Earlier this month, American police in Texas found 17 undocumented immigrants locked inside a tractor-trailer parked at a gas station about 32 km from the border with Mexico. Fortunate enough, none of these people need medical attention.
Others are not as lucky. For even hardened investigators who used to seeing death and destruction on their beats, it was a heartbreaking scene: at least nine men were found dead in a sweltering tractor trailer in San Antonio, Texas.
In all, 30 people were removed from the steaming-hot trailer on July 22, many of them suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion and clinging to life. Temperatures inside the trailer, which had no air-conditioning, reached up to 100 degrees (F), San Antonio firefighters said.
While tragic human smuggling cases are on the rise in the United States, as more people leave their home countries in search of better lives, and to escape gang violence and war.
“It’s a serious issue,” said Mary Magness, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Houston. “Houston has been known for being a hub not just for narcotics and contraband, but human commodities. It poses a serious threat to our national security as people from other countries enter the U.S.”
“It’s unfortunate when human smugglers transport human cargo, women and children, over difficult terrains and often without food or water,” she said, adding that “These people face tremendous hardships, and some of the aliens are beaten or even raped.”
Texas remains a top destination for human smugglers because of its more than 2,000 km border with Mexico, a porous area that provides numerous points of entry for undocumented immigrants. It is also one of the most dangerous.
In the deadliest smuggling incident in U.S. history, 70 people were found trapped inside a stifling truck trailer in Victoria, Texas, on May 14, 2003. Among them, 19 of victims died of dehydration, overheating and suffocation.
They were immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Federal prosecutors indicted 14 people, including the truck driver, Tyrone Williams, who was sentenced to 34 years in prison after a federal appeals court overturned the multiple life sentences he received.
Many undocumented immigrants who make it into the U.S. quickly find their dreams dashed at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers, or coyotes, said Constance Rossiter, director of the Trafficked Persons Assistance Program at the YMCA of Greater Houston.
“Usually they come here because they’re looking for a better life and were promised a job in the U.S.,” she said. “They paid a lot of money and sometimes take out a loan in their country of origin, and they have even put up their homes (for collateral).”
“They find themselves with a huge debt and threats are made against their family and children,” Rossiter added. “There’s no jobs or green cards, and they find themselves not being able to get back. They have absolutely no money and a huge debt to pay. Sometimes they get a job illegally, or they (jobs) don’t pay as much as promised.”
Established in 2003, the YMCA Trafficked Persons Assistance Program helps victims of human smuggling to get back on their feet. There’s everything from crisis management, to emergency shelter, housing, employment services and legal immigration help.
Tragically, some victims resort to illegal activities in order to pay back the smugglers. Many find themselves working in prostitution, selling their bodies at so-called spas and massage parlors located throughout Houston area.
The Office of the Harris County Attorney has used civil litigation to shut down over two dozen illicit massage establishments in Houston in the last two years, said Assistant County Attorney Julie Countiss.
“Many of the spas open up in strip shopping centers where they lease space from the property owner,” she said. “Law enforcement investigations confirm a high rate of prostitution arrests and violations of state and local massage establishment regulations at these spas.”
Children at Risk (CAR), which advocates for children across Texas, is at the forefront of efforts to help victims traumatized by human trafficking. One of their successful programs is Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE.
“The pimps and traffickers are well insulated,” said Caruthers of CAR. “They don’s take a lot of risks, so it’s hard for law enforcement to find them. We work with law enforcement to increase buyer arrests and deterrence.”
“When you arrest a prostitute in a hotel room, you’re re-victimizing her,” Caruthers said. “The buyers are culpable and easy to find.”
In December 2016, there were more than 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas, which included 234,000 victims of labor trafficking and 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking, according to a report by the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Last year, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has launched 2,110 investigations into human smuggling reports, Magness said. Where possible, the agency works with foreign governments to target criminal organizations in the source countries.
HSI investigators are seeing a steady number of human smuggling victims from Middle Eastern countries, she said.
“They come through Mexico quite a bit,” she said. “One of the problems is there’s obviously language barriers. That presents tremendous hardships not only for officers, but for these individuals because we need to identify where they are so that we can get in touch with the foreign governments.” Enditem