'Operation Freedom' human trafficking sting leads to 64 arrests

Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton has a message for human traffickers: "If you are in Fort Bend County and committing these offenses, your time is up. We are coming for you, and we will be relentless.”

Twenty-two local, federal and national agencies joined forces in July to conduct “Operation Freedom”, a collaborative effort to tackle the issue of human trafficking in Fort Bend County.

The operation resulted in the arrests of 64 individuals and the rescue of seven victims. Of the victims, two were juveniles between the ages of 15 and 17.

The agencies, in conjunction with numerous nonprofits, formed a taskforce called the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA).

“The objective is to investigate, arrest and prosecute those who are engaged and participating or compelling prostitution and to identify and recover victims of human trafficking. And thirdly, to provide a full array of services for the victims of human trafficking,” said Middleton.

The 64 arrests broke down into a litany of charges. “There were three arrests for compelling prostitution, three for promotion of prostitution and 24 arrests of males who were buying sex. There were 11 arrests for narcotics charges and three arrests of miscellaneous charges that included fraud, evading and failure to ID. Approximately $26,000 seized in money and vehicles,” Middleton reported.

Sherri Zack from the US Attorney’s office noted that human trafficking is a problem that effects all ethnicities and socio-economic groups in all parts of the world. “This is a problem that is everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're a big city or a small town, if you are on the border or if you are landlocked. This is a problem that we all have to address.”

Sgt. John Wall oversees HTRA. Wall reported that in 2018, law enforcement agencies recovered almost 400 victims in the Houston area and arrested 211 perpetrators.

“The fact is, the more we look, the more victims we find,” said Wall.

Wall stated that part of the process of ending human trafficking is educating the public, both in the definition of trafficking and the ways in which perpetrators are targeting their victims.

“What a lot of the community doesn’t understand is that these are victims of human trafficking, not prostitutes.” said Wall. “And I want to make it clear to the public that 90 percent of the grooming and recruiting process occurs online, and parents need to be very aware of the social media applications that their children use and know who they're talking to.”

Wall urged parents to remain vigilant with their children and not to be afraid to monitor their activities closely. “It’s not an invasion of privacy, it’s being a responsible parent.”

Zack added that much of the grooming process occurs in schools, and that parents and educators need to be aware of the risks of human trafficking at both the junior high and high school levels.

“Students need to be aware that they are vulnerable to this, and they can be susceptible to this. Teachers need to be on the lookout for signs of the grooming that is going on, and as a community we need to make sure that we are all vigilant,” she said.