“It's happening here in Lampasas, because where you have buyers, you have sellers.” – Mallory Vincent, assistant attorney general of the Human Trafficking and Transnational/Organized Crime Section Criminal Prosecutions Division
“Until we decide as a community, a state, a country and frankly, as believers, that we're not comfortable with people living on the fringes, this problem isn't going away.” – Mallory Vincent, assistant attorney general of the Human Trafficking and Transnational/Organized Crime Section Criminal Prosecutions Division
More than 24.9 million people are enslaved today, according to the International Labor Organization, and some of them may be in your hometown.
On Tuesday evening, a member of the Office of the Texas Attorney General visited Grace Fellowship Church to speak about human trafficking and its victims.
“I didn’t realize what an epidemic we have in the Hill Country – even in our community,” Teaching Pastor Jeff Cockburn said. “It’s shocking.”
The speaker, Mallory Myers Vincent, assistant attorney general of the Human Trafficking and Transnational/Organized Crime Section Criminal Prosecutions Division, prosecutes trafficking crimes across the state.
“The first case prosecuted in San Antonio was a 13-year-old girl,” she said.
Vincent explained the girl was kidnapped, held and abused sexually by two men and a number of sex buyers after she went to a drug house with a friend to smoke marijuana.
“The juries convicted both brothers on four [felony] counts,” Vincent said.
When it comes to prosecuting trafficking crimes, “every life is worth fighting for,” she said.
Contrary to popular belief, slavery didn’t end with the American abolitionist movement.
“Studies show there are more people enslaved across the world today than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade,” Vincent said.
That number is estimated at 25 million people worldwide.
The slave trade generates $150 billion per year, Vincent added.
Another common misconception is that it doesn’t happen in small towns. It occurs everywhere, Vincent said.
“Texas is second in the nation only to California [in trafficking reports],” she said. “Houston is the highest [reported] city in the country.”
Vincent, who was raised in Granbury, said she recently prosecuted a case in her home county.
“It’s happening there, and it’s happening here in Lampasas,” she said, “because where you have buyers, you have sellers.”
Vincent then showed the audience photos of three men convicted of purchasing sex in a trafficking sting operation. The men were an ambulance driver, a sheriff’s deputy and a middle school social studies teacher.
“Sex buyers come in all shapes and sizes,” Vincent said.
Confusion also exists about the definition of trafficking, and often smuggling and trafficking are used interchangeably, Vincent said.
“We have to be educated on the differences,” she said. “Smuggling is a crime against the border. Two people are committing the criminal activity: the coyote and the people crossing the border.”
Trafficking, however, is a crime against the person being used for labor or sex, and it includes force, fraud or coercion, she said.
“Trafficking does not require travel,” Vincent said, adding that she had prosecuted a case in which a girl had been trafficked out of her own home by her mother from the age of 8 years old.
The most frequent victims of sex trafficking are teenagers, Vincent said.
The most common victims are runaways or foster kids, but all children are vulnerable, she said.
Traffickers lure teens with a promise of romance, love or acceptance; offers of cash, luxury items or a glamorous lifestyle; by using the persuasion of other children already involved; and establishing a relationship with small favors.
“These kids [potential victims] go to Lampasas High School; they may be walking into our churches every week,” Vincent said. “Until we decide as a community, a state, a country and frankly, as believers, that we’re not comfortable with people living on the fringes, this problem isn’t going away.”
Protecting our children
The biggest game changer to the illegal trafficking industry has been social media, Vincent said.
Smartphone applications like Vault, Meet Me, Kik and Moco Space allow adolescents to hide online activity from parents and speak with strangers on the internet. There also is social pressure to post sexualized photos of themselves on social media sites, Vincent said.
“The metadata still exists long after that photo is deleted," she said. "The idea of a digital footprint? They’re not thinking about that … Social media is where we go for approbation. It’s where we go for that as adults; can you imagine being a teenager?”
Vincent encouraged the audience to speak with teens about the dangers of social media and strangers.
“Talk to your kids about when a stranger reaches out to [them], what is appropriate to share and what is not,” she said.
Warning signs that a person is being trafficked can include visible injuries, inconsistent stories, overtly sexualized online profiles, multiple online accounts, gang affiliations, brands or tattoos, the use of prepaid debit cards, possession of hotel keys or large rolls of cash and fake IDs for youths.
Other signs can include a sudden apparent change in socioeconomic status, level of sexualization, increased truancy and the claim of an older boyfriend or girlfriend.
For labor trafficking, the warning signs can include isolation from the community, family or friends; the inability to speak English; frequent movement or an erratic schedule; untreated chronic disease or chronic musculoskeletal pain; malnutrition, dehydration and exhaustion.
By the numbers
Since the creation of the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2007, 40,987 cases have been reported, Vincent said.
In 2017, 8,759 cases of human trafficking were reported to the hotline and BeFree Textline, according to statistics from Polaris – a nonprofit organization dedicated to human freedom. That number represents a 13 percent increase from last year and a minimum of 10,615 new victims.
Polaris data shows the most common age for a sex trafficking victim is between 15 and 17 years old.
While Latinos and females are the most frequent ethnicity and gender of a trafficking victim, males and females of all ages and ethnicities are victimized.
How to help
Vincent and the Texas Attorney General’s Office offer the following tips on reporting suspected trafficking.
• Call as soon as possible after the activity is observed. Do not attempt to intervene, as human traffickers can be dangerous.
• If the situation is an emergency or someone may be in immediate danger, call 911. Tell dispatchers human trafficking or slavery may be involved.
• Call the National Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or make a report online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Text “HELP” to 233733 (BEFREE).
• Contact Child Protective Services at 800-252-5400.
• Contact the Office of the Attorney General Human Trafficking Section at 512-463-1646 or email@example.com.