SAN ANTONIO – Federal law enforcement agencies are getting creative in their efforts to bring attention to the epidemic of human trafficking.
The Department of Homeland Security is bringing awareness to the issue through its Blue Campaign, which works to educate the public on signs of human trafficking and report suspected cases.
Shane Folden, DHS special agent in charge, said investigators make victims their top priority, giving as much effort "identifying and stabilizing" victims as investigating and prosecuting traffickers.
"HSI looks at this investigative discipline more from a victim-centric perspective. We have dozens upon dozens of victim assistance specialists," Folden said.
Folden said educating the public is a large part of combating the epidemic, and that includes what to look out for.
"A restriction in movement of individuals or an individual defers to speak, or an individual has very very few possessions,” Folden said.
In 2016, there were more than 7,600 cases of human trafficking reported nationwide, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Texas accounted for 665 of the cases reported, trailing only California with the most reports of human trafficking.
As shown in the chart below, the number dropped to 433 in Texas in 2017.
At the FBI, the Violent Crimes Against Children squad focuses on cases involving victims under the age of 18.
"(There are) nearly 18,000 victims, child victims of sexual trafficking every single year," said Michelle Lee, FBI spokeswoman.
Lee said runaways are at greatest risk of being trafficked.
"One out of every four runaways will actually be approached by someone to traffic them within the first 48 hours," Lee said.
Lee said the outlook for individuals who become victims of human trafficking is grim. The stresses of exploitation and can lead to a victim's death.
"Very troubling statistics that state that within five years of being trafficked, a minor will start experiencing significant health problems, such that it will kill them," Lee said.
The FBI's Operation Cross Country focuses on recovering underage victims of prostitution and bringing attention to the epidemic of sex trafficking.
According to DoSomething.org, human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry, behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking. It reportedly generates a profit of $32 billion every year.
Aside from federal initiatives, the City of San Antonio provides resources for victims of human trafficking.
Local nonprofit organizations are also part of the effort to bring awareness to human trafficking and providing services to victims.
The Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio has served survivors of sexual violence for more than 40 years, and collaborates with law enforcement to offer a safe haven for anyone who has been a victim of rape.
When a victim is assaulted and has a rape test done, the Rape Crisis Center sends an advocate to the hospital for support.
"We receive, about average, three calls a day to send an advocate to the hospital. So it’s a real problem in our community," Carmen Vasquez, clinical director for the Rape Crisis Center, said.
The center provides free and confidential counseling, support and educational tools. Vasquez said the collaboration is part of their fight against human trafficking.
“We have been collaborating with San Antonio Police Department in a federal grant to provide intensive case management services, counseling services and also to put on a yearly conference to bring awareness and education to our community, and to our social service provider, our hospital staff and everybody that can come in contact with a survivor,” Vasquez said.
Younger Women's Task Force San Antonio is another local organization that provides victims with support. The organization was created in 2016.
Executive director Shenee Simon said they are already embedded in the community to educate people on how to fight human trafficking.
“Our organization in a national level AAUW (American Association of University of Woman) has a national coalition partnership with the national council for Jewish women who have taken a very active role about putting tool kits and resources about how do I identify human trafficking, how to prevent human trafficking and just to bring about overall awareness to both men and women about these issues of human trafficking,” Simon said.
Another organization that fights against the epidemic is Freedom Youth Project Foundation, but their approach is data-based.
“We spent a lot of time going through case after case of trafficking incidents across the U.S.," Saul Castellanos, CEO of Freedom Youth Project Foundation said.
Castellanos said that research gave them a better picture of the patterns and trends that traffickers use.
“Traffickers are very skilled in the manipulation and their control, but you can actually disrupt it by taking away the surprise," Castellanos said. "We teach children how they approach someone. What kind of lies they tell."
Castellanos said they have hosted more than 200 events to spread their information to churches, businesses and schools.
"Traffickers have found ways to quietly and almost totally completely invade our home life, our school life and the youth culture," Castellanos said.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained anti-trafficking hotline advocate.