916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

A long way to go on crime so close to home

By Jazmine Ulloa

The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.

They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.

All of this was initially tough for me to grasp, as Ellen and I sat in her office at Lifeworks, a youth advocacy center in South Austin where she works as a counselor.

The term sex trafficking tends to conjure images of girls and young women brought into the country from faraway places, lured by opportunities, forced by abductors. But over the past decade, we have slowly, painfully come to realize that some of the most vulnerable victims of the vicious rings that travel across the United States do not come from abroad. They were born and live here.

We have a long way to go before we can offer our help.

We don’t think of girls and young women so close to home caught in the throes of an ancient model for an ancient profession: Pimps using manipulation, coercion and perverse versions of love to control their victims.

But at least the city of Austin is attempting to take a step in the right direction. The anti-trafficking organization Restore A Voice is working with other area nonprofits and the Austin Police Department to create a shelter specifically for U.S.-born girls and teens found in Central Texas.

Right now in Austin and across the country, the two options these adolescents tend to face are time in juvenile detention or placement within the catchall net of shelters operated by state child protective services or private nonprofits. These places cater to abused and neglected children, domestic violence survivors and their families, but social workers say they are not equipped to handle the complex trauma of trafficking survivors.

And most have not yet developed ways to screen for sex trade victims.

Through special training and years of experience, Ellen has found her own ways to tell apart the young girls and teens caught in the life.

Sometimes, she listens for the subtext in their conversation. Often, she watches what they carry. Wads of cash they stuff under a mattress or in the dark corner of a drawer. Expensive cell phones. Brand-named clothing. “Those things they could not have afforded on their own,” she says.

But how do you count all of the numbers of girls in the shadows?
 

To read more on efforts to bring a shelter to Austin click here.

 

“¡Hasta la madre!” — “We have had it!”

By Jazmine Ulloa

Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and fellow activists under the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity are expected to descend upon the steps of the state Capitol Sunday in protest of U.S. drug policies.

Their stop in Austin is one of 26 in an estimated 6,000-mile journey — from the Mexican border city of Tijuana to Washington, D.C. — where the group hopes to draw attention to the role they say the United States has played in fueling a struggle that has cost the lives of thousands, including Sicilia’s son and other loved ones.

The mission seems so far removed from a city that prides itself on live music festivals, green measures and shopping local. But it’s not if you look a little harder.

Back home in El Paso, where on Tuesday the caravan held a vigil for drug war victims, the effects of this battle are everywhere. There are students in classrooms coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are business owners who have opened shop on new ground after fleeing Ciudad Juarez. There are entire families who have been cut off from part of their culture after generations of living on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The news first came back to me in snippets, conversations with my family or pieces of Mexican newspapers snail-mailed by my grandmother. Gore in photos and headlines splashed across the front pages of newspapers. Decapitated heads, limp bodies and blood, pools of it, bright red spilled on the streets.

That is the sexy story. That is what some media outlets only seek to cover. Narco lords and their inconceivable wealth. The ruthlessness of the latest execution. And it is always Mexico’s Drug War.

But in recent months, I have been writing about this little corner in East Austin, where police say a trade of mostly marijuana and cocaine has for decades thrived. The steady stream of crime the business brings tends to be petty rather than fierce and a stark contrast from the shootouts that break out at all hours of the day in many Mexican cities. The players – both buyers and sellers – are typically the ones at the lowest rungs of the game.

And yet, every major city in the United States has a 12th and Chicon. The drug hub, like those across the country, provides another glimpse, another layer of the people most affected by this vicious, unrelenting monster. It is our burden in a shared fight.
 
 
For more on Javier Sicilia click here.
For the latest on 12th and Chicon click here.

Narcos, drugs and the toll of a war

Major narco leaders not among FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the man labeled the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — is not among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Neither is his rival, Heriberto Lazcano, though he is said to run one of the most vicious illicit networks to move tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Nor is Miguel Ángel Treviño, believed to be Lazcano’s second in command.
Full story.

Residents near 12th, Chicon say momentum turning

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
At the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, where gentrification is transforming the demographics of a historic neighborhood, new and longtime residents have found common ground: a demand for public safety.

