A six-day sting separated dozens of human trafficking victims from their abusers and provided resources to rebuild their lives, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday.
The Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance’s Operation Independence, which ran from July 29 to Aug. 3, pooled resources from nearly two dozen agencies and social service organizations, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. Thirty seven arrests were made, including 32 women and five men.
“I want to make one thing about these women clear: In virtually every case, these women are victims,” said Gonzalez. “Our goal is not necessarily to send them to prison. Our goal is to save them from their abusers and give them the resources they need to turn their lives around. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to get them away from their abusers is by placing them under arrest.”
Undercover officers arranged meetings with victims and their traffickers to exchange money for sex, Gonzalez said. When the victims arrived, they were detained at a fire station in Spring.
“One third of the women immediately made outcries stating that they had been forced into prostitution,” Gonzalez said. “We strongly believe that the others are also likely victims of abuse and we are working actively to help them.”
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A team of social workers was present to help, and Texas Forensic Nurse Examiners members conducted medical evaluations and sexual assault examination kits, he added.
Some suffered from substance abuse, he said, and some have “lived lives of constant horrific physical and psychological abuse.”
“None of them entered into prostitution because they believed it would be fun way to earn a living,” Gonzalez said. “When they were little girls, none of them dreamed of growing up to one day have sex with men for money. They need help and we are committed to giving it to them.”
Sgt. John Wall, with the Houston Police Department Vice Division, said traffickers employ techniques that prevent victims from reporting abuse.
“The most common we see are physical and emotional abuse, threats, isolation from family and friends and economic abuse,” said Wall. “As a result, these victims become trapped and fear leaving for a variety of reasons, such as psychological trauma, shame, emotional attachment or physical threats either to themselves or to their family members, making extremely difficult for them to report to law enforcement.”
The officials said trafficking impacts people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
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“Human trafficking is not just an urban problem,” said Sherri Zack, human trafficking coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Texas. “The location of this operation, Spring, a suburb, an area that is known for being idyllic, demonstrates that human trafficking is everywhere.
“It shines a light on this problem so that everyone can take accountability and recognize that… we can no longer pretend that human trafficking doesn’t exist everywhere,” she said.
The sting follows the July arrests of 89 men accused of seeking sex for money, including nine alleged traffickers in Houston.