AUSTIN – The fight against human trafficking, a modern day form of slavery, is the duty of every Texan, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said during a recent press conference at San Antonio Police Department’s Public Safety Headquarters.
"I want to take this moment to issue this challenge to every Texan," Paxton said to reporters, law enforcement and others gathered during the press conference Sept. 1. "Ask yourself, 'What are you doing to fight modern day slavery? What role can you play in your business, your home, your children's schools and in your community?' It's time to bring all hands on deck and marshal the breadth of Texas against this pernicious crime. Ending human trafficking is not something that the AG's office can do alone. And it's partnerships like these that help move the needle toward real change."
Paxton made those comments as part of a bringing together between his office's Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime (HTTOC), Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), the Texas Trucking Association (TTA), and law enforcement. All those bodies are working together to better to focus on the battle against human trafficking, Paxton said.
"My office has made it a priority to combat human trafficking, which is why last fall we joined forces with Truckers Against Trafficking and the Texas Trucking Association," Paxton said. "It's an innovative way of putting more eyes and ears on the road. Truckers Against Trafficking's mobilization of the trucking industry and the willingness of the trucking industry to take up that call is an exciting example of the difference public and private partnerships can make in the fight against human trafficking."
The partnership is important to all Texans, Paxton said.
"It helps insure that victims will be identified and rescued and that traffickers will find themselves behind bars," he said. "Texans, boys, girls, men and woman are being sold into the commercial sex industry and being forced labor by intimate partners, relatives, career criminals and organized gangs, among others."
Monday's news conference was the second time this year that Paxton used such a forum to call attention to the problem of human trafficking in Texas and what his office is doing about it. In January, the attorney general announced HTTOC had been formed in his office to combating human trafficking. That united is headed by Deputy Criminal Chief Kirsta Leeburg Melton, who Paxton described as an experienced prosecutor with an extensive background in combating human trafficking in Texas.
"Texas, unfortunately, is at the heart of trafficking in the United States. We're responsible for the nation's second-highest number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center," Paxton said during the January press conference. "And Houston has the highest number of trafficking victims in the country."
Worldwide, human trafficking generates hundreds of billions of dollars in profits for traffickers while trapping millions of victims into forced servitude, according to figures compiled by the Polaris Project, a leading advocacy group fighting to eradicate modern slavery. U.S.-based human traffickers keep their victims in line with violence, threats, deception, debt bondage, and other forms of intimidation to force people to work in the commercial sex or to unwillingly provide other labor or services against their will.
Last year, about 1 out of 5 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children likely were child sex trafficking victims, according to the Polaris Project. While there is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S., the Polaris Project estimates that numbers is in the hundreds of thousands.
Texas is one of the top destinations point for victims and traffickers in the nation, Paxton said during his most recent press conference.
"This type of behavior will not be tolerated in our state and the people who commit these unconscionable acts will be punished harshly," he said.
Paxton praised the work going on within the public-private partnership of his office, TAT, TTA and law enforcement.
"The Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime section is now staffed by three prosecutors, four investigators, a victim advocate and a crime analyst," he said. "Since this unit was created, they have assisted the Nueces County District Attorney's Office in a continuous trafficking case involving a 15-year-old victim and helped secure a 40-year sentence for the trafficker."
Paxton didn't name the trafficker during the press conference, but it likely is a reference to the conviction in July of Jovan Miles by a 94th Judicial District Court jury in Nueces County. Miles was sentenced to 40 years for the continuous human trafficking of a 15-year-old girl in Corpus Christi and Houston over two months in 2015. Miles reportedly trafficked the girl over the classified listings of the website Backpage.com
Paxton said his office, TAT, TTA and law enforcement are working hand-in-hand with other prosecutors throughout the state to gain justice for human trafficking victims.
"In addition to ongoing case work, this team has trained over 4,000 individuals around the state, including law enforcement, education and medical professionals, truckers, students, lawyers, judges, and many others," he said.
Joining Paxton at the news conference, according to a press release, were Assistant Attorney General Kirsta Melton, deputy criminal chief of the Human Trafficking and Transnational/Organized Crime Section; Truckers Against Trafficking Executive Director Kendis Paris; Texas Trucking Association President and CEO John Esparza; San Antonio Police Chief William McManus; Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico LaHood; and Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators.
While it's not unusual for attorneys general to hold press conferences and announce work done by their offices, including the activities of special units and partnerships, Paxton has been accused of using the work of his office to distract attention away from his own legal difficulties. Last week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Paxton did not properly file appeals in his three criminal indictments and he will need to try again.