For more than 40 years, authorities say, empty businesses and blighted houses have sustained a bustling sale of pot and crack cocaine along the streets and alleys of an intersection marked by a stubborn notoriety. The trade runs night and day, and efforts to stymie the ensuing stream of prostitution, theft and occasional violence have fallen by the wayside through the decades, leaving what some say is a stinging residue of bitter relations with police.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.
Full story.

Human trafficking: A look into a shadowy trade

Austin shelter for sex trafficking survivors under development

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
A local nonprofit is leading efforts to create a shelter in Austin for sex trafficking survivors. Expected to open next year, the shelter should have beds for up to 30 girls from across Central Texas.

Larry Megason, executive director of Restore A Voice, said the group has found an undisclosed location for the facility and plans to unveil a $1.3 million capital campaign in November that would fund the land, building and operation costs through the end of 2013, including pay for administrators and counselors.
Full story.

A long way to go on crime so close to home

By Jazmine Ulloa
Blog post, From the desk of…

The girls Ellen Parsons wants to help don’t tell.

They don’t trust adults. They don’t use words like pimp or prostitute. And they don’t view themselves as victims of an ugly, multimillion-dollar sex business that exploits hundreds of thousands of adolescents every day. Instead, Ellen says, they see the trade as a way to survive and remain independent in a system that has often misunderstood their struggles — and in the worst cases treated them as criminals.
Full story.

A survivor of the sex trade tells her story

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Trapped in the underworld of the multimillion-dollar sex trade, Jes Richardson says she was afforded only one luxury: sending postcards home to her mother.

She was 17, she remembers, when she was lured into a West Coast prostitution circuit by an older man who made her feel like a queen and promised her travel to faraway places and exotic beaches.

But she never stepped foot in the ocean. Instead, she says, she found herself on a cruel and disorienting journey that quickly moved her and other girls from city to city, john to john, through Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and British Columbia.
Full story.

State lacking data on human trafficking, officials say

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Texas legislators and law enforcement officials say they are facing challenges in collecting statewide human trafficking data that could be used to drive investigations and policy decisions.

No uniform reporting system exists to track the arrests and convictions associated with the modern-day slave trade of people forced into labor or commercial sex, and the state agencies tasked with measuring its scope say they are struggling to receive accurate statistics from police departments and courts.
Full story.

Sex traffickers prove harder to catch as they move online

Courtesy photo

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
The sex industry has evolved in the past two decades, moving from the streets to computer screens, and authorities in Austin and across the state say their efforts to enforce the law and find and protect victims are hampered by the shift.

Detectives said they have made strides to fight what they describe as a modern-day form of slavery by enhancing their collaboration across jurisdictions and their use of tools on the Web, where victims are easier to hide, predators harder to catch and evidence tougher and more time-consuming to gather. But authorities said offline efforts are just as important, such as training officers, emergency responders and residents on how to detect potential sex trafficking circles in their own communities.
Full story.

A collection of my best clips.

Hezbollah, Mexican organized crime connection debated

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ex-associates in Corpus Christi called Manssor Arbabsiar a joke, a floundering businessman who smoked too much, drank too much and often solicited prostitutes. Neighbors in Round Rock knew him as a rude and unfriendly recluse.

But on Oct. 17 in a New York courtroom, the former car salesman and restaurateur pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The plot: Arbabsiar — working for Iran’s Quds Force — hired a hit man he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. The assassin was actually a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Full story.

Major narco leaders not among FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the man labeled the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — is not among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Neither is his rival, Heriberto Lazcano, though he is said to run one of the most vicious illicit networks to move tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Nor is Miguel Ángel Treviño, believed to be Lazcano’s second in command.
Full story.

Eatery’s code battle highlights Old Austin’s struggle

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To code and fire officials, the violations are cut and dry: Casa de Luz, a popular eatery and South Austin institution, has a dining area that isn’t up to restaurant requirements, they say, and has been operating illegally for years, posing potential dangers to customers in emergency situations.

But the dispute, which came to a head late last month, has captured the attention of a throng of Casa de Luz patrons and supporters who say the city’s push to enforce a one-size-fits-all code amid rapid urbanization is hurting the places that keep Austin’s character alive.
Full story.

