Houston is 'hub' for human trafficking
For 13 years, Jessica Ford said she was threatened, beaten, raped and forced into prostitution on the streets of Houston. She lived in fear for most of that time, but is now able to tell her story after five of the men who abused her were arrested and recently pleaded guilty.
According to federal prosecutors, Ford was a victim in the largest domestic sex trafficking ring in the Southern District of Texas.
John Butler, William Hornbeak, Jamine Lake, Andre McDaniels and Ronnie Presley were arrested and charged with 16 counts ranging from conspiracy, sex trafficking and sex trafficking of children back in 2009.
Court documents show these men transported Ford across state lines to work in brothels in Nevada and in massage parlors in Houston.
Federal agents collected evidence that revealed Presley also kidnapped minors from Kansas, transported them to Houston, beat and forced them to perform commercial sex acts for money.
"This was a family-operated business," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Zack, who prosecuted the case. "These girls were treated like a commodity and were no different than selling drugs, except with selling the girl there's a huge advantage. After you sell a kilo of cocaine, you have to then buy another kilo of cocaine, but you can sell a girl or boy over and over and over again. It's an incredible renewable resource," said Zack.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel someone into labor servitude or commercial sexual exploitation.
"If you are a minor and you're involved in a commercial sex act, you are automatically a victim of human trafficking," said Zack.
Growing up in Friendswood, Texas, Ford was very athletic and outgoing. She had dreams of becoming a doctor. As she stared into her childhood picture, she spoke about how she was manipulated into prostitution.
"I ran away from home and I was just looking to find my way. I met a man that told me he could help me with all of my problems. He was giving me attention and what I thought that was love. That man turned out to be a pimp. For the longest time I didn't know what I was doing was wrong. I didn't look at myself as a victim," said Ford.
"Initially these pimps know how to provide affection and attention at great measure. They know which girl to pick. They will look for a girl on Facebook. They will pick the girl alone at the mall, the girl walking home from school alone. If a girl has a vulnerability, the pimp will exploit it," said Zack.
Globally, human trafficking is the second-largest organized crime and, as a business, it generates roughly $32 billion a year. President Barack Obama has referred to human trafficking as a form of "modern day slavery."
There are thousands of victims in the United States, and Houston has been coined a hub.
"We have an international trafficking problem and a domestic trafficking problem," said Zack. Traffickers are attracted to Houston because of its close proximity to the border, its access to a major port, the major thoroughfares that run within the city and Houston's diverse population.
"You would never imagine girls and boys are being trafficked here, but there are places up and down 45, I-10, the Beltway and inside of 610 where people are being sold for sex. You drive by them every day and you don't see it, but girls are being hurt," said Ford.
According to court documents, Ford's traffickers ran several brothels disguised as massage parlors, modeling studios, spas and bikini bars within Harris County.
"They even advertised some of the minors online. Predators would click on their pictures, call in, and arrange a meeting," said Zack.
Every dollar each girl would make would go to their pimps.
"Yes, these girls are beaten. Yes, they are in fear of their lives, but there is also a psychological bondage that they are under. The manipulation and emotional damage that these victims experience is immense. Even though you don't physically see chains around them, the psychological chains are there," said Zack.
"It's not that easy to just get up and go," said Ford. "Where would I go? I didn't have any money. I didn't have an education. This was the only life I knew. It took everything for me to leave," she said.
When Ford finally decided to run, she did not look back. Her testimony led to the arrest of the men who enslaved her and freedom for dozens of women and girls.
"No one is for sale. We're all priceless children and this doesn't need to happen to anybody. It feels so good for me to be free, but I have to go back and help others," said Ford.
How Houston is fighting the problem
Sheriff Adrian Garcia has organized a special task force that not only goes after the pimps but also targets the buyers.
"Prostitution isn't a victimless crime, and we get it now," said Garcia. "We see there is a strong tie between prostitution and human trafficking. We want the victims to know there is help. We will go out and hunt these pimps down and put them in jail and plaster their faces all over God's green earth," he said.
The special task force is made up of undercover deputies who perform reverse prostitution stings. In the past few months, Harris County sheriff's deputies have arrested 13 buyers.
"For so long, the victims have been treated like they are the criminals. They are robbed of their childhood, their innocence, their education and of opportunities to improve themselves," said Zack.
Judge Michael Schneider and Judge Angela Ellis have finished their first year of a program inside the Harris County Juvenile Jail system called "girls court," which helps minor victims of human trafficking.
"There is a team of people working with the girls. Every week, we all come together -- the attorney, a therapist, the guardian," said Ellis.
The goal is to walk with the victim so the girl can first recognize she is a victim and then begin to peel back the layers of damage that have been done to her body and mind.
"It's so hard to penetrate them because they don't see themselves as victims. They think the pimps are their boyfriends. Once they do realize what has happened to them, there is so much shame, but they have to understand they are not the one at fault," said Zack.
How the United States is fighting back
There are more than 20 million victims around the world, and the impact of this crime is being felt in the United States.
During Obama's speech at this year's Clinton Global Initiative, he outlined a three-point plan to combat the problem of human trafficking with the United States.
"We’ll strengthen training, so investigators and law enforcement are even better equipped to take action -- and treat victims as victims, not as criminals. We’re going to work with Amtrak, and bus and truck inspectors, so that they’re on the lookout. We’ll help teachers and educators spot the signs as well, and better serve those who are vulnerable, especially our young people," Obama said.
Obama also discussed plans for recovery programs to help restore victims into survivors. His third point highlighted technology and the Internet.
"We’re encouraging tech companies and advocates and law enforcement -- and we’re also challenging college students -- to develop tools that our young people can use to stay safe online and on their smart phones."
How you can fight the problem
There are several local agencies making it their mission to fight human trafficking within Houston. Match your passion with a purpose. If you would like more information on these organizations click on the links bellow.