Starr seeks help combating child sex photo trafficking

Law enforcement officials in Starr County say that sexually explicit photographs of minors are being shared between children in the area at an alarming rate, and are urging parents to take an active role in monitoring their children’s social media and cellphones.

At a press conference Friday, Starr County Attorney Victor Canales Jr. said that while children often share the images with friends, investigations have shown that third parties and adults frequently acquire the photographs.

“In the last two months we had an influence and an increase in cases regarding children sending naked, nude pictures of themselves to each other, and what we have found is we have found others harvesting those photos,” he said.

Canales said that some evidence points to photographs being shared on a larger scale outside of the community.

“There is another case where we have a ring of approximately 20 individuals that are sharing content of minors, some of them are adults that are involved in this ring, some of them are minors,” he said.

According to Canales, an 11-year-old is currently detained in Starr County for exploited sexual images from various sources and sharing them on Snapchat.

“These cases are growing at an exponential rate. Since last year, we’ve seen an increase in these cases,” he said. “In the last two months, we have already had 10 cases that are currently being investigated, and we look to actually have more. We have about 12 to 16 victims at this point.”

Canales said many of the victims in the case simply don’t have the maturity to recognize the dangers of sharing the photographs.

“We’re talking about middle school — 11-, 12-, 13-year-old individuals; kids that don’t know any better,” he said. “Unfortunately some of these images that they take are not used immediately, and then surface when the child is 16, 17 and 18.”

Canales also highlighted some of the risks of sharing photos.

“Some of many risks … (they) are exposed to include inappropriate content, sexting, cyber bullying, stalking, data breaches, online harassment, predators, and on and on,” he said. “Kids may be very savvy with social media, but they are not aware of how many people can easily access what they share and how it can be used for other purposes that will later cause repercussions in their lives.”

According to Canales, community outreach and parent involvement are the best way to tackle the issue.

“We are encouraging parents to exert some sort of measure of control over their children’s mobile phones, limiting their uses, checking its content and using it to monitor the whereabouts of their children,” he said.

Canales encourages parents to physically investigate content on their children’s phones and familiarize themselves with apps where photos are frequently exchanged, particularly Snapchat and Whatsapp.

“You’re paying the bill. It’s your phone,” he said. “Look at it, go through it. Ensure the safety of your child.”