She still wears black

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Magazine
 
Sgt. Yvonne Vann wants to testify. She wants to tell the jury what was taken, what she lost in the early hours of May 28, 2011, when authorities allege 42-year-old Mark Anthony Gonzales, intoxicated and on antidepressants, opened ambush-style fire on Bexar County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kenneth Vann, her colleague and husband.

A veteran and sheriff deputy for almost 24 years, Kenneth, 48, had been waiting in a marked patrol car at a red light in east San Antonio when he was attacked. He died at the scene, and the slaying ignited a massive investigation that involved local and federal agencies and garnered national headlines.
Full story.

Private security for Mexican citizens a growing business

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Some private security companies in Austin and across Texas have begun tapping into a burgeoning demand: personal protection services for wealthy Mexican citizens visiting the United States.

The increase over the past two years correlates with a wave of Mexican citizens, typically well-off business owners and entrepreneurs, looking to relocate to Texas in the wake of the bloodshed seething south of the U.S.-Mexico border, and some security businesses have noted the rising need statewide, agents said.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.
Full story.

Convict couldn’t handle freedom

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
Most inmates want out of the pen. Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.

Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.
Full story.

Border and Immigration

Dispatches from the southern tip of Texas.

Seeking asylum to escape government persecution

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Jorge Luis Reyes Salazar remembers when soldiers arrived in March 2008 in Guadalupe, a small Mexican farming community along the border in the Juárez Valley about 50 miles from Juárez.

They swept through the streets of his hometown, he said, terrorizing families and ransacking homes in what they said were searches for drugs, guns and money.

“A war began, but not against narco trafficking — against civil society,” Reyes, 19, told an audience of about 70 people Wednesday at a forum held by the Texas Observer. “The people — people like my family — began to protest.”
Full story.

U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.
Full story.

Born To Be Barred

At the border, U.S. citizens are being refused re-entry because they were delivered by midwives.
By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
It was just another sweltering Monday morning in August. Yuliana Trinidad Castro sat in her truck with her mother, sister, and newborn daughter, windows up and air conditioner on high, waiting to cross into Brownsville from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. That weekend, like so many before, they had visited family on the southern side of the border. The trip back home, a sluggish procession across the international bridge through curving aisles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was frustrating but familiar. The Castro sisters did it practically every week. “It was just so routine,” Yuliana’s sister, Laura Nancy Castro, recalled months later.
Full story.

Seasonal workers sue agricultural giant

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
As a day laborer, Raul Salas would often have to wait for odd jobs that were never steady and barely allowed him to make a living.

So he says he jumped at the opportunity when, last year on a June day, a fellow laborer named Pensamiento offered him a seasonal job detasseling corn in Indiana.

“He came up to me over there,” said Salas, pointing to a spot in downtown Brownsville where day laborers were known to gather to wait for work.
Full story.

Boy struggling for life now faces mom’s deportation

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Angel de Jesus Barrera will turn 3 next month. But at 22 pounds and eight ounces, he is fighting for his life as his mother faces deportation later this month.

He was born with congenital craniofacial dysmorphism, an abnormality in fetus development, which left part of his cranium and face disfigured. Barrera looks more like a 1-year-old given his size and weight. He has a whole list of medical conditions, some of which include Down’s syndrome, scoliosis, mental retar dation, seizure disorder and a serious case of glaucoma that recently caused the removal of his left eye.
Full story.

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.
Full story.

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.
Full story.

Human interest and news articles with a softer touch.

Apartment walkway collapse could lead to tougher code enforcement

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Five months after a walkway collapsed at the Wood Ridge Apartments, little progress has been made on repairs at the Southeast Austin property, and community leaders say the city is allowing slumlords to go unchecked in low-income neighborhoods.

With another apartment building in the same area evacuated last month, city officials say they want to toughen code enforcement efforts at aging, multifamily complexes by actively inspecting properties and working with owners to improve safety conditions. But skeptics say the efforts don’t have real teeth.
Full story.

Hope slowly returning for Bastrop fire victims

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
BASTROP COUNTY — There are things the wildfire did not take from Jerry Tuttle last September, a ring his girlfriend gave him four years ago among them.

He wears it on his left hand and spreads his fingers to show it off, a darkened Black Hills gold band engraved with clusters of grapes and what he thinks are maple leaves.
Full story.

The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves
 
By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Co-op Power Magazