For eight years, in southwest Houston, a brothel operated out of a shabby apartment complex. Locals who knew about it didn’t speak up, fearful of retribution from the gang-affiliated family that police say was running the operation.
Undocumented women and girls, some as young as 14, were beaten, drugged, and lured with promises of restaurant jobs that never materialized. The FBI taketown targeted the operations of the Southwest Cholos gang, though this operation only hints at how much of a problem human sex trafficking has become in Texas’ biggest city.
Gabrielle Banks, who covers federal courts for the Houston Chronicle, reports that there are actually more brothels in Houston than Starbucks locations.
“It’s kind of astonishing,” she says. “There are websites like Yelp, underground websites where you can look at reviews.”
In fact, she says, these brothels are often hidden in plain sight.
“This was a multi-generational family – and multi-family – operation run out of a really lackluster apartment building on the periphery of Houston, near the Galleria but in a working class neighborhood,” she says.
Banks says that human trafficking happens in all major cities, but Houston has it worse than most because of the proximity to vulnerable undocumented people who have crossed the border.
“A lot of the testimony in the court case was about how desperate these young women were and didn’t really have connections in the United States,” she says.
The FBI has uncovered extreme cases of abuse. Sex slaves are often tattooed with the pimps’ names. In one case, a woman who fled back across the border was found by the gang in Mexico and forced to return to the brothel.
Banks says that the federal government’s fight against human trafficking escalated in 2004 when it implemented a new unified strategy.
“It’s called the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance with the FBI, the DOJ, ICE, Homeland Security, along with local law enforcement and victims advocates.” She says they’re “going after sex trafficking in a major way and getting much steeper sentences.”
Banks says traffickers recently have gotten 35-year, 40-year, and even life sentences, signaling that the federal government is taking these crimes more seriously than ever.
Written by Jen Rice.