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Advocating for the voiceless

Hidalgo County declares January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month

Hidalgo County is making concerted efforts to spotlight the travesty of human trafficking.

This Tues. Jan. 12, 2021, the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court proclaimed January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in an effort to raise awareness about the issue. Several representatives from various local entities focused on preventing trafficking and protecting the victims spoke during the meeting.

The day before the meeting, the Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney’s Office encouraged residents to participate in “Wear Blue Day.” During the meeting, the District Attorney’s Office sponsored and presented the proclamation.

According to a press release from the district attorney, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month was first proclaimed in 2016 “to call attention to the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking that still occurs in too many places around the world, including in the United States.”

District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez thanked the commissioners and judge for acknowledging the occurrence of human trafficking and doing something to help stop it.

“When we talk about human trafficking, it’s happening throughout the world,” Rodriguez said. “Today we’re joining many in educating and talking about human trafficking.”

Rodriguez mentioned the Rio Grande Valley Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and their work to “help put an end to this modern form of slavery.” The Task Force is composed of federal, state, regional and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, victim service agencies and social service providers in Hidalgo County. 

Rodriguez said his office would be hosting, in coordination with Governor Greg Abbott’s office, a workshop on child sexual exploitation. They have spoken about filling in the gaps and recognizing the signs of what is going on in the community.

“We do have many individuals who are attending [the workshop] today,” Rodriguez said. “Our primary goal is protecting the community. We urge all residents to educate themselves and call attention to the injustice of human trafficking so we can all work together along with members of the Rio Grande Valley Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.”

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo & Starr Counties was among those present via Zoom during the Commissioner’s Court. CACHSC Executive Director Jesus A. Sanchez spoke about the importance of raising awareness on human trafficking during events like this week’s workshop.

“Our goal is to make sure there is enough training for all of our community stakeholders, law enforcement and service providers,” Sanchez said. “We’ll really identify the resources that we can make available to them.”

Sanchez said stakeholders will identify strategies to address the priority areas of need. The CACHSC identifies children who have been exploited or are being trafficked, and over the last six months their personnel have been trained on a particular screening tool that has been effective.

“We conducted 85 screenings, and out of those 85 screenings there were seven children that had a clear concern or possible concern of being trafficked or exploited,” Sanchez said, adding that three of those children are under the age of 10. “It’s very important that we continue to work together. The resources are there. We need to work together to make sure all victims get all the necessary resources.”

Amy Cantu, the chief prosecutor on Domestic Violence in the DA’s office, said human trafficking is defined as “a crime that exploits children, women and men into forced labor and sexual exploitation,” and there is no “one size fits all” for what a victim of human trafficking looks like. 

It happens when one person is controlled through violence, deception or coercion in situations of commercial sex, forced labor or domestic servitude. The issue can be present in any community, and victims can be of any age, race, gender or nationality. 

“However, many people are preyed upon based on their vulnerabilities, and those who are most disadvantaged in our society are often the most common targets,” Cantu said. “Traffickers use the vulnerabilities of their victims to deceive them by making promises such as false economic opportunities or providing false emotional support.”

Cantu said a few of the indicators of human trafficking are if a person seems disconnected from family, friends, community, organizations or houses of worship, if a child stops attending school, if there is a sudden and dramatic change in behavior, if a juvenile is engaged in commercial sex acts, disoriented or confused, or if they are showing signs of mental and/or physical abuse, amongst other things. She added that if anyone sees these indicators, they should report them.

Juan Cano, co-chair of the RGV Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, thanked the DA’s office, County Judge Richard Cortez and the Commissioner’s Court for their continued support in their efforts.

“We have been doing great work in prevention education to address human trafficking,” Cano said. “We will continue our mission by hosting trainings, workshops, conferences, webinars, drive-by events, virtual monthly meetings and social media awareness campaigns to educate the public.”

National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month will culminate in National Freedom Day on Feb. 1, 2021. The proclamation calls upon Hidalgo County to hold “appropriate programs and activities and recognize the role” we can play in preventing human trafficking.

The county states that language barriers, fear of their traffickers and/or fear of law enforcement keep victims from seeking help, which makes human trafficking a hidden crime. To report suspected human trafficking to Federal law enforcement, people can call 1-866-347-2423. To get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, please call 1-888-373-7888. 

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