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Human trafficking at issue in hearing

20140724 LA-JOYA Human-trafficking-panel 0063LA JOYA—Victims of human trafficking are reluctant to make an outcry because of the life of crime to which they have been accustomed, Capt. Ron Swenson, of the TABC Special Investigation Unit, said at a hearing last week on human trafficking.

During a Texas Joint House/Senate committee hearing held at the La Joya ISD boardroom, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said La Joya and other cities lining the border are currently home to the trafficking of women and minors.

“My particular focus is to make sure there is not one child that ends up in the commercial sex trade industry,” Huffman said. “I think we need to stay focused today about why we are here and that is to address the interim charges that we have been given as a committee to study. Hearing testimony on how to combat sex trafficking along the Texas border and to discuss services available to victims. ”

With women and children working the underbelly of bars and restaurants, Swenson said in some cases they are making more money as sex slaves than what they were used to in their respective countries, places like Central America and Mexico.

“In one particular case in Austin, we found the girls are actually getting a 70-30 cut,” Swenson said. “It was $100 for sex, and the girl was getting $70, and the bar was getting $30. If you are from Honduras, you are actually getting good money.”

The captain said his unit’s goal is to find the victims either while they are traveling to their destination or as minors. Swenson added a majority of the time the female victims are also selling drugs as well as practicing prostitution.

Bruising, poor physical health, large amounts of money, tattoos or branding and unstable mental health, can identify victims of human trafficking or active sex slaves, he said.

Steve McCraw, director of Texas Department of Public Safety, said the branding/tattoos are related to the involvement of gangs in trafficking. The director said in Texas gangs have jumped at the opportunity to benefit from human trafficking, which has become easier than smuggling drugs into the U.S.

“The demand is there for sex trafficking and for sex trafficking children,” McCraw said. “They are producing, and the gangs are involved. It’s almost seen as a cool thing…it’s glamorized.”

McCraw said South American gangs that are entering Texas feel tattoos on their victims are important. He added trafficking is something found in Texas every day and now criminals are using the internet as a tool for underage prostitution.

McCraw said the Texas Department of Safety is encouraging citizens to give anonymous tips on known stash houses in their areas. He added he believed that if agents work with the public, information could lead to saving more lives from human trafficking.

The issue of human smuggling easily turns into trafficking when victims are left with large debts to gangs and smugglers that cannot be repaid. With the goal of living in the U.S., McCraw said many of these victims are charged anywhere from $20,000 -$30,000 for the chance to cross the border.

“They (immigrants) don’t have $20,000 -$30,000; they’ve basically sold themselves into indentured servitude,” McCraw said.

House Representative Todd Hunter said in some cases the victims might not want to cross into the U.S.

“This isn’t human smuggling. You all have used the language ‘people coming here illegally,’” Hunter said. “A trafficking victim may not want to be here. Please remember that we have two different categories; a child that is sold for slavery or prostitution may have no control of their lives.”

Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas also gave a testimonial at the meeting. He said one of the main problems in the area and La Joya was the fence that was built along the border created a funnel into the southern city limits.

Salinas said people who are in the country illegally end up living in La Joya, which creates a higher head count at La Joya ISD.

“What are you going to recommend or what can you do to help our school district when our classrooms are inundated with these children?” Salinas said. “I haven’t seen or read anything about the state or the nation in reference to education for our kids, because they will be coming to our schools.”

State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya, said there has been a lot of speculation about the current status of La Joya.

“Unfortunately, there has been some negative stigmatism that’s been going on, but it is far from the truth,” Longoria said. “This is a great area to live in. You see a lot of community members here today. I think the focus today will be for us to kind of look on what we can do as a community and as a state to stop this.”

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