Invisible Chains: Inside the command center of a human trafficking sting operation

FOX 26 got exclusive access to the command center of a sting operation in The Woodlands by the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance for the Southern District of Texas.

"People think well it can’t happen out in the suburbs, but we find most of our problems are occurring out in the suburbs," said Captain James Dale with the Houston Police Department Vice Division.

During the week of October 15, more than a dozen federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, government agencies, and nonprofits joined forces. About 30 undercover officers were part of the operation. The goals -- arrest traffickers and rescue victims.

At the command center, undercover officers pretending to buy sex search the dark web for possible victims and prosecutors with the Montgomery County District Attorneys office get in place.

Also, victim's advocates prepare blankets, clothes, snacks, and information on support services.

"We try and make them comfortable so they can understand that they are safe and this is not meant to harm them," said Constance Rossiter with YMCA International Services.

Special Agent Theo Williams with the FBI Child Exploitation Taskforce prepares to interview the women to determine if they're being trafficked.

"I’m going to try to identify the reasons that they got into the life of prostitution," explained Williams. "That’s going to consist of I’m going to back to the first time they even thought about doing this. Who introduced them to it? How did they find it? Was it social media? Was it a friend? Was it a family member? Then we’re going to go all the way up to how did we end up in this building right now and how can we provide help."

Also on site, Kara Smith, an intelligence analyst with national nonprofit DeliverFund.

"The mission of Deliver Fund is to equip, train, and advise law enforcement on how to combat human trafficking using counter-terrorism methodology," explained Smith.

Several of the officers on the operation have completed DeliverFund's training.

"There’s no way to avoid DeliverFund or the law enforcement agencies if a trafficker touches the internet. They can’t hide from us," said Smith.

On the second day of the operation, Tímea Nagy, a trafficking survivor joins officers. She's known in the United States and Canada for the way she is able to connect with victims.

Nagy says arresting possible victims on prostitution charges is usually the only way to help the women find a way out.

"It may seem harsh for the public that this is how it has to be done but there’s no other way," she explained. "The girls and the victims have such a trauma bond with their traffickers and pimps that there’s literally – you can’t go up to them and say I think you’re taken advantage of. This is not how you should live."

She says getting them away from their trafficker may give them a few days to think about lifestyle they are being forced into. Officers with the Houston Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office say they give the women the option of going through a diversion program for sex workers.

By the end of the week, 13 pimps and 28 prostitutes are arrested, five victims are recovered including a 16-year-old girl. Officials say, overtime, some of the women charged with prostitution may come forward as victims.

Investigators say all the cases will lead to secondary investigations and they know they've only scratched the surface.

"The officers could do this all day and all night and still wouldn’t even get half of the girls that are in town right now being trafficked," concluded Nagy.

To report human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.