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Op Ed: Houston Stands Up to Its Reputation as Human Trafficking Hub

The Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) held annually in Houston is a world event. The conference, held this year May 4th through the 7th, attracted hundreds of vendors and thousands of professionals in the oil and gas industry providing a huge economic impact on the city.  Yet, there is a profound dark and vile underside to conference activities. Houston is also a major hub for human slavery and sex trafficking in the United States. For years, this intersection of business and widespread prostitution has provided a boon to sex traffickers in Houston every year. However, the difference this year is a coalition of anti-human trafficking organizations who have joined with city law enforcement and conference organizers to combat the widespread sex trafficking that usually occurs during this event.

Organizations such as United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), Free the Captives, BASTA Houston, and Elijah Rising have joined in with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), the Houston Police Department (HPD), and the OTC organizers. OTC conference staff have been trained in identifying suspicious sex trafficking activities, law enforcement set up  prostitution stings, and volunteers hit the city streets to raise awareness to the thousands of conventioneers and general public regarding sex trafficking.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia held a press conference a day before he announced his run for Houston Mayor to proclaim that “we do not tolerate anyone that is trying to buy a human being.” Julie Watters, a spokesperson for Free the Captives, made a succinct point when she stated “You may think you may be purchasing a 19- or 21-year old, but she could easily 13 years old.” This is because the majority of sex victims brought in to service the convention is between the ages of 12 to 14 years old.

One of the volunteers, Wanda Norris, was one of those covering the downtown area and Minute Maid Park handing out flyers stating the “Facts of Sex Trafficking in Houston”. The other side warns those who purchases sex “Buyer Beware You Will Be Arrested!” Wanda said that her team was escorted by a policeman while they handed out their flyers. She noted that these officers who were providing security for the volunteers were doing it on their own time without any compensation. Typically, law enforcement does not provide “free security” in that they supplement their incomes by providing security for hire. This speaks to their dedication for this issue.

Wanda made the observation that they must have been making their presence felt. She said that while some people would turn away; others would actively engage the volunteers and discuss the issue. Many people took time to thank them for what they were doing. Ms. Norris also told a story of a ticket scalper outside Minute Maid Park who tried to relocate them a block or two down the street for a better location. The cop with Wanda told her that the scalper was losing business because of the issues being discussed and the presence of so many police. One of the other groups supporting the anti-trafficking efforts, Elijah Rising performed a “coaster crawl” each night by placing coasters with sex trafficking truth statements in the bars around the baseball park.

The OTC organizers issued a press release announcing they would be joining with UAHT and allowed the anti-trafficking group to set up inside the conference.  OTC also warned conference attendees against participating in sex slavery. OTC 2015 Chairman Ed Stokes stated in a press release “Since 1969, OTC has made a significant impact on the Houston economy. However, we realize that our influence needs to extend beyond boosting business for the local restaurants and hotels that our attendees and exhibitors visit. As such, we are partnering with United Against Human Trafficking and look forward to supporting their efforts to increase awareness about the important issue of human trafficking.”

Carole Moffat, UAHT Board Chair, expressed her enthusiasm by stating “We are excited to partner with the OTC. Our participation will enable us to reach people from 10 countries and educate a broad audience on the subject of human trafficking.”

UAHT trained OTC staff on human trafficking and how to spot and identify potential sex trafficking at the conference. OTC made a commitment to refer any potential sex trafficking incidents to the appropriate law enforcement. Lacey Krause, OTC Public Relations, responding to an inquiry as to whether any suspicious behavior had been reported by OTC staff stated that no reports were made but conference staff had been monitoring conference activities, and attendees were further encouraged to report suspected human trafficking via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (1-888-373-7888).

With all the emphasis on human trafficking in Houston at the OTC event, it was truly gratifying to hear of a success story. Julie Waters posted on the Free the Captives Facebook site a video describing the rescue of a 14-year old sex trafficking victim from Beaumont, TX. Although the video has been pulled down to assist law enforcement in the prosecution of the Louisiana man who was trafficking the 14 year old girl, a subsequent update on the Facebook site describes the young victim as being reunited with her family in Beaumont, and she is happy to be rescued.

It is apparent by the many groups springing up in the Greater Houston area that the fight against one of mankind’s most vile activities – human slavery is becoming more ‘mainstream’ as business, law enforcement, clergy, and citizens form coalitions to increase awareness, expose the traffickers, rescue and rehabilitate the victims. The people of Texas may have finally had enough of turning a blind eye to the wicked endeavor that is human trafficking.

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