The Dallas Morning News. Nov. 13, 2020.

What a federal torture case in Dallas tells us about sex trafficking

It’s not a victimless crime, nor is it just another economic choice.

If you think prostitution is merely an economic choice or a victimless crime, consider the federal case that is now being brought against Billie Joe Sanford.

Sanford, who is 37, was arrested in Dallas recently after meeting with a man claiming to be a human trafficker. The man, who was actually an undercover federal agent, said he had a woman under under his control who refused to be sold for sex, and he needed someone to destroy her will to resist.

That’s where Sanford allegedly came in. He responded to an online ad, the feds say, and promised that he could break her for a fee, and would inflict such severe mental and emotional trauma that she would obey the trafficker’s every command. The objective here, apparently, was to make her compliant with being forced into sexual slavery so the trafficker could make a fortune off of her.

Our reporter Kevin Krause reported details of the case earlier this week, including that Sanford appears to have said he would isolate and disorient her so she wouldn’t know what time it was, place her in a cage, and physically torture her for as long as it took. Sanford was arrested when he met the undercover agent to, apparently, start torturing the woman.

We’ve been advocating for sex trafficking reforms and calling on law enforcement agents to pull out the stops to arrest and prosecute traffickers and johns for more than two years now for reasons illustrated by the case against Sanford.

The life a sex-trafficking victim faces is one of demented torture, control and trauma that disorients her to the point of often making decisions that seem incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t delved deeply into this issue. Law enforcement officials tell us traffickers use drug addiction, shame, physical abuse and threats of violence to coerce their victims into compliance. The trauma often leads to such extreme denial that victims fail to flee and sometimes can even end up defending their traffickers. It can take years for victims to emerge from the fog of the abuse they suffer.

But they aren’t in that fog alone. Too often society is willing to look the other way, and too often well-meaning people nurse the belief that trafficking victims are actually making a rational economic choice to engage in “the life” of prostitution. Too often our community has been willing to punish sex-trafficking victims instead of treating them as the victims they are and chasing the real perpetrators of these vicious and vile crimes. In other words, society itself has been in a fog about this crime.

The good news is that our community here in North Texas is emerging as a leader in combating sex trafficking. Federal, state and local law enforcement officials work closely together. And new strategies now target traffickers. Backpage, a website where numerous women were sold for sex and that had its offices here in Dallas, was shut down.

Now regularly we see the authorities engaging in sting operations or otherwise rolling up people who are accused of engaging in levels of depravity that boggle the mind. Sanford’s case may be an extreme example. But then, it also reveals the extent of the evil that confronts vulnerable people on our streets and in our communities.

If a woman were held captive and tortured along the lines of the allegations in the Sanford case, she would have virtually no chance to defend herself, to flee, to fight back or emerge without mental and physical trauma. The only chance many women and girls have -- and often girls being trafficked are just 13 -- is for law enforcement agents to step into the fray and rescue them.

In the stark reality confronting hundreds and thousands of women and girls, there isn’t room for a debate about free will or a willingness to engage in “the life.” The dangers are real and the reality is that traffickers and their enablers are actually sinking their hooks into people every day. The authorities are fighting back, and as they do a responsibility falls to the rest of us to fight back as well. Traffickers rent office space, buy groceries, and pay for water and gas like the rest of us. Alert flight attendants have spotted traffickers on planes and had them nabbed by security. Neighbors have spotted traffickers operating out of nearby houses. And hotel clerks have alerted law enforcement to rooms frequented by a suspicious number of men in a short period of time. Each person who spots a trafficker and stands up is a quiet hero.

The rest of us can act, as well. Landlords should do more to inquire about just what sort of business is being run out of that rundown strip mall. Real estate investors should inquire about all of the businesses renting properties in their portfolio. Other businesses are already training employees to spot traffickers where they work and live. Increasingly, it appears possible to stamp out sex trafficking in North Texas or, at the very least, to make it so hard for traffickers to survive here that they give up out of fear that around the next corner, or on the other side of that internet connection, awaits a federal agent and date with a federal judge and jury.

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Austin American-Statesman. Nov. 15, 2020.

COVID-19 will keep surging unless we act

COVID-19 patients in El Paso are dying in such numbers that officials just brought in their fourth refrigerated morgue trailer to hold the bodies. Two Del Valle schools have closed to in-person classes until the end of the month, while officials say Austin-area hospitals could need about 130 additional ICU beds within the next three weeks to handle the spike in patients. Experts are begging Central Texans to celebrate Thanksgiving only with members of their own households.

This is where we are: The first state to top 1 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. A COVID death toll of more than 19,000 Texans, enough people to fill the AT&T Center where the San Antonio Spurs play.

Turning things around is imperative. Experts have warned for months that this winter could bring the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, and still Texas is headed in the wrong direction. COVID fatigue runs thick, and our state leaders have failed for months to provide the clear, science-driven leadership this crisis demands.

But there are critical actions we can all take to help curb the spread. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Avoid group gatherings.

We recognize Texans are tiring of these measures and the strain of a sequestered existence. But your health, even your life or the life of a family member or someone you know, could depend on such efforts over the next few months, until a vaccine becomes widely available.

A CDC analysis this week confirmed that widespread use of masks leads to a “significant” drop of new COVID cases in a community. Keeping cases low allows schools and businesses to remain open, keeping our economy going. The CDC pointed to an economic analysis that found increased use of masks nationwide “could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion or about 5% of gross domestic product.”

