Houston has a new problem — and this one has nothing to do with NASA. The Texas metropolis known for its oil and aerospace industries has become a hub for human trafficking, with police and sex worker advocates describing a city that is teeming with brothels and seedy massage parlors that import women to work as sex slaves.
Authorities recently arrested four Houston men and charged them with human trafficking crimes for allegedly flying in women from China to live and work in massage parlors where customers were offered sexual services.
Anti-trafficking advocates who work in the city say its proximity to the Mexican border and position on an interstate corridor has contributed to the profusion of sex-focused businesses. According to Micah Bailey, director of operations at the advocacy group Elijah Rising, the city's sex workers are a mix of young American women and men who have run away from home and fallen in with pimps, Hispanic women who have crossed the border, and Asian women who have been brought to the country through fraudulent employment services.
Bailey said that Houston is unique in that you can "go out on the street and see massage parlor after massage parlor after brothel lining the streets. In other cities you don't see that." Many of the young women and men her group works with are runaways who have been coerced by pimps into sex work, she said.
Last week, four of those massage parlors were raided by a coalition of law enforcement agencies, including the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security. Eight women between the ages of 20 and 30, mostly Chinese nationals, were rescued, according to the Montgomery County District Attorney's office.
Charging documents filed by the DA described a ring that moved women back and forth among 12 different locations throughout the Houston region. Ads for prostitution services were reportedly placed on Backpage.com. Thomas Tran, Nianying Xie, Jeffery Wright, and Xing Shi were all charged with trafficking of persons based on prostitution.
Tyler Dunman, assistant district dttorney in Montgomery County, explained that law enforcement agencies throughout the Houston region have been aggressively going after human trafficking operations in recent years, leading to a spate of arrests that he said has made the problem more visible than it might be in other cities.
"Having said that, yes, we do have a problem," Dunman said. "The ring we busted here in Montgomery County is part of a ring in the larger Houston area, originating out of New York City, as a vehicle for these victims to come in from China."
This particular ring promised Chinese women employment in New York City, then flew them to Houston, distributed them to massage parlors throughout the region, and forced them to stay there, the prosecutor said. "They live there in these storefronts and engage in what is essentially commercial sex slavery," he said.
The women who were rescued during the bust were reportedly taken to a safe location where advocates and government workers will offer them resources and counseling.
Two advocacy organizations that work to disrupt human trafficking said that Houston's proliferation of sex-oriented businesses contributes to the trafficking problem. Jamie Caruthers, senior staff attorney for Children at Risk, said there are more than 300 illicit sexual businesses in Houston, many of which are massage parlors that are fronts for brothels.
"You can go on john review boards and see guys reviewing services they received at so-called massage parlors," Caruthers said.
While they could not estimate the number of women involved in sex work in Houston, Bailey said one online prostitution website sees between 300 and 500 posts a day advertising sex services, while Caruthers said Backpage.com in Houston sees about 600 posts a day. A recent visit to Backpage.com turned up hundreds of listings for massage parlors that seemed to be blatantly offering sexual services.
Both Caruthers and Bailey praised Houston police for going after the criminal enterprises behind the operations rather than the women practicing prostitution.
"It's very easy for law enforcement to go out and arrest prostitutes," Caruthers said. "HPD has been exemplary, they realize what a problem it is and that it's not a victimless crime."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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