HOUSTON - FOX 26 got exclusive access behind the scenes of the sex trafficking sting operation led by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) as part of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance Southern District of Texas. About 80 officers with more than two dozen agencies were involved.
The five-day operation dubbed “Operation Kick-off 2020” took place last month. On Tuesday, HCSO announced the operation resulted in 32 arrests. Most were charged with prostitution and trafficking-related offenses. A few were also arrested for weapons and drug-related offenses.
HCSO did not disclose the names of those arrested for prostitution since there is a chance they will later come forward as trafficking victims.
Behind the scenes
FOX 26 went inside the command post and set-up in an East Harris County hotel. Undercover officers searched online ads for possible sex trafficking victims.
“The internet is the end all be all for trafficking. it's transformed the way that we investigate,” said Supervisory Special Agent Jeanette Milazzo with FBI Houston.
We watched as women are dropped off by their suspected traffickers. The traffickers were arrested. It’s not uncommon for these types of operations to lead to more evidence against known traffickers.
“This victim that we recovered had information on another case that's tied to a huge investigation so you never know what you're going to come across,” Sgt. John Wall with the Houston Police Department announced during a briefing.
Possible victims were assessed.
“If someone is truly a victim and truly makes an outcry, we're going to work with them to go down another avenue besides going to jail,” Sergeant Marty Kuehn with HCSO told officers during the briefing on the first day of the operation.
Officers and advocates say bringing in possible victims in this type of setting is often the only way they’ll ever reach them.
“They have been so conditioned and brainwashed by these individual pimps that are trafficking them that it's also a freeze in place type situation,” said Commander Chris Sandoval with HCSO.
During the operation, investigators reported 3 victims made an outcry for help. They add two of the victims were brought from Austin and California and two others. Moreover, 3 of the women detained for prostitution were 17-years-old. Two other women were identified as having the same pimp.
”The difficulty that we face as law enforcement is breaking the trauma bond that victims often form with their trafficker,” added Milazzo.
“A lot of them have a lifetime full of trauma, so they have a real distrust in the system,” said Dr. Khara Brieden, CEO of the Texas Forensic Nurse Examiners.
Inside the command post, the forensic nurses and victim advocates with YMCA International wait hoping victims will begin their journeys as survivors.
“The first thing we want to do is give them their power back,” explained Brieden.
After the nurses get the woman’s consent, they can do everything from checking vitals to a sexual assault exam on the scene.
“It might be the first time they've had any medical attention at all whatsoever,” added Brieden.
While this week investigators focus on recovering victims, they know sex trafficking wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for buyers.
”Buyers be on notice that if you're involved in purchasing women for sex, we will find you and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” warned Sandoval.
Investigators say they hope buyers begin to understand many prostitutes are working against their will.
“Maybe they don't know that there's someone down in the car outside saying hey you need to you need to bring me my money or else,” suggested Kuehn.
And, if that doesn’t stop then the task force will.
“If you're on the wrong end of human trafficking your days are numbered, so it's not going to be long before you get caught,” he added.
In 2019, the Houston area had 205 human trafficking-related arrests, the 2nd highest in the country.