Usually, when someone is smuggled into the country they pay a fee to a coyote. When they are forced here to work, or to pay off a debt with their labor it becomes trafficking. Sometimes it's not clear which one it is until all the facts come to light.
And that decision will soon get made after authorities freed more than 100 people today who were held in Pearland in an alleged smuggling operation.
It began as a hostage investigation by the HPD, according to Greg Palmore, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, and ended up as a rescue of 110 people. Of that group 95 were men and 15 were women. The ages ranged from 5 to 47, and 17 of them were juveniles.
The people living in the home were primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, Palmore said. Two people were taken to the hospital, including a man who was sent for unknown reasons and a woman who was pregnant.
What started the investigation, according to the Houston Police Department was a local family who contacted them after a coyote didn't deliver a woman and her two small children.
Five men believed to be connected with holding the people in the ramshackle southeast Houston drop house were taken into custody and referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible charges. At this point authorities are calling this an alleged smuggling incident, but they won't know that for sure until all the facts come out and all the individuals involved are interviewed.
"If any of those people were deemed to be victims of trafficking they would be provided services to stay in the country legally," Maria Trujillo, executive director of Rescue and Restore said. Her group deals with educating and training people on how to confront issues related to modern slavery. She calls human trafficking "the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world second only to drug dealing."
Of course if it's decided that the people locked in that house were smuggled here and caught a raw deal in the process they will be sent back home.
Palmore calls smuggling "sporadic" here in the Houston area. "The prominence of human smuggling has to do with the highway corridors and that individuals can assimilate into the community", he said. The proximity to Mexico and the access to virtually anywhere in the country through the interstates 10 and 45 corridors make it hub for humans as well as other commodities.
"Right now everyone is in ICE custody, they were all taken to our detention center where they are administratively processed," Palmore said. The individuals are fed and they get interviewed and finger printed. For now, the investigation is ongoing.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.