MCALLEN, Texas (KVEO) — Human trafficking is an issue that’s hardly talked about and often overlooked in the Rio Grande Valley.
For federal law enforcement based in the Valley, the reality of the underground world of sexual exploitation and human trafficking is far from secret.
“The situations are unthinkable, unimaginable from a normal person, the stuff we’ve seen is unimaginable,” said John Reinosa, and Homeland Security Investigations special agent.
Reinosa specializes in tracking criminals who prey on young victims. He says it’s an issue that has been a focus of Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, for years.
“Here in the Valley, there’s been some cases where women have been lured or smuggled into the United States and it turned into a tracking scenario because they have to pay their smuggling fees and they’re kept against their will to work their debt off at a bar or prostitute it out for those reasons,” explained Maria Michel-Manzo, HSI Special Agent in Charge in McAllen.
One of those scenarios was El Paraiso Bar in Mission, Texas.
“There was a bar in Mission, Texas, where women had been lured to work in the bar smuggled from Mexico and were being trafficked,” Michel-Manzo said.
The girls, ages 14, 15, and 17, were promised $3 for every beer that a customer bought them and that they could keep any money they made having sex with customers, minus $50 they would have to pay back for smuggling fees.
But it was a lie, the teens were never paid. They were sold and sex trafficked between paying customers in the Rio Grande Valley, she said.
“By the time we rescued them, they were held in a room that was locked and they could not leave,” Michel-Manzo said.
This was just one of many similar cases.
“Just recently, there was a professor at South Texas College, who was uploading images to his Google photos account and it would be flagged in the system,” Reinosa said.
HSI agents tracked down the photos on Google Drive and it led them to a whole web of underground pornography and child sexual assault of a 4-year-old girl and 6-year-old girl in the Valley.
“The professor was in a romantic relationship with someone who had a child and what he was doing was grooming the girlfriend and the child into doing exploitative things to the child,” Reinosa said.
While these cases are face-to-face traditional trafficking, some of it happens behind a screen.
“In one case we had a student who had initially met the suspect through playing ‘Gears of War’ on her Xbox console,” Michel-Manzo said. “We identified this man as trying to extort her and they actually met on this online game.”
That man was sent to prison for extorting the Valley teen through her Xbox.
Sometimes the predators are caught, but other times it’s too late.
After meeting on Snapchat earlier this year, a 13-year-old girl in McAllen was taken by a 21-year-old man from Louisiana.
Within one hour, she was raped multiple times, investigators said.
She was rescued after a Border Patrol agent found inconsistencies in her story when she and her alleged assailant passed through an inspection checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
“We honestly believe, if she wouldn’t have been found, she would have met her demise,” said McAllen Chief of Police Victor Rodriguez.
At-risk at home
Police say the victims are getting younger and younger, and in today’s world of distance learning, it’s getting easier for predators to strike.
“There’s a lot of predators on the internet nowadays and when kids have more access on their phones and they’re home a lot more, it’s important to monitor that, because we see so many apps trying to get people to exploit children — Snapchat, KIK, Whisper — there’s always going to be a new application that allows predators to see and talk to children,” Reinosa said.
Reinosa said these agents have committed their lives to put an end to the hidden horrors of human trafficking.
“At the end of the day, this is why we do what we do, to see people pay for the harm they’ve caused these children and it’s so important for us to see these people arrested and found guilty,” he said.
Human trafficking earns global profits of $150 billion a year for traffickers, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation, according to Human Rights First, which tracks human trafficking victims.
If you or someone you know is being trafficked or exploited, call the HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.