The sex industry has evolved in the past two decades, moving from the streets to computer screens, and authorities in Austin and across the state say their efforts to enforce the law and find and protect victims are hampered by the shift.
Detectives said they have made strides to fight what they describe as a modern-day form of slavery by enhancing their collaboration across jurisdictions and their use of tools on the Web, where victims are easier to hide, predators harder to catch and evidence tougher and more time-consuming to gather. But authorities said offline efforts are just as important, such as training officers, emergency responders and residents on how to detect potential sex trafficking circles in their own communities.
At its core, social workers and detectives say that the universal model for one of the world’s oldest professions remains much the same: men capitalizing on young women.
But the sex trade is no longer mostly girls hanging around dark city corners looking for business, experts said. It is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that has expanded to hundreds of thousands of women advertising — or being forced to advertise — their services on countless online classified ads, teen dating and social networking sites.
Craigslist shuttered its “adult services” section almost two years ago after complaints that ads for prostitution — many including children sold into the trade — were widespread on the site. But others, such as Backpage and Facebook, have taken its place, investigators said.
“The Internet is an enabler, a marketing strategy for the pimps who exploit these girls and the johns who use them,” said Noel Busch-Armendariz, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.
Detectives said it’s often tough to distinguish early in an investigation between victims willingly involved in prostitution and those who have been forced into the business.
“Sex trafficking victims are typically minors or vulnerable young adults who are coerced or fraudulently brought into the trade through mental or physical abuse,” said Billy Sifuentes, human trafficking liaison for the Austin Police Department.
Numbers on such cases are difficult to find because victims often do not come forward to authorities, and there is no uniform database to track such cases when they do. The Human Trafficking Reporting System, developed in 2007 under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice, counted 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigations nationwide between January 2008 and June 2010 — about 80 percent of which involved commercial sex as opposed to forced labor.
But the system is not a comprehensive study and does not provide a statistical snapshot for the country, government officials said. It collected data from federally funded task forces that in Texas included only those from Bexar and Harris counties and the cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth.
Police tactics evolve
The scope of the online enterprise is even harder to measure as it is increasingly transitory, transnational and predatory, authorities said. Across the state, Texan gangs and Mexican cartels have dipped into the deep pockets of the lucrative trade and expanded its reach.
To fight it, police departments in Texas have ramped up their coordination with other police forces and child advocacy centers across the state and nationwide. Detectives in one city often have to execute search or arrest warrants in others. They also have to be able to quickly share case and suspect information among varying agencies.
State legislation in 2007 created the Texas Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal levels who can swap intelligence between regional and statewide task forces. It is headed by the attorney general’s office, but the agencies taking charge and working on cases vary from community coalitions and victim assistance agencies to state departments such as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Commission officers conducting their own investigations have been able to shut down bars, cantinas and other businesses with liquor licenses that were operating human trafficking rings.
The attorney general’s office and the statewide task force work to stay on top of the trends, Strickland said, whether an investigation starts on the Web or on the ground.
“The evidence and the activity dictates where we go,” he said.
And with the movement of the sex trade to the Web, law enforcement officials also have boosted their efforts to fight the exploitation of children online, and detectives working on sex trafficking cases can often work with those who specialize on cybercrimes.
Victims in the shadows
Like most law enforcement agencies across the state, the Austin Police Department began developing its resources to fight online crimes against children back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when personal computers were becoming popular and the major concern were predators, adults trolling the Web to lure young boys and girls, said Austin Detective Joel Pridgeon with the child abuse unit.
Now detectives working on sex trafficking cases can use resources such as the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces at the state and federal levels that allow multiple police agencies in the country to share data and resources.
Austin’s human trafficking unit works about 12 investigations a month, most of them sex trafficking cases, Sifuentes said. More than 100 victims were identified between January 2005 and June 2010, according to police records. Detectives found at least six of those children by matching photos on Backpage ads to their own missing-children databases, police said.
But “it is difficult to count the number of people operating in the shadows,” Sifuentes said. “Who can say how many victims we actually have? Who can say when many of these girls are not willing to report?”
It was through the collaborative efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that authorities in 2009 were able to arrest a North Austin woman later convicted of running a prostitution ring that advertised in the Austin Chronicle and on Craigslist and other sites, Sifuentes said. Hong Yan Li, now 41, was sentenced in January 2010 to almost a year and a half in federal prison and three years of supervision. Under a plea bargain, Li was made to forfeit to the government three houses and a condominium in Austin and Pflugerville, about $33,100 in cash, and watches and jewelry, according to court records.
She first appeared on law enforcement’s radar when an apartment complex manager made a complaint about foot traffic in and out of her unit, Sifuentes said. Through a two-year probe that also included investigators from federal police agencies, the Travis County sheriff’s office and Internal Revenue Service, authorities found that from 2004 to 2009, Li had managed a rotating crew of women to work as prostitutes at a series of apartments, hotel rooms and storefronts throughout the city, court documents show.
The websites were constantly updated with descriptions of available women who would have sex for about $160, the documents said.
“She was prolific,” Sifuentes said. Although he said he is certain some of the women she employed were forced into the trade, detectives were not able to find any trafficking victims.
As with similar cases, he said the main reason for that was their fear of retaliation. That is why first responders, such as social workers, patrol officers and emergency crews, should be trained to identify the crime and to ask victims the right questions, he said.
Authorities have come a long way, he added. In the ’70s, officers faced similar challenges in understanding acts of family violence, and sex trafficking did not yet have a name, he recalled.
“When I was a young officer, we just did not know what to call it,” he said. “But in reality, it is slavery.”
Contact Jazmine Ulloa at 445-3763