From the Texas Monthly by Mimi Swartz
Most people who are aware of the existence of human trafficking think that it happens in faraway places, like war-torn countries in the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe. Few can imagine that slaves are brought into the U.S. to work in restaurants, factories, and sexually oriented businesses (SOBs to those in the know). In fact, across the country, tens of thousands of people are being held captive today. Depending on whom you ask, Houston is either the leading trafficking site in the U.S. or very near the top, along with Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York City. . .
In recent years there have been several high-profile arrests and prosecutions in Harris County, which has some of the toughest anti-trafficking laws in the country and one of the country’s most innovative anti-trafficking task forces. In 2005 police brought down Maximino “El Chimino” Mondragon, who ran one of the nation’s largest sex-trafficking rings, in which young women from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mondragon’s native El Salvador were forced to work as prostitutes. That same year, a sixty-year-old man named Evan Lowenstein was arrested for operating at least a dozen brothels stocked with women from Eastern Europe who had been brought into the U.S. with promises of legitimate work. He got probation and disappeared. . .
But each time a case is made, the business simply morphs and grows in a new way. Case in point: When officers in the FM 1960 area set up a task force and began shutting down massage parlors that did not have legitimate licenses to operate, the traffickers began circumventing state regulations by reclassifying their operations as “tea parlors” and, in a novel twist, “art galleries.” “We could have fifty people doing this 24/7 and still not have enough manpower,” says Skip Oliver, a captain in the Harris County Constable’s Department in Precinct 4. “You can punch a button here and get a girl from Thailand in the pipeline. We’re nibbling at a piece of the problem. We don’t even see the whole picture.” . . .
Many rescuers know that women who wind up as trafficking victims were usually abused earlier in their lives, often by a family member or a spouse; that’s what makes them so vulnerable to the traffickers’ feigned affection and false protection. But the repeated rapes that captive prostitutes endure can turn someone with low self-esteem into someone with a serious psychiatric illness. Many suffer from severe dissociative identity disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder is usually a given. Some are bipolar. Many of these conditions have similar symptoms: extreme highs, harrowing lows, paranoia, drug or alcohol abuse as self-medication, and various forms of self-destructive behavior, including self-mutilation. . .
Usually trafficking victims are profoundly ashamed of what they have been doing or believe they have failed at it, disappointing the families who depend on them for survival. Like battered spouses, they often return to their abusers. Many have no other way to make a living. . .
“They break people beyond repair,” Dottie [Lester, coordinator for the Trafficked Persons Assistance Program for YMCA International Services] says of traffickers. “If I shattered a glass and then put it back together, it wouldn’t hold water.”
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Arresting traffickers, rescuing victims, and prosecuting cases are the more high profile ways to fight human trafficking. As this article points out, though, such efforts are only first steps at best. Trafficking victims and survivors require long-term services and support beyond escape and rescue. High-profile arrests and shutting down SOBs do not address the root causes or trafficking and in many cases do little to address demand. While these efforts are important, and I strongly believe we need to advocate for increased prosecution of traffickers, these efforts must not exist in isolation but instead need to be part of a holistic anti-trafficking strategy. Otherwise, they are stop-gap measures at best and potentially counterproductive or harmful at worst.
Photograph by Van Ditthavong for the Texas Monthly