Human trafficking is an issue seen in every state in America. In Central Texas, activist organizations, law enforcement agencies, and government officials have joined forces to combat the problem.
"We want to eradicate this from our county," Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza said. "When we find it, we want to prosecute it, and we want to hold those individuals accountable and responsible for the damage and the danger in what they have done in respect to that child.”
As of 2016, in the state of Texas, approximately 79,000 minors were victims of sex trafficking. Another 234,000 workers were victims of labor trafficking. That brings the total to 313,000 victims of human trafficking in the state of Texas alone.
Andrea Sparks, who works with the human trafficking task force for the governor's office, said the issue was near and dear to Governor Greg Abbott.
"This has been a priority for governor Abbott for a long time," Sparks explained. "...he’s always wanted to have a team of people focus on this issue and these victims. So, he’s very involved.”
While Sparks said sex trafficking is more common in cities like Houston, she added that parts of Lubbock and Bell County were among the areas seeing more and more cases. Garza said location and type of crime play a role in why he thinks Bell County is seeing a rising number of cases.
"Certain crime is mobile and this is one of them," Garza said. "We are a transition point for individuals who may be coming to our county or through our county. With interstate 35 and being the in-between point between San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, and Houston, there's no doubt about it."
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as of June 2017, there had been 1,142 calls. Only 151 of those calls were from victims or survivors.
Despite the growing concern here in Bell County, Sparks was confident the state as a whole had improved its system in finding the traffickers and holding them accountable for the crime.
"We’re top notch in the country when it comes to holding traffickers accountable for that, and we've got great prosecutors doing that work and the law enforcement," Sparks said.