HOUSTON — Undercover officers had a busy night Thursday raiding two bars in southeast Houston and rescuing many young girls, who may have been part of a human trafficking ring.
Agents from multiple agencies, including the FBI, DPS and Homeland Security took part in a massive raid on two cantinas on Telephone Road near Edna Street.
Law enforcement officials said that more than a dozen suspects were arrested as part of the federal investigation that had been going on for two and a half years.
“Sex slavery is not occurring in a foreign country; it is happening in our own backyard,” Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said during a press conference held Friday afternoon.
Twelve victims were rescued with all of them being Mexican immigrants. Officials said at least five of them were minors.
Investigators said patrons were charged anywhere from $65 for 15 minutes with a woman, to up to $500 per hour. The business charged $20 for a condom.
The price varied based on the woman’s looks and her youth, investigators said.
The raid, authorities said, sheds light on the fact that Houston is ranked one of highest in the nation for human trafficking.
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure we made a huge dent. Like the sheriff alluded to, there are other businesses out there that we know are doing this and we know there are other victims out there,” BFI Special Agent Steve Morris said.
Witnesses said Thursday night they saw several scantily-clad young women, dressed in mini-skirts and other revealing clothing, loaded into police buses, and men in handcuffs and ankle chains being loaded into vans. They said many of the girls appeared to be in their pre-teen years.
“One of the neighbors told me that she seen them take out anywhere from 10 to 12 young girls, probably from the age 12 and up, so I don’t know what’s going on here,” a witness said. “I’ve never seen any women, but she said she saw them and they put them in a wagon and took them off.”
Those who live nearby hope police are shutting them down for good. “There’s always shootings,” said Jovahana Guevara. “I’ve had to call the cops a couple of times.”
This raid is considered a success by law enforcement and also by a local organization called Elijah Rising, whose goal is to end human trafficking.
“It’s not a surprise, that area is a hot spot for possible trafficking situations,” said Adam Chaney, director of Elijah Rising. Chaney said he and other members of the organization were in the area where the raids took place just last week.
“We saw a very young girl around the age of 10 to 12 being taken by the hand of a very older gentleman, looked to be unwilling,” Chaney said.
According the U.S. Justice Department, Houston ranks as one of the top destination cities for human trafficking. Chaney said Houston is a hotbed for this type of crime because of the access through the ship channel and the border along with the city’s diversity.
“Modern day slavery is real, it’s alive, and it’s happening potentially a block away from where you live. It could be happening in your neighborhood, next to your business, wherever,” Chaney said.
Chaney and his colleagues at Elijah Rising are working to change that. The group recently moved into its new office along the Southwest Freeway.
“This room here was the living quarters for the girls,” Chaney said.
Just four months ago, the building where their new office is located was a brothel, a site for sex trafficking.
“They would line the girls up there, through a viewing window, and you essentially select whichever girl you are interested in,” Chaney said.
Chaney said once the place is remodeled, it will serve as a crisis center for victims.
In the meantime, he hopes others will also become part of the solution.
“Though someone may think I’m just one person, what can I do, the reality is you have the power to do what it takes to solve this problem,” Chaney said.
For more information, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.