Facing budget cuts, Texas alcohol regulators aim to expand human trafficking prevention efforts

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Delivery drivers, convenience store clerks and bar patrons are the latest targets by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in the state’s effort to tackle human trafficking.

TABC regulates businesses licensed to sell alcohol — its agents have regulatory inspection power and law enforcement power.

“Although we have a lot of good folks in the business, about 60% of all human trafficking is somehow connected to a TABC-licensed premise,” Gen. Bentley Nettles, the agency’s executive director said.

TABC has 225 agents covering 254 counties. The agency regulates 56,000 locations, Nettles said.

“Doesn’t take a lot of math wizard to realize that we are pretty stretched pretty thin,” he said.

TABC is one of the state agencies directed by Gov. Greg Abbott to slash its budget by 5% due to financial shortfalls spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nettles and his team hope training more civilians on the ground about the signs of trafficking will help fill in gaps, using January’s designation as Human Trafficking Month to raise awareness.

“We’ve only had about 17% of the distributors actually go through that training before COVID hit,” Nettles said. That training is critical to identifying trafficking victims or perpetrators.

“If you’re a convenience store owner, if you’re a bouncer, if you’re a server, ‘how do I recognize when maybe there’s a trafficker and a victim in my location?’” Nettles said.

Another effort to boost awareness was inspired by Abbott’s anti-trafficking initiatives. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, a few blocks from the Capitol, is featuring an exhibit with videos and artifacts to show the signs of trafficking and support survivors.

“We hope this exhibition inspires everyone to understand that as individuals we are not powerless to assist in the prevention of human trafficking,” museum director Margaret Koch stated. “One person can make a difference.”

The stories feature first-person accounts from survivors of labor and sex trafficking.

Allison Franklin is one of them. Abused as a child, she ran away from home, and lived on the streets as a preteen. She went home with a man who controlled her.

“I would engage in commercial sex work as well as distribution of drugs,” Franklin said. “Gang members would be ordered to kidnap me, rape me, beat me, force me into prostitution.”

“We moved money, we moved guns, we moved cars, we moved people, including grooming me to recruit other women to be trafficked as well,” Franklin said.

Nettles said removing people from dangerous situations is crucial.

“Look at the problem from a victim’s perspective, how we can solve it, and help to get them out of that lifestyle,” he said.

Beyond victim-focused solutions, Houston-based United Against Human Trafficking pushes for a multi-pronged approach. The organization works on prevention measures, training, outreach and wraparound case management services.

The group’s director of Donor and External Partnerships, Elaine Andino, said Texas’ major cities are riddled with labor and sex trafficking, estimating an average of 2,800 sex buyers in Houston daily. She estimates there are over 234,000 labor trafficking victims in the state, working in nail salons, serving as domestic servants, working in restaurants and farming in our agriculture fields.

“We work very hard to increase penalties for buyers, we work very hard to equip people who are out fighting human trafficking, but really all of that could be taken care of, if the demand was reduced,” Andino said.

A non-partisan research and advocacy organization called Children at Risk, which works to address issues focused on youth, published a list of legislation its leaders believe will help tackle human trafficking. The bills range from measures creating harsher penalties for people caught trafficking to auditing of business supply chains to check for forced labor and adding trafficking prevention information in driver education courses.

The proposals filed at the Capitol thus far have come from both Democrats and Republicans and Abbott has shown support. He signed bills last session to combat trafficking and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott partnered with TABC in 2018 on trafficking prevention efforts.

Nettles hopes state lawmakers will close a loophole that allows establishments with revoked alcohol licenses to operate as “bring your own beer,” or BYOB, which TABC can’t regulate.

“Right now, we don’t know how many BYOB locations there are; we don’t know,” Nettles said, adding he wants jurisdiction over those locations.

This week, the Texas Department of Transportation held a virtual version of the training it launched last year to teach staff on how to spot this modern-day slavery.

The state’s homeland security strategic plan includes mentions of expanding operations to combat trafficking, enroll officers in specific training and continue public outreach.

In Central Texas, a nonprofit refuge opened for trafficking survivors in 2018.

One idea to raise awareness is called the Texas Blue Sand Project. In Lubbock, people laid blue sand on the cracks of sidewalks as a way to get their neighbors’ attention.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 or text “help” to 233733.

Photojournalist Frank Martinez and graphic artist Rachel Garza contributed to this report.

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