To his credit, Gov. Greg Abbott has kept a statewide mask mandate in place since July — albeit after giving inscrutably mixed messages on this common-sense precaution that has become needlessly politicized.

Distressingly, our state and local governments remain at cross-purposes in confronting COVID-19. While Abbott continues to send medical personnel and equipment to help with the crush of coronavirus cases in El Paso, Attorney General Ken Paxton is in court fighting that county’s temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses — a local order signifying a desperate attempt to rein in this virus. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has warned that rising cases could lead to shutdowns elsewhere. “We’re stuck in a vicious cycle of wishful thinking and unsustainable reopenings,” she told reporters this week.

None of us wants another lockdown. That’s why we must step up our efforts to contain the virus in other ways — masks, social distancing, avoiding gatherings — to prevent the need for more extreme measures.

Keeping the economy open is important, but the costs of this pandemic go beyond lost revenue. Hospitals in Central Texas and communities across the state once again are filling up with people who are struggling to breathe, who may die if their bodies can’t get enough oxygen. Their pain, their medical bills, their lost time with their families, their lost time at work — all these costs could have been avoided if we all worked harder to contain the virus.

The pandemic is also taking a fierce toll on nurses, doctors and other health care workers who spend exhausting shifts caring for never-ending waves of COVID patients. They relay stories of extremely sick patients who say they wish they had taken better precautions. Some of them confess they’re reaching their breaking point. All of us have the power to ease their burden by taking steps to contain this virus.

Sounding the alarm on the nation’s ability to handle the pandemic through the fall and winter months, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently warned: “You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.” Certainly that’s the case today in Texas, which this week topped 10,000 new cases a day, the first time that’s happened since July.

A serious national strategy is a good two months away, with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. The Texas path, marked by high hopes and half-measures, has failed to protect our state. It’s up to us, as individuals, to help prevent more outbreaks through our everyday actions.

Wear a mask. Use social distancing. Avoid large gatherings. Let’s get through this winter together.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Nov. 13, 2020

Here’s what Trump’s surprising strength among Latino voters means for Texas’ future

Throughout the country, Hispanic voters cast more ballots for Donald Trump than anyone expected. Republicans did better in many congressional districts with large numbers of Latinos than imagined, especially in South Florida.

And in Texas, Democrats were taken aback at Trump’s strong performance in the Rio Grande Valley. While Joe Biden won majorities in most, Trump won more votes from the region than in 2016. And he boosted his take in Tarrant County’s predominantly Hispanic areas, Star-Telegram reporter Kristian Hernandez found in an analysis of the vote.

All this has huge implications for the future of Texas politics. Democrats have long hoped (and perhaps assumed) that Texas Hispanics would be the driving force behind an enduring majority, if only they would vote in large numbers. But these voters are up for grabs, and while several factors will determine if the state stays red or swings blue, winning Latino votes will be a high priority for both parties as the fight continues.

The party that comes up with the right pitch will be the one that understands the diversity within the Latino vote. Indeed, it may be time to stop even referring to such a single entity.

The first step is cultural competence, veteran Democratic political operative Chuck Rocha says.

Rocha, a Tyler native, was a top strategist to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, which consistently performed well among Latinos in the Democratic primaries.

For example, he noted, in West Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, a swing district that runs from San Antonio to just outside of El Paso, you can’t reach Latino voters with Spanish-language ads in San Antonio. In small towns, they get information from weekly Spanish newspapers, FM radio and mail.

“The Latinos in Eagle Pass act a lot different than the Latinos on the south side of San Antonio who take the bus to work every day,” said Rocha, whose book, “Tio Bernie,” outlines the Sanders campaign’s success.

The key, according to Rocha, is hiring Latinos who understand how to reach voters and allocate resources accordingly.

“If you put one of us in charge, we’re a lot more apt to make sure things are funded and run … with a culturally competent campaign,” said Rocha, whose Nuestro PAC is raising money to improve Hispanic turnout for Democrats.

The assumption was that Latino voters were immediately turned off by Donald Trump’s harsh words about Mexicans and remained angry about his focus on illegal immigration. And millions no doubt did.

But as with Sanders, the populism that Trump injected into the GOP might have won over some Latinos. Rocha said his polling indicated that many Latino voters, particularly men, are receptive to a candidate who pledges to battle a “rigged system” so that they and their families get a fair shake.

That’s an important note for Republicans. If they’re going to build on Trump’s relative success, they must abandon the hope that just fixing their immigration rhetoric and policies will be enough. Latinos, like all voters, want to hear about policies that will improve their lives.

And because the demographic is so young — the average age of a U.S. Latino is 27, Rocha noted — voters want to hear about education and economic opportunity. Immigration may be a threshold issue for many, but if Trump’s performance proved anything, it’s that it’s not the deciding factor for such voters.

That youth will drive Texas’ future. Rocha pointed to the fact that 69% of Texas schoolchildren are nonwhite, and in the Fort Worth district, the percentage is even higher.

There’s also significant diversity among Latinos, and smart campaigns capitalize on that. Republicans had success targeting Cuban Americans and those of Venezuelan descent in Florida with messages about the dangers of socialism. Within Texas, Mexican Americans in big cities have a much different perspective from those in the Valley.

Rocha says that if Democrats can reach Hispanic voters better, Texas could be blue in four or six years. Republicans now have a map to make serious in-roads.

The battle for the future of Texas is on.

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