The Bayou City, known for its bustling medical center and oil and gas industry, is also known to many as the No. 1 city in the country for human trafficking. This underworld of characters works parallel to the city’s biggest industries and operates by its own set of rules.
Cases for human trafficking and promotion of prostitution more than doubled in 2019, and although there have been attempts to curb the number of cases, the novel coronavirus has affected the equation.
Harris county filed 266 human trafficking or promotion of prostitution cases in 2019, up from just 106 cases three years earlier.
With many facing job loses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, victims of human trafficking are more likely to relapse.
Samantha Hernandez, mobilization director for Elijah Rising, a Houston organization dedicated to helping former victims restore their lives, explained that any economic disparity fosters more vulnerabilities for victims.
“Traffickers will use any type of vulnerability, so it is a huge red flag to us as an organization because of COVID right now,” said Hernandez.
She said that Houston is a huge hot spot for human trafficking in the U.S. because of two male-dominanated industries — oil and gas and the medical industry. According to Hernandez, the relaxed zoning laws also make it easy to set up hot spots like strip clubs anywhere in the city.
Brothels exist in average townhomes and massage parlors, to name two kinds of places, and have a huge presence online for advertising, Herenandez explained. Another way these businesses have worked in the past is through word of mouth.
“We’ve known for years that limo drivers have been given tips and back when taxis were more of a thing, taxi drivers used to get tips for suggesting to people to go to these brothels,” said Hernandez.
The most notorious location in Space City for the human trafficking world is a quarter of a mile stretch of land on Bissonet Street.
“Houston has a huge area for street prostitution that is really unlike anywhere that we know of in the country,” said Hernandez. “And right now it is packed 24/7 with women working.”
Hernandez told us that after the removal of the popular website for prostitution, Backpages, more have emerged in its place. One called RubMaps advertises in detail the services available, and Elijah Rising uses it to gather information about victims and businesses.
“It rates, reviews and tells information about the women working at each place,” said Hernandez. “It rates their body, it rates what sex acts they do, it rates how much they pay to have sex without a condom. It has extremely detailed accounts of what’s happening inside these locations.”
One thing Hernandez made clear was that human traffickers are master-manipulators, and the majority of victims are not abducted, but lead under the guise of a job opportunity. Hernandez said that being close to the border and also being a very diverse city creates more opportunities for human trafficking.
“They show up and the trafficker says ‘you owe me $20,000 for smuggling you here and you’re going to pay that off inside of a brothel,’” explained Hernandez. “So it becomes this unpayable debt that never goes away!”
Hernandez said Houston is unlike other cities because it has joined forces with many organizations and public officials to put a stop to human trafficking.
“We hope to take this challenge and say, ‘look, we had the biggest issue, and this is how we worked together,’” said Hernandez.