Hidalgo County DA first in nation to focus unit on human trafficking

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office will soon become the first in the nation with a human trafficking unit dedicated to prosecuting cases of forced labor in the agricultural sector.

The new unit is set to begin operation early this year and is the result of a grant from the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery, which is funded by the Arizona State University Foundation.

“It’s not that Texas has any worse of a problem than any other state that has agriculture, but it is one place where there are plenty of groups that have already been focusing on this in one way or another, so it was a good place for us to start assigning grants on the NGO side and the government side,” said Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, the initiative’s program manager.

The Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery launched a pilot program in 74 Texas counties in 2017. Focused on forced and coerced labor among farmworkers, the Hidalgo County DA’s office was selected for the grant because it is the only one that has successfully prosecuted a labor trafficking case using the state’s penal code.

The case, which involved a Central American woman who was held against her will at a home in Alamo, resulted in a 2017 guilty conviction against the man who forced her to work as a domestic servant.

When those in the legal and law enforcement communities discuss human trafficking, they most often are referring to sex trafficking — a crime that has made headlines across the state. And when prosecutors at both the state and federal levels do come across cases of labor trafficking, they are frequently tried as wage theft or harboring illegal aliens cases.

“I think it would be news to a lot of prosecutors that there’s a distinct crime in the Texas Penal Code that involves labor trafficking,” Martinez de Vedia said.

Other factors the institute considered when making the selection included the size of the county’s farmworker population and the high number of wage and hour violation cases investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

While it’s difficult to measure the exact number of farmworkers in counties nationwide, the initiative cites 2012 data that puts the figure around 6,400 locally.

The approximately $350,000 in grant funds will be used to hire two positions: a labor trafficking specialty prosecutor and an investigator who will review, investigate and prepare cases for trial. They will also hire a human trafficking task force coordinator who will work alongside the existing Rio Grande Valley Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. hopes to begin interviewing for the positions as early as next month.

Ricardo Rodriguez is district attorney for Hidalgo County

The district attorney is no stranger to exploitation in the agricultural sector, having worked as a migrant farmworker throughout his childhood and teenage years.

“I would venture to say there are not too many district attorneys that have been migrant workers,” Rodriguez said.

While he and his family were fortunate to never be victims of abuse or exploitation, “I’ve been there side-by-side with some of these workers and (seen) what they go through and how hard they work and how easy it is to be taken advantage of,” he said.

On top of prosecuting labor trafficking cases at the district court level, the DA said he wants the unit to be proactive in bringing the issue out of the shadows and encouraging victims to come forward, something the Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery’s outreach teams have been doing for the past year.

The grant funds last through April 2020, and if the unit is successful, Martinez de Vedia said the initiative could consider continuing to support its work through additional grants.

“We’re looking for solutions that work,” he said. “The plan is to find a model that works and replicate it” in other counties nationwide with large agricultural sectors.