Matt Osborne ’90 sits at a table in a restaurant in Mexico with Mario. They’re talking business. Negotiating prices, numbers and logistics — just a typical meeting with a client for Mario.
But Mario isn’t selling a product or a service. He’s selling people.
What Mario doesn’t know is that Osborne is an undercover agent for Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), which saves women and children who have endured years of sex trafficking.
Back at a vacation home in Acapulco, Mario snaps his fingers and parades the girls out in a row. Their outfits barely cover their bodies. Some wear dark sunglasses to hide the mix of fear and the haze of the drugs they’ve had pumped into them.
Some are 19 and have been in the business for years. But Osborne has seen girls as young as 12.
Despite the disgusting scene in front of him, Osborne has to maintain his cover as an American “sex tourist” — he has to pretend like he’s interested in the “merchandise” for his “boss.”
“I simultaneously wanted to throw up, I wanted to punch the guy,” Osborne said. “But I had to stay in character and say, ‘Oh yeah, the big boss man’s gonna like that.’”
Little does Mario know, a team of Mexican police are hidden everywhere throughout the house, ready to make the arrests the instant Osborne gives them a signal.
“Never in a million years do these guys think we’re coming after them. Because no one has,” Osborne said.
Finally, these girls are going to be saved. But for some of them, human trafficking has become too much a part of their life. For some of them, it’s too late.
For the vast majority of girls in the sex trade, it is not a choice to sell her body. Behind most victims is a deep history of abuse and abandonment.
The average age a girl enters the sex trade is just 13 years old. It’s not any child’s choice to be a sex slave.
In fact, according to O.U.R., two million children worldwide live as sex slaves. Texas ranks 2nd in the country for the most human trafficking. In Dallas alone, about 400 trafficked teens are on the streets every night.
But human trafficking does not discriminate, crossing boundaries of class, gender and age and generating an estimated $150 billion in yearly profits.
So why don’t we talk about human trafficking?
Perhaps the lack of conversations is due to the misconceptions, or the simple lack of knowledge of what actually happens to the victims.
Perhaps it’s the perception that all sex workers sell themselves by choice. But the reality is that the controlling arm of a trafficker has forced many women into the sex trade.
Sergeant Alfred Nuñez supervises the vice unit of the Dallas Police Department and works to pursue human traffickers.
“What we try to do is to try and find out if [sex workers] are doing this on their own, or who’s behind them,” Nuñez said. “A lot of times they make an outcry for us, and will tell us that there’s somebody behind them that’s putting them up to this, and at that time we consider them victims, and we treat them as such, and we start trying to obtain additional information so that we can make a case on a trafficker.”
George Lynch, CEO of Traffick911, an organization that works to rescue and rehabilitate minors who are victims of sex trafficking, clarifies that children are not simply swept off the streets by the perpetrators.
Instead, underprivileged children with often difficult home lives are identified by traffickers and coaxed in over time with lavish gifts and promises of love and a better life, only to find something much more terrifying.
“When you’re really dependent on [the trafficker] for your feeding, your care — he tells you he loves you — then he starts to flip on you and say, ‘You know what, if you love me, you’ll go do this. It’s just one time,’” Lynch said. “And then it’s, ‘Do it again tonight.’ And then before you know it, they are then required to deliver a thousand dollars in revenue every night — ten, 20 men or women come in and say, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ They show them pornography on their telephone and they say, ‘This is the act I want done and I want it done like this.’”
Between the overt sexualization of women in the media, the ready access to pornography and “adults only” outlets on sites such as Craig’s List, there is far more access to and tolerance of the sex trade.
At the New Friends New Life educational forum at the George Bush Library Feb. 22, FBI Special Agent Deborah Michaels, who oversees the Child Exploitation Task Force in North Texas, emphasized the difficulty investigators face when pursuing online predators and traffickers, especially when their targets are children.
“The internet gives predators a larger pool of clients,” Michaels said. “And a lot of times victims don’t even know they’re victims.”
Technology and social media also enable traffickers to market their victims and maximize their profits.
“For the most part, you don’t see minors walking the streets selling themselves,” Lynch said. “It is arranged online, by text message, advertising and marketing of this person as if they were a product. And the deal is made, and that’s how they get their jobs lined up for them. Frankly, a cell-phone-enabled world is how most of the transactions happen.”
Another misconception is that all of these victims are shipped overseas to places like Cambodia or Thailand — which some are — but in reality, many stay right here in Dallas, trapped in hotel rooms or sold at parties.
And these children aren’t always sold by a predator — sometimes it’s a friend or family member putting the price tag on them.
“High school students are selling other high school students,” Lynch said, “and moms are selling their high school students or junior high kids to get meth or cocaine or whatever their need is, and so [trafficking] does not mean that they are going out of state or out of the country.”
Many people think trafficking only happens in places they’d never visit in their lifetime, but in reality, it’s all around us.
It’s even at places like the Super Bowl, the Final Four, many big events around the country, where people will come to have a wild weekend and purchase sex.
“Now, where do you go?” Osborne asks. “Do you go to adults? Do you go to kids? Do you go to those who are choosing to work or do you go to those who are trafficking victims? That we don’t know, but we always see at these Super Bowls and other big events that they have these big busts and trafficking stings.”
Dallas Executive Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles, who has called for new attitudes against sex trafficking, spoke about the widespread nature of this issue at the educational forum Feb. 22 as well.
“It affects people all over the city, in North Dallas as much as anywhere else,” Miles said. “The issue cuts across all demographics.”
Sex trafficking can be expensive, so the demand side of the industry sometimes consists of wealthy businessmen.
“They’ve done everything — they have no more adventures left because they’re at the top of their business, they’ve got their families, they’ve got their networks,” Osborne said. “And it’s what is their next risk? A lot of it is traveling overseas to have these crazy weekends, purchase sex. And for those who have gotten hooked on pornography, they get to a point where it’s not a rush anymore unless it’s something truly illegal, truly out there. And that’s where we see a lot of kids being exploited.”
Surviving life as a slave doesn’t necessarily end the pain the victim endured.
It’s often a lifelong burden that carries poverty, a criminal history and mental health disorders.
And all of that can be retriggered at any moment.
“[You] can’t just get a Band-Aid on it and say, ‘there you go, you’re all fixed up,’” Lynch said, “because if a woman or a young girl is trafficked at 14, let’s say she’s successful and she becomes a mom and her daughter reaches the age of 14; she has all these flashbacks to the horrors that she endured, and it retriggers that trauma in her until she becomes almost paralyzed with concern for her own child.”
Before the long road to recovery can begin, however, the victims first have to escape their life of slavery.
Through O.U.R., Osborne has been able to fight for a cause he believes in: rescuing victims of human trafficking.
“What we are trying to do is first and foremost to rescue victims — to pull them out of the hell that they’re living in,” Osborne said. “We realize that the Operation Underground Railroad is not the long term solution to this problem of human trafficking because you can’t arrest your way out of this problem or rescue your way out of this problem. You need to have a societal change.”
Even after the victim gets rescued and is able to live freely, sometimes life after sex trafficking isn’t worth living. They’re often too far gone.
Osborne has seen it happen. Even after the police carry Mario and the other traffickers away in cuffs and offer protection to the girls, the problem is not automatically resolved.
One of Mario’s slaves, 16-year-old Alicia, had only been in the sex trade for a few months and was overjoyed at the thought of being free. But Linda, the 19-year-old, tells Osborne she doesn’t think she can escape safely. Criminals are threatening her and her family, and she doesn’t think she can live any other way.
I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve been told that all I’m good for is to service these guys.
As hard as it was for Linda to walk into a place where she thought she would be sold, her pimps and traffickers had distorted her world so much that she couldn’t walk out a free woman.
Her life belonged to Mario, and even after he was out of the picture, she was still not out of captivity.
I’m going to go back into it.