A 13-year-old boy from Guatemala sat in the passenger seat next to a 37-year-old stranger from North Carolina. It was 2 a.m., and Benito Lozano Granado, a Charlotte resident, was on the road to Georgia.
The two had known each other since Salinas, California, the place where Granado picked the boy up shortly after the child crossed into the United States. By Texas, the man hadn’t worked out the child’s last name yet.
Granado, clean shaven, with neatly trimmed black hair, drove carefully in the 2019 Toyota Camry he rented for the trip. He was going the speed limit, driving south on U.S. 287/81 in Decatur, with his 13-year-old cargo at his side. He followed every traffic law, except for driving in the left lane without passing.
The ticky tack violation was all it took. As Granado looked into his rear view mirror, a vaguely marked police vehicle sped behind them. Red and blue beacons from the SUV, with the words Criminal Interdiction along its side, lit the darkness along the rural highway of Decatur, a small town 30 miles west of Denton.
These officers had no intention of handing out a ticket. The specially trained deputies with the North Texas Criminal Interdiction Unit (NTXCIU) were fishing for traffickers—both of the narcotic and human variety. And they had one on the line.
Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner put together the team of eight sheriff’s departments including Grayson, Hunt, Parker, Rockwall, Smith, Tarrant, and Wise counties shortly after he took office in 2017. Their tactics represent a new approach, intercepting the transit of commodities, whether they be drugs or people, as traffickers drive along the highways in North Texas.
Wise County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Chad Lanier, a man who lost the ponytail and shaved his beard down to a mustache since his days as a deep undercover narcotics agent, now leads the Specialized Enforcement Division at the WCSO. He was with the deputies in the interdiction unit during the traffic stop that night.
After a few questions, with the beam of flashlights and steaming breath cutting through the frigid air in the early hours February 7, Lanier said they could tell something was up. They could smell it.
The deputies followed procedure and their training, observing and asking questions. They looked for discrepancies and scanned for the tells of distress that go beyond the nerves of potentially getting a speeding ticket. Their mission is to catch traffickers where they’re the most exposed—on the open road, and Granado’s story didn’t add up.
After deputies got Granado out of the vehicle, he told the officers he traveled from North Carolina to California to visit his mother who was sick, and he was now on his way home. As for the 13-year-old boy in the passenger seat, when asked, Granado could only come up with his first name.
“Then, the boy said [Granado] was his dad,” Lanier recalls. “At that point they knew they had a problem.”
After forensic interviews at the Sheriff’s Office through a translator, Lanier says they were able to determine that the boy’s actual father had been missing for weeks since crossing into the United States six months earlier. The dad and his son sought asylum after being stopped at the border. Then, at some point, Lanier says the dad disappeared, and the son was picked up and taken halfway across the country.
It’s not certain what Granado’s intentions were for the boy, Lanier said. They believe he was being taken to Georgia. Trafficked children, Lanier explains, are often used for hard labor, working at farms in the south, or groomed to be trafficked for sex.
“There’s no telling,” Lanier says. “The boy didn’t know where he was going. He’s a 13-year-old boy, traveling across the United States with a stranger. A lot of those kids get suckered in to [trafficking]. Once they’re in sex trafficking, they’re bound for life. That, or they’ll kill ‘em.”
The listings stacked on top of each other, updating by the hour, showing lurid images and descriptions of services performed by youth groomed to believe their value came from meeting their pimp’s quota.
The sites presented people like items at a grocery store, daring a john (a person looking to exchange money for sex) to pick one, like a bag of chips. On classified sites like Backpage.com and the Craigslist personal page, sex was sold by the hour, all at a location near you.
All a john had to do was click a button that said they were above the age of 18 and they were suddenly on the sex trafficking highway. And they had options. Youth and teen fantasy was frequently advertised. Some listings had escorts in schoolgirl outfits. Each escort would say they were at least 18, giving a john plausible deniability that they weren’t about to pay to sexually assault a child.
In some cases, the escorts were of age. In others, the listings were selling the bodies of children, groomed at an early age to be exploited for sex.
The average age of entry into sex trafficking is 14 years old, according to the 2019 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. Statistically, many adult sex workers started when they were children.
Now, those particular sites have been shuttered. Craigslist no longer has a personal page. But sex trafficking is still a pervasive issue.
Before 2018, when the FBI stepped in, Backpage was valued at half-a-billion dollars, and operated in 97 countries and 943 locations. It was also reportedly involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received from the general public, according to a 2017 United States Senate investigation on the sites.
Lindsey Speed, president of Traffick 911, a Texas-based non-profit organization with the mission to free youth from sex trafficking, says the closures of those sites made a dent for a little while.
But like a stubborn virus, those in the sex trafficking industry adapted. Now, escorts and their traffickers use other sites and social media to market, she says, adding that Instagram accounts are commonly used to draw in business.
Sex trafficking won’t be stopped by a website getting shutdown, or a prostitution ring getting busted, Speed explains. The root of the problem lies in rudimentary economics.
“This is a supply and demand issue,” she says. “What hasn’t changed is there is still a demand for sex for pay. We can recover victims all day every day. The issue is, why do people think it’s okay to purchase sex with minors? That’s still alive and well today.”
Sex trafficking is both a booming industry and a roaring beast that feasts upon youth. Many are trying to fight it, but they’re outnumbered, and the battle is uphill.
In North Texas, part of that fight has been taken to the streets.
The boy from Guatemala is currently in the care of Child Protective Services as they look to arrange his trip home to his mother. He was recovered from the human trafficking highway, thanks to the North Texas Criminal Interdiction Unit. Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin said the boy is the third child recovered from suspected trafficking in Wise County since the criminal interdiction unit was put in place—three kids who have been potentially rescued from a life of slavery.
As for Granado, the boy’s trafficker, he paid $100,000 bond to be released from the Wise County jail. When asked what Granado posting that bond amount so quickly meant to him, Lanier points out, “It tells me that there’s more to the story than what they were saying.”
Stopping the flow
Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner, a tall, earnest man with a booming voice who’s comfortable in his well-worn boots, has been on the frontlines of the fight to stem human trafficking. The sheriff, who holds court in a room like a real-life Big Tex, says that the issue is personal to him. His number one priority since taking office in 2017 has been protecting kids.
The impetus for his calling started decades ago when he, a former prosecutor, was tasked with representing 12 kids who were abused for years while they were in school. The case stuck with him.
He describes bright, bubbly children who were suddenly hollowed and withdrawn. Their ability to trust was stolen. And their life trajectory shifted, due to the complex, pervasive trauma that lingered from their sexual abuse, Skinner says.
“Seeing the repercussions and the damages they suffered, I could never get that out of my brain,” he points out. “I told myself If I was ever in a position to make difference and be in the leadership role that I was responsible for protecting them, I would do it.”
After being elected in January 2017, Skinner started to make due on his promise to himself and those kids. Working with the District Attorney’s office, the Collin County Sheriff’s Office has led large scale sting operations. He’s created a Child Exploitation Unit, and the Crimes Against Children Unit, as well as leading the way to create a Criminal Interdiction Unit with seven other sheriff’s departments to combat drug and human trafficking.
The arrests have piled up since he’s taken office, and he’s steadfast in his mission. He wants sex traffickers to know that if they step into Collin County, or any of the other seven counties in the Criminal Interdiction unit, that their time is coming up.
“Make no mistake, my guys are pitbulls,” Skinner says. “There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you’re that person who’s out here and you prey on children and you think you’re going to come to this county to do it, it’s only a matter of time. You are going to get arrested and you are going to jail, here.”
To Skinner, drug and human traffickers are cut from a similar cloth. Fighting the flow of drug trafficking, in turn, is fighting human trafficking.
“Human traffickers are the very same transnational organized enterprises and gangs that are peddling dope across the United States in a multibillion dollar a year industry,” he says. “The same traffickers are the ones that are enslaving young girls coming from South and Central America into this country and enslaving American citizens and children here. They’re peddlers of flesh.”
Skinner says that frequently, traffickers will find young women and kids, get them addicted to drugs, and turn them out to be prostituted. People are merely property, and often, they’re disposable—a commodity with a shelf life.
Shortly after taking office, Skinner found the best way to stem the flow of human trafficking was to use the miles and miles of road in his jurisdiction and catch them where they are the most exposed. He gave his units special training to be able to identify signs of human trafficking. The sheriff’s departments share resources, including specially trained deputies and K-9 units. They work various highways in each other’s jurisdictions with a similar goal.
“With the amount of jurisdiction, it suited me the best as a Sheriff to take a specially trained unit, turn them out on the highway to interdict drug and human traffickers in the one spot that they’re the most vulnerable, the open highway,” Skinner says. “Regardless of who you are or what business you’re in, you have to move your commodities up and down the highway. Drug and human traffickers are the most vulnerable on the road.”
The NTXCIU has seized tons of narcotics, over $1.5MM in cartel bulk cash, weapons, close to 100 stolen vehicles and commercial trucks containing human cargo. The efforts of this unit has also resulted in the rescue of missing children.
