MCALLEN, Texas (KVEO) — Human trafficking is an issue that’s hardly talked about and often overlooked in the Rio Grande Valley.
For federal law enforcement based in the Valley, the reality of the underground world of sexual exploitation and human trafficking is far from secret.
“The situations are unthinkable, unimaginable from a normal person, the stuff we’ve seen is unimaginable,” said Homeland Security Investigation Special Agent John Reinosa.
Reinosa is one of the Homeland Security Investigations agents that specializes in tracking criminals who prey on young victims.
It’s an issue that has been a focus of Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, for years.
“Here in the Valley, there’s been some cases where women have been lured or smuggled into the United States and it turned into a tracking scenario because they have to pay their smuggling fees and they’re kept against their will to work their debt off at a bar or prostitute it out for those reasons,” explained Maria Michel-Manzo, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge in McAllen.
One of those scenarios was El Paraiso Bar in Mission, Texas.
“There was a bar in Mission, Texas, where women had been lured to work in the bar smuggled from Mexico and were being trafficked,” said Agent Michel-Manzo.
The girls, ages 14, 15, and 17, were promised $3 for every beer that a customer bought them and that they could keep any money they made having sex with customers, minus $50 they would have to pay back for smuggling fees.
But it was a lie, the teens were never paid.
They were sold and sex trafficked between paying customers in the Rio Grande Valley.
“By the time we rescued them they were held in a room that was locked and they could not leave,” said Agent Michel-Manzo.
This was just one of many similar cases.
“Just recently, there was a professor at South Texas College, who was uploading images to his google photos account and it would be flagged in the system,” said Special Agent John Reinosa.
HSI Agents tracked down the photos on Google Drive and it led them to a whole web of underground pornography and child sexual assault of a 4-year-old girl and 6-year-old girl in the valley.
“The professor was in a romantic relationship with someone who had a child and what he was doing was grooming the girlfriend and the child into doing exploitative things to the child,” said Reinosa.
While these cases are face-to-face traditional trafficking, some of it happens behind a screen.
“In one case we had a student who had initially met the suspect through playing Gears of War on her Xbox console,” said Michel-Manzo, “We identified this man as trying to extort her and they actually met on this online game.”
That man was sent to prison for extorting the Valley teenage through her X-box.
Sometimes the predators are caught, but other times it’s too late.
Earlier this year, a 13-year-old girl in McAllen was taken by a 21-year-old man from Louisiana.
Within one hour, she was raped multiple times.
She was rescued after a Border Patrol agent found inconsistencies in her story when she and her assailant passed through an inspection checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
“We honestly believe, if she wouldn’t have been found, she would have met her demise,” said McAllen Chief of Police Victor Rodriguez.
Police say the victims are getting younger and younger, and in today’s world of distance learning, it’s getting easier for predators to strike.
“There’s a lot of predators on the internet now a days and when kids have more access on their phones and they’re home a lot more, it’s important to monitor that, because we see so many apps trying to get people to exploit children, snapchat, KIK, whisper, there’s always going to be a new application that allows predators to see and talk to children,” said Agent Reinosa.
Now, these agents have committed their lives to put an end to the hidden horrors of human trafficking.
“At the end of the day, this is why we do what we do, to see people pay for the harm they’ve caused these children and it’s so important for us to see these people arrested and found guilty,” said Reinosa.
Human trafficking earns global profits of $150 billion a year for traffickers, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation, according to Human Rights First, which tracks human trafficking victims.
If you or someone you know is being trafficked or exploited, call the HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.