Houston organization does van tours to show how sex trafficking is hidden in plain sight

They don’t just tell you sex trafficking is hidden in plain sight, Elijah Rising wants to show you. Since 2012, the non-profit organization has arranged free van tours for any interested groups.

FOX 26 along for a tour that highlighted cantinas and massage parlors in some of Houston’s most well-regarded neighborhoods like The Heights to industrial areas like the ship channel.

“This is actually a new spot but it has probably some of the most reviews on the site,” said David Gamboa with the organization pointing to a massage parlor.

Gamboa says staff checks review sites like RubMaps.com to find out where there is suspected prostitution at massage parlors.

“In Houston, the illicit massage industry is a 100-million-dollar industry,” he added referring to a 2017 study by Texas Christian University.

The researchers also put cameras outside 32 suspected illicit massage parlors in Houston. Their findings are alarming.

“The researchers estimated that on average around 3,000 men visited these places daily primarily during the hours of noon and 2 p.m. -- on a lunch break,” Gamboa stated.

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In his experience, most of the women forced to work in these establishments are foreign-born. They are brought to the U.S. under the false promise of a decent job. Gamboa remembers the story of a victim for Thailand.

“The second that she arrived in the United States they told her she was going to be working as a waitress in a restaurant. When she gets there she realized she's going to be working in prostitution at a brothel,” he recalled.

He adds the trafficker told her she had to pay off a $60,000 debt.

“This is the way traffickers manipulate women and keep them trapped inside these massage parlors,” Gamboa explained.

Elijah Rising says they do report any tips with law enforcement. However, with thousands of men going to these places every day, if a business does get shut down, replacement pops no time.

They also report tips to police about cantinas suspected of selling sex.

“There will be women scantily clad, [you] buy them a beer, and then you may go off into another room or go off to a nearby hotel,” Gamboa told FOX 26.

Once a month, he says volunteers attempt to go into these establishments to give potential victims information on how to get out of the life. He says that it usually takes multiple visits to build trust with the victims. Sometimes, he says, they’ll leave.

“A lot of the women in these places feel like they've chosen this life, like they made a bad mistake somewhere,” he said. “S,o now they're forced to work prostitution for the rest of their life. They don't know that they're trafficked.”

Elijah Rising arranges free van tours for groups upon request.