The strategy has been effective, so much so that Skinner was one of several speakers at President Trump’s Human Trafficking Summit at the White House. He spoke about how they’re fighting human trafficking in North Texas. His strategy, of sharing resources and jurisdictions, to assist in the fight against human trafficking is gaining momentum in law enforcement circles.
Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin says the NTXCIU is making an impact. His department works drug cases in small communities, where meth is rampant. But tracking down the big fish on the highway with massive drug hauls is becoming an effective deterrent, he said
“This NTXCIU, it gives us an opportunity to work the corridors,” he claims. “it’s not just a small town, small community thing, it’s North Texas. If we make a difference there, knock down human trafficking and drug trafficking, we’re helping those communities.”
Sometimes, detection by these specially trained units would be simple as asking the kid in the backseat to say the name of the driver who is claiming to be the child’s dad. Skinner mentions a recent example of a traffic stop that reunited a 15-year-old girl with her parents. Two middle-aged males were on the road to Colorado when they were stopped.
“They didn’t know her name and she didn’t know theirs,” Skinner says.
The girl was from San Antonio. She was missing for a week, before they reunited her with their family. Stories like these are a driving force in the mission, affirmation that they’re protecting the vulnerable.
Time and time again, the Criminal Interdiction Unit has been taking traffickers off the street. But undercover sting operations are also hitting child predators in Collin County.
The Collin County Sheriff’s Office has made 61 arrests in four sting operations in the past three years. In collaboration with various entities, they’ve recovered hard drives filled with terabytes of child pornography. They’ve found victims, and based on the terabytes of pornography they’ve had to sift through, they’ve been able to identify new images to hopefully identify and recover victims who are starting to be exploited.
The operations went by the names of Operation Zeus, Operation Medusa, Operation Atlas, and Operation Athena. Child victims were located in some of the cases. The work is constant and grading. Those in the CAC and CEU unit are constantly working in a dark, seedy world.
In total, Sgt. Chris Fontana, who oversees the Child Exploitation Unit and Crimes Against Children Unit, says the sheriff’s office has sifted through 193 terabytes on 371 devices, investigating online solicitation and child pornography. One terabyte can hold about 250 standard definition movies.
“It’s a lot,” Fontana says. “If you want to break down the terabytes, the entirety of the Library of Congress takes up 163 terabytes.”
The sting operations go deep into a large scale child porn network and the scope is far ranging, Lt. Tracy Utsey said. He recalled an instance of walking into a residence and finding 12 hard drives that contain 4 terabytes a piece, each constantly downloading child porn. These are hubs churning out and feeding the ceaseless appetite for child exploitation.
The scenes can be horrifying and corrosive, and seeing what a kid is being put through means coming eye to eye with evil, but Fontana says it’s necessary.
“You have to be very passionate about this type of work,” he points out. “Yes, we see a lot of bad things, but the rewards of someone being prosecuted for harming a child, that sets some things in place. The team we have in place is very passionate and we take it very seriously.”
For every one of these crimes, for every one of these predators taken off the streets, there are victims. Kids whose youth has been taken away from them. It appears the 13-year-old boy from Grenada was rescued in time, but he represents a small fraction of the children who are trafficked in Texas.
In December 2016, The University of Texas at Austin (UT), School of Social Work, Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault released a report on human trafficking in Texas that said there are at the very least 79,000 children in Texas who are victims of human trafficking and 300,000 victims in the state, at any given time. The Collin County Sheriff’s Office statement adds that Texas leads the nation in the number of human trafficking criminal cases working their way through the federal courts.
“Trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability,” Lindsey Speed, president of Traffick 911, says.“The reality is there’s a lot of vulnerable kids out there. It’s not the snatch and grab thing, it’s not these stories that get circulated on Facebook. It’s smart and manipulative traffickers that are both men and women and even older teenage kids who are recruiting and selling them something, or be a part of this, and a lot of times they what they’re selling is belonging.”
Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, Speed says the biggest problem with sex trafficking might not lie with the traffickers.
It’s the fact that sex for pay is normalized. It’s the fact that “teen” is the number one most searched pornography term. It’s that there is a demand for young boys and girls.And it won’t be stopped unless there’s a change in how we see and treat people, Speed says.
“It’s getting the awareness out there that these are victims, especially if they’re a child, they cannot choose this life,” she says. “Even if they’re an adult, a lot of the time, they didn’t choose this life.”
Maybe once, they had just stepped into the wrong car.
Originally published in the April 2020 issue.