HOUSTON—Sex traffickers can be anyone, according to Lt. Michael Landrum of Texas’s Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
“You name it. You got everywhere from billionaires to street criminals,” he said. “We’ve seen everything you can think of: husbands, brothers, friends, grandfathers, neighbors, unknowns that they met online.”
Landrum heads up the county’s narcotics, vice, and human trafficking unit. The unit is also part of the Houston-based Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance.
Landrum has worked on anti-sex trafficking operations for seven years, and over that time, the approach has changed markedly.
“There was a time years ago, where we addressed it simply as a criminal offense of prostitution, whether it’s buying or selling,” he said.
“We no longer arrest people who commit prostitution. We focus on trying to get them into services, and get them out of that lifestyle so that they can be rescued and recover.”
The definition of sex trafficking, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is that it involves “force, fraud, or coercion” to induce someone into a commercial sex act. For minors, force, fraud, or coercion need not be proven—it’s implied.
The domestic sex-trafficking industry is growing in the United States. It’s well-organized and well-networked, and predators employ masterful manipulation techniques to gain mental and physical control of their targets.
“What we see out of the traffickers, they’re very, very sophisticated, they’re smart, and they find victims who are in a position of need, and exploit them to a point where they feel like they have to conform with their traffickers and to please their traffickers,” Landrum said. The unfulfilled needs of those victims could include money, friendship, or a relationship, he said.
In Texas alone, more than 79,000 children are being trafficked for sex, according to a study by the University of Texas–Austin.
Before an operation, Landrum’s team scours the internet for ads and information related to prostitution.
“We target girls that appear to be under age, or based on a profile and what we’ve seen through our training and experience, there are certain clues in their postings that lead us to believe that they’re being trafficked,” he said. “And then we set up operations to target those girls, as victims.”
When the victim arrives at the location for the supposed job, the officers will use surveillance to identify how they were transported there.
Once in the room, an undercover officer will give the woman information about leaving their trafficker and getting out of the life. The officer then makes sure any immediate medical needs are taken care of before handing them to a representative from an anti-trafficking nonprofit group, who is on site with the undercover officer.
Twice a month during joint operations with surrounding cities and counties, the team will make contact with at least 16 potential victims on average.
Of those, they usually rescue three to five victims.
The nonprofit group can help connect the victim with housing, health care, drug addiction services, and psychological assistance.
Those who decline assistance are still given resources they can use in the future to leave their trafficker.
“And if we find them again, doing the same thing, still in the life, then we will target them a second time, in hopes that we can get them into treatment and recovery,” Landrum said. “Sometimes it takes two, three times of rescuing them to actually get them.”
Landrum’s team also conducts undercover operations targeting buyers. In mid-April, they arrested 27 buyers in a two-day operation.
Landrum said, of the women they rescue, some stay out of the life and some don’t.
“It’s hard to break down those walls. Again, we’re getting back into psychology, physiology, and everything else that goes along with it,” he said. “Plus the addiction side of it, that makes it really hard, because now you have a girl that’s got a mental, emotional attachment, possibly an addiction, [and you’re] trying to get her out of a lifestyle that supports those two avenues.”
But he also gets to see those who do get out flourish.
“To see them three months later—[and see they] have a job, are clean, not dealing with the violence, not dealing with the threats against them—is amazing. Absolutely amazing. And that’s what makes our job fulfilling,” he said.
“It’s worth it if we can save one life.”
National Human Trafficking Hotline