A sex trafficking sting in Killeen last week, spearheaded by the Bell County Sheriff’s Department, led to the rescue of nine victims and the arrest of 15 people accused of participating in a sex trafficking ring in the city, officials said.
The news might have opened some residents’ eyes, but some leaders have been working toward solutions.
Texas Save Our Youth, or TSOY, announced it will be hosting a forum May 30 that is open to the public to discuss the issue.
TSOY is an organization devoted to eradicating human trafficking through education, networking and a public information campaign, said Killeen Councilwoman Shirley Fleming.
“I am concerned because human trafficking is a deadly tool that’s taking over our community,” Fleming said. “I think it’s one of the worst crimes in America. It takes our children out of society and makes them into something unreal; their minds are gone. This is why we started TSOY. I have children and grandchildren.”
Another TSOY leader also is spreading the word about human trafficking, including sex trafficking.
“Human trafficking is a disease,” said AnaLuisa Carrillo-Tapia, LULAC District 17 director. “This affects everybody, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status.”
“Unless a person can break out of it, it’s a continuous cycle of damage, attacks, and destruction,” Carrillo-Tapia said.
The lives of nine women, ages 18 to 25, changed last week when they were rescued during a three-day, sex trafficking sting centered in Killeen, officials said. Seven of the women were from Killeen, an 18-year-old was from Dallas and one woman from Asia.
One woman is pregnant, Bell County Maj. T.J. Cruz said, previously, during a news conference. After the sting operation, Unbound in Waco started providing services and counseling for the women, he said, on Friday. He did not have additional information about their backgrounds.
Fourteen men and one woman were arrested and charged from May 6-8 with either human trafficking, promotion of prostitution or prostitution.
The cases now are in the cogs of the justice system.
“We’re working with the district attorney’s office and putting the cases together,” regarding Clemens and Shell, on charges of human trafficking, Cruz said.
He said three other arrests for promotion of prostitution, a misdemeanor, will be taken up by the county attorney’s office. Cecil Smith, Randall Steele and Larry Golden, all of Killeen, are accused of delivering women to their “appointments.”
Ten other men were arrested for buying the services of prostitutes.
TSOY was formed as a way to get the conversation started.
“It’s addressing the issue by making human trafficking a topic of discussion, because it’s happening here,” Carrillo-Tapia said. “What do we do about it? How do we warn our families about it? It’s not just happening to young girls, (traffickers) go after anyone and destroy lives.”
Fleming said many law enforcement agencies already have boots on the ground but community organizations such as churches and schools also have roles to play.
“It will take this community working together to stamp out this problem,” she said. “First we have to make the community aware.”
Solutions can range from large to small-scale.
“It starts at home,” Carrillo-Tapia said. “It starts with turning all the devices and screens off and centering on your family; it’s time to go back to the basics.”
She said a search for belonging is a natural human instinct.
“Everybody wants attention and to be loved, so if a family doesn’t provide that, it’s leaving the door open for that need to be fulfilled outside the family,” Carrillo-Tapia said. “We can put bars on the windows and doors but you don’t know who is on the other side of that website or Twitter account.”
She said parents should ensure they have access to their kids’ computer accounts, but perhaps most of all, just talk.
‘No overnight fix’
Sex trafficking can be hard to define. It can mean a person kidnapped by force and held under threat of physical violence or a more subtle and insidious emotional or financial coercion, Cruz said.
“The trafficker might even tell the woman that he loves her; it’s really sad,” he said. “These victims are not doing it because they want to do it but because they’re forced to.” Two of the people arrested, Tatyana Clemens of Arlington and Billy Shell of Dallas, had the identification, Social Security cards and other paperwork for the nine women when arrested, officials said.
Statistics regarding the number of people are uncertain. “Because of the hidden nature of the crime, it is essentially impossible to know with certainty how many people are sex trafficked in the U.S.,” according to the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, an advocacy group. They estimate that as many as 100,000 children are being trafficked across the country.
Cruz said human and sex trafficking “is a big, big problem nationwide and worldwide.”
That’s why the job of policing is never done.
“This is the fourth operation in the last two years, and we’re going to continue to do our part to get this problem solved, but there is no overnight fix,” Cruz said. “It’s a serious problem and we’re taking it seriously.”
He said the department has been getting positive feedback from the public after the operation.
“That makes us feel good because we’re being proactive and trying to make a difference,” he said. “If we’re able to assist just one woman then we’ve done something positive. We’re just trying to help one person at a time.”
Carrillo-Tapia said that other, high-scale operations likely still are preying on vulnerable people.
“It’s important to take the time to report what we might overlook on a day-to-day basis because it just takes one person to pop the lid off one of these crimes,” she said.
The Killeen Police Department declined to answer questions for this story.
The TSOY forum will be held on May 30, from 6-8 p.m. at the Killeen Community Center at 2201 W. Veterans Memorial Blvd. The keynote speakers will be Assistant Attorney General Tom Smith and former court operations officer Nicola James. Folks are cautioned about bringing children to the educational forum.
The Department of Homeland Security has more information about human trafficking, including indicators and how to get help. To report suspected human trafficking, people can call 1-866-347-2423 and to get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733), according to the department’s website.