Human and sex trafficking is all-encompassing with victims from all genders, ages and ethnicities, panelists said at the South Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Panel last week on campus.
“I think a lot of college students don’t understand the degree and the extreme that it is,” said Dana Michea Marquez, communication senior and event organizer, in an interview after the event. “They don’t understand how common it is and that anybody can be a target.”
About 240 students, faculty, staff and community members attended the event Jan. 30 in the Texas A&M University-San Antonio auditorium. The panel of seven speakers was organized by Marquez in collaboration with the Department of Social Sciences. Multimedia journalist Roxie Bustamante from KENS 5 moderated the event.
According to the Homeland Security website, “human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
Texas has the most active human trafficking cases in the nation, with 234,000 labor trafficking cases and 79,000 victims of youth sex trafficking, according to the Attorney General’s website.
“This event is about making people aware of the problem by being able to first talk about it and being able to recognize it when they see it,” said Texas State Sen. Pete Flores in an interview before the panel. “It’s not a position of helplessness, but a position of power and especially empowerment to those who are most defenseless, those who are trapped in this web of human trafficking.”
Flores was one of the seven panelists who spoke. The first panelist to speak was trafficking survivor Karla Solomon, who recounted her first-hand experiences with sex trafficking.
“I was actually exploited as a child and as an adult,” Solomon said. “I am married, I have three children and now this is what I do: I share my story with anyone who will listen.”
In addition to advocating by sharing her story at events, Solomon is the survivor advocate and outreach specialist for Mercy Gate Ministries, a non-profit organization that offers resources to victims.
Judge Catherine Torres-Stahl from the 175th District Court described legal action that the state of Texas and city of San Antonio have taken to prevent human trafficking. Torres-Stahl presides over Esperanza court, a court mandated by the governor’s office that specializes in prostitution prevention.
“It’s interesting to see some of our participants who don’t realize actually that they were trafficked,” Torres-Stahl said. “The more and more we work with this population or these participants, we are understanding that they require trauma and harm care. They’ve been through a lot and we are also identifying that many of them have been trafficked.”
Human and sex trafficking is all-encompassing with victims from all genders, ages and ethnicities. According to the Human Trafficking Hotline website, the warning signs of victims being trafficked include poor mental health, abnormal behavior, poor physical heath, lack of control, unknowledgeable about whereabouts and sharing scripted, inconsistent stories.
“I personally have seen plenty of boys and men out there, as well as children, women teenagers,” said Solomon in an interview after the panel. “It is non discriminative. It is any race, any age, any color; they (traffickers) do not care. You are a piece of product that they are trying to sell.”
The panel also included Lt. Bill Grayson from the San Antonio Police Department, CEO of Providence Place Judith Bell, former CEO of Heidi Search Center Dottie Lasiter and Debbie Solcher from the Office of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team. After the speeches, the panel was opened up to a Q&A session where those in attendance asked questions and expressed concerns.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s “Blue Campaign” and “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, members of the public are encouraged to report any suspicious items or behavior.
To report human and sex trafficking, individuals can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233733.
“I really encourage people that they’re not alone; there are people who understand, there are people who have lived it,” Solomon said. “That is the biggest thing, is actually reporting what you see.”