Sex trafficking is a $30 billion dollar business around the globe. It impacts hundreds of thousands of people, but it all begins with the exploitation of children, and it's something taking place here in the Coastal Bend.
One Corpus Christi woman became entrapped in the sex trade for two decades. For her, sexual slavery began at the age of six.
"I was basically conditioned to think that this was what I was made for. Just imagine what you've seen in a porno movie," she told KRIS 6 News.
It started as abuse by her mother's boyfriend, but evolved into business.
"It really went from just sexual abuse to multiple people being involved," the survivor said. "I know at 9 years old there were a lot more people involved. My mother was aware, and she was turning a blind eye to it."
Her abuser shared her with a ring of men. For years she was forced to service them at social events around town. They also gave her drugs and alcohol, and trained her with pornographic videos.
"They would show me photographs, or they would show me a video, and then tell me to do what I had seen on the video. Like you do that to him, or he's going to do this to you," she said.
All this was ingrained in her before she turned 12.
"They would send me to go and invite other girls my age to spend the night with us. And then they would have me teach those little girls the way they taught me," she said. "There was never any reason for me to think that it was not normal. My friends were doing it. Their dads were doing it to me."
A childhood friend tipped off police. However her abuser was out of jail within a week, after her testimony to police got thrown out of court by her mother.
"When he got arrested, she told me that I ruined everything," the survivor said. "She was taking advantage of somebody being exploited, me being exploited. And she was getting a higher standard of living out of this."
Forced back into a life of sexual slavery, she ran away.
"I was walking on Leopard Street, 12 years old. I had nothing, I didn't even have a bag of clothes or anything," she said.
A runaway teen is likely to be picked up by a pimp within 24 to 48 hours, and the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12, according to Dr. Cathy Miller, Associate Professor at the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
For the young victim, both held true. She landed under the control of yet more men who used her.
"A pimp was going to put me out on the street corner. I ran away from him, just to get picked up by another pimp," the woman said. "It was just awful. The whole cycle, and I got trapped in it and I couldn't get out," the woman said.
She spent the next 14 years on the streets, selling her body and believing the men who used her actually loved her.
"I would think that I finally met a man that was going to take care of me, but then eventually it would turn into, well why don't you go work at this strip club so we can make some fast money?" she said. "Pimps are very skilled. They practice. And it's very psychological."
CCPD Detective Micheal Ilse investigates human trafficking and crimes against children, and says this cycle of entrapment is common.
"The tactics traffickers use, they let them know that they're the only ones that love them, I'm the one that's going to help you. And at first they may seem like they are," Detective Ilse said.
The bond can be so strong victims do not want to come forward. Rather than get help, they live a nightmare.
"They're taught by the traffickers that nobody's really going to help you and even if you get caught, they really can't follow through with the investigation, so really eventually you'll be back out on the street in the arms of the trafficker," Detective Ilse said. "Traffickers do use force at times. Those are the three main things: force, fraud, and coercion."
Dr. Miller trains medical professionals in the realities of treating victims. She says victims arrive to the emergency room with horrific injuries, sometimes life-threatening.
"Sexually transmitted infections. Botched abortions. Broken bones, abrasions, skull fractures, traumatic brain injury," Dr. Miller said. "Also the hidden dangers. We see exasperations of asthma, because living in corrupt conditions you don't have access to a doctor, you don't have access to medication."
There is also the mental agony, and one local organization is working to address that. The local organization New Life Refuge Ministries broke ground in October for a long-term safe house for rescued victims, the first of it's kind in South Texas.
"Post traumatic stress isn't something that you ever get over, but you learn to cope with it." said Executive Director Minta Moore.
The plan for the safe space features cottage-style living, sustainable gardening, horses, and various form of therapy for child sex trafficking survivors. Moore expects the first cottage to be finished by the end of the year.
"Being able to get them in a setting where they feel safe and secure is the utmost importance to start off to the road to healing," Moore said.
The Corpus Christi woman who was trafficked as a child ultimately got on that road to recovery with the help of a local church. Yet she wishes someone would have spoken on her behalf much sooner.
"I think of how many people knew what was happening to me, as a child, and none of them said anything," she said. "It's so much deeper than somebody just being forced to do something that they don't want to do. It's that we're okay with that. It's that society as a whole, they turn the other way."
She reminds that trafficking can happen, and does happen on our streets, in our homes, and in our neighborhoods.
"Any neighborhood, all the neighborhoods in Corpus Christi have a form of human trafficking happening in them right now," she said.
Texas is second the country only to California for the number of calls to the national trafficking hotline, according to Dr. Miller. She says the Coastal Bend is also a corridor for trafficking, since it lies close to the international border and port and on major interstate freeways. The Department of Justice has named the nearby Interstate 10 one of the major trafficking passageways in the country.
Detective Ilse has been involved in the rescue to two sex trafficking victims in Corpus Christi within the last year, one age 17 and the other 15. He says traffickers bring victims to the area to service clients in hotels. Many local victims are also forced to advertise on sites like backpage.com, and that includes children and adults, women and men.
Law enforcement and several other organizations are coming together to tackle the problem with a new anti-human trafficking task force. Partners include CCPD, Texas Rangers, the FBI, the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Representative Todd Hunter is also been pushing for legislation changes to address trafficking.
Moore adds another huge piece of the solution could be creating harsher penalties for buyers.
"This is a supply and demand business," she said. "We wouldn't have this problem if there wasn't the demand side of it."
New Life Refuge tries to raise awareness about the harms of the sex industry by working with local John schools.
"You realize that they just thought that it is truly a victimless crime, and they really didn't think they were doing anything wrong." Moore said. "It's how we can help address the demand system, teaching men that are purchasing sex that this isn't really something that women want to be doing."
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