her captors forced her to keep cleaning, and she was only able to rest when she ate. Herrera considered running away, but she said everything was locked.
A process of dehumanization started. She was forced to sleep on the floor. Her captors only referred to her by one name – mojada. It’s the Spanish word for “wetback,” a derogatory term for someone who just swam across the river illegally.
Herrera said she waited for her chance to escape. After almost two months, the moment finally came.
One night her captors got drunk. The man took Herrera with him to a store to buy more beer. As they tried to get back inside, the man's wife began yelling in a jealous rage. At that moment, a Border Patrol agent passed by.
Fearing what could happen, the man ran. Herrera ran also. She began crawling through some nearby brush.
She remembered him calling out to her, “Mojada, mojada, back here, back here.”
Herrera said she stayed on the ground and tried to stay quiet; however, every noise she heard scared her. “I said no, no no, they can't find me,” she told us.
She hid all night in the brush. Then, she followed the sounds to the highway.
“I was in shock,” Herrera said.
She added her shock in escaping was replaced by the shock of once again not knowing where she was. “I am again in nowhere,” she remembered thinking.
Herrera hitched a ride to San Antonio. She began working as a house cleaner and married a U.S. citizen. It took her seven more years to return to Mexico to see her mother.
“I was so happy. I hug her and tell her, ‘Mom, all your talk with God helped me in this long way and when I was kidnapped.’ And my mom cry, cry, cry a lot,” she said.
Herrera still remembers the location of the house where she was held captive. She showed it to the CHANNEL 5 NEWS I-Team on a map.
Last year, she returned to Sarita with a Spanish-language news crew to confront her captors. “I feel something here you know, scared or angry for that happened to me,” she said.
“He said, ‘I no remember you. I don't know you.’”
“Yes, you remember me,” Herrera replied.
After a quarter of a century, the ordeal still haunts her. “I have nightmares about to remember cleaning. Cleaning and cleaning and cooking,” she told us.
Herrera said she is now happy for the first time in her life, in spite of the lingering scars. She thinks her story is far from unique. Herrera said she believes she was not the only prisoner of Sarita.
The chance of a lifetime nearly cost “Mary” her life. “I don’t even know how to speak to (my parents) or explain to my children what happened to me,” she told us.
“Mary” lived in Nicaragua, but she was promised a job at a restaurant in the U.S. “They offered me a lot of good things, and I said it would be a good future for my kids,” she recalled.
“They took me to Guatemala. Then, we traveled through Mexico, then to the United States. I got here through Matamoros,” she explained.
Her trip to the U.S. almost ended at the border. “There were four women, and immigration from the United States caught us. They detained us for about four months, but we didn’t tell them where we were going, because they didn’t ask where we were headed or who brought us over,” she said.
Immigration officials let her go with the promise she would show up for court. A charity in Brownsville helped buy her a ticket to her destination, which was Houston. “Mary” didn’t know she was headed to enslavement.
“When we got there, they picked us up. They took us to Wal-Mart, I remember, and they bought us clothes,” she said. “It was low-cut clothes.”
About 40 to 50 women were in a group with her. “Mary” said she realized the promised work wouldn’t be for a normal restaurant.
“They were short skirts, short blouses and high-heeled shoes,” she told us.
“Mary” was trapped in the sex slave trade. After the clothes came the threats.
“I had my cell phone, but they took it away from me,” she said.
She knew no one. She didn’t know the area and couldn’t speak the language. Her trafficker knew her family in Nicaragua. He had all the power.
The restaurant “Mary” worked at was a bar. The girls working had two jobs: get people drunk and have sex with anyone who paid.
“A bunch of women got beat. They would humiliate us. They treated us like trash. They had us secluded in a home,” she told us.
Help seemed far away. Trust was non-existent. Bar patrons included dirty cops.
“Police would sometimes go by. (The pimp) thought he was immune,” she said.
“Mary” was trafficked for about a year and a half.
She said sex every night led to other problems.
“Many women would become pregnant, and they would force them to abort. There was one person in charge of all of that,” she said.
Backdoor abortions put the women’s lives at greater risk. A former midwife performed them in an apartment. No doctors were present.
“Mary” said the women who underwent abortions were forced to return to work after two or three days. One woman almost died.
“We all have different stories, because we all suffered in different ways,” said “Mary.” “Some suffered more. Some just couldn't take it. They would try to kill themselves.”
“Mary” said woman who crossed into the U.S. last summer during the border surge could be in the same situation right now.
Human trafficking takes many forms. Sometimes the people exploiting the victims are the ones who should protect them.
“I had been trained from a very young age,” said “Linda.” “It went from just sexual abuse and fondling to pornography, taking videos and photos, bringing other men.”
“Linda” said from the time she was just six years old until the age of 12, her mother's boyfriend offered her to strange men. According to “Linda,” those men would knock almost nightly on the door of their home in an upscale Corpus Christi neighborhood.
“For a long time, that's what I thought I was for… I was for these men,” she told us.
“I would know if we were going to the island that there were wealthy people, and there would be a party or something that I would be prepared to be with men when we got there.”
“Linda” said her mother's boyfriend gained financially from the exploitation. He also got favors and special privileges. “I know that there were men that had hunting lodges and fishing boats and so we would be on those boats or at those lodges,” she told us.
Her victimization at the hands of predators included a heartbreaking twist. “Linda” said her mother knew exactly what was going on.
“She didn't necessarily receive like a check or a stack of cash, but we had a very comfortable lifestyle,” said “Linda.”
At age 12, she ran away from home. As an adult, she was involved with drugs and prostitution. “Linda” was trafficked again.
“I wasn't able to make him any money and so he didn't want a lot of money for me,” she recalled. “So I think it was $250 that he sold me to him for, and it made me feel awful. It made me feel worthless.”
“Linda” said, “In the back of my head was always constantly the abuse and my childhood and the level of shame and guilt.”
“Linda” said religion and a personal relationship with God has helped heal her life.
All human trafficking is hard to spot and hard to prosecute. San Juan police are working to build a trafficking case against a local man. The investigation will take months, maybe a year.
The case started when a woman called 911 asking for help. “She said she was held against her will for the last seven months at a house in San Juan,” explained Sgt. Rolando "Rollie" Garcia of the San Juan Police Department.
According to police, the woman crossed from Mexico into the Mission area. At a stash house, two men sexually assaulted her. She was separated from the group. One of the smugglers took her to his home.
“She says she wasn't allowed to leave the residence. … She said the few times she did leave were to go see the doctor for the pregnancy,” explained Garcia.
Police said the woman got pregnant after becoming a personal sex slave. She had no connection to the outside world other than her smuggler and a person abusing her at the home.
Then, one night, the smuggler left the home and left his phone behind. Garcia said, “We don't know if the smuggler let his guard down or if he became confident that she wouldn't do anything.”
The woman immediately called 911.
“When we walked into the house, you could see a big sense of relief come over her,” recalled Garcia. “You could see it in her body language. … Once she got (to the police station), she broke down crying, and she knew she was safe.”
“She was thanking officers for bringing her out of that situation. We cannot imagine what she was put through,” he told us.
Garcia said officers have a duty and responsibility to have her captor face charges. San Juan police have a smuggling case for now with kidnapping and assault charges. They'll have to prove trafficking.
A trafficking case must show a commercial sex act or forced labor. Police said this victim was a personal sex slave.
“Anytime that someone is brought over to be a servant upon someone's individual needs, sexual or if they work to clean house... You're not allowed to bring someone over to be at your beck and call,” explained Garcia.
The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement both investigate trafficking. They work with local agencies. Federal officials said human trafficking happens across the Rio Grande Valley.
It happens in quiet neighborhoods. A man and woman in Mission held three Honduran sisters as slaves. The couple owned El Paraiso Bar. That’s where they forced the sisters to work as waitresses. The girls were 17, 15 and 14 years old.
Forced labor turned into forced sex. The bar owner was eventually arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the San Juan trafficking case is still under way. Garcia said, “Our role, as local law enforcement, is to make sure that we help out as much as possible… at the levels we can.”
A 71-year-old woman was the boss at a dirty, dank house of prostitution in Houston. People knew her as "Tencha."
The CHANNEL 5 NEWS I-Team visited the building. The first level includes a bar. The next floor includes several rooms, including a breaker room, where someone placed a bed to accommodate more clients. Ragged sheets and condoms are still scattered on the floor.
Pimps recruited their sex slaves by convincing them they were in love. Once they arrived at the home, the threats began.
The people trapped inside the rooms were girls as young as 14. The FBI found out about the place when a girl got pregnant and managed to escape.
“Mary,” a trafficking victim in another case, said this sex house worked the same as hers.
“All of those people that they bring, those women, we are brought under a lie,” she said. “All of us who come here, we come for only one purpose - to help our families. That’s where they take advantage, so they can do whatever they wish with us.”
Broken trust turned into shame and fear. “Mary” said the traffickers work with lots of people.
“It’s not just one person that works in that. I always had fear,” she explained.
“Mary” knows of one case where a trafficker ordered a victim’s home burned down with the family inside.
“Mary” escaped her torture during an asthma attack. Her trafficker took her to the hospital. She ran away from there.
Still unfamiliar with the language and the city, “Mary” went underground and lived a life hidden in the shadows.
Going back to Nicaragua wasn’t an option. She was on her own. She eventually got another job. “Mary” watched other people's children to make money for her own.
Eventually, authorities arrested the man who trafficked her. “When I found out that they had caught him and caught all of those people, I didn’t show my face. I didn’t want to know absolutely anything. I wanted to start from zero. I had a job as a babysitter. I was fine. I was surrounded by people who would support me. I didn’t want to know anything. I didn’t want to return to this,” she told us.
“Mary” worked quietly for eight years. One day, she ran into another trafficking victim she knew. The other victim explained how she got a trafficking visa. A person who is a human trafficking victim may be allowed to stay in the U.S.
“Mary” had an opportunity to bring her children to the United States. The desire to have her children with her took “Mary” to the authorities. She started her process nearly a decade after her trafficker’s arrest.
Trafficking victims rescued are at risk of being victimized again. “Coming from the sex industry, the victims, the survivors, sometimes feel they have no value, they don’t know how to do anything else,” said Rachael Alvarez, a case worker at YMCA Houston.
The organization’s Trafficked Persons Assistance Program helps adults and minors identified as victims. The program was an eye-opener for the counselor herself.
“Once I was aware of human trafficking… I started thinking of my experiences as a teenager, as a child, as a family, and I think we knew somebody who was a victim. We knew someone who was a trafficker,” said Alvarez.
The counselor told us she was surprised to hear familiar streets and places when speaking to trafficking victims. “The flea market that I used to go to, the supermarket that I used to go to, the washateria… It was all around me, and I never noticed,” she said.
“You’ve got karaoke bars, restaurants, and you have apartment complexes that sometimes serve as brothels. You have your sexually oriented businesses and strip clubs that serve as a mask for the human trafficking problem. We want to educate law enforcement and the public,” said FBI Special Agent Alfred T. Tribble Jr.
“Businesses that have blacked out windows, and it’s a spa. Or they have double-doors and it’s locked. There might be something going on. We want people to contact law enforcement.”
“Mary,” a sex trafficking victim, said she can move forward now that her traffickers are paying for their crimes. She told us she hopes victims who suffered more than she did can also find peace.
She added if she were better informed of the possible dangers, she wouldn’t have traveled to the U.S. She wants to warn others.
“I think we need better communication with those people. We need to talk to them, show them the signs of false promises that are made, that not everything is good, that not everything is the color pink, the way they paint it,” she said.
The CHANNEL 5 NEWS I-Team visited “Mary” on a special day. For the first time in 10 years, she got to see her children.
“It's an emotion that’s inexplicable,” she told us. “One thinks… you left them as babies and you're still going to see them as babies.”
Her children are now teenagers. “Mary” missed a decade of their lives.
“I don't know if one day I'll be brave enough or I'll have the strength to tell (my children) what happened, but I don't want this to happen to other people,” she said. “That's why I gathered the strength to be here.”
If you need help or suspect trafficking in your neighborhood, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to BeFree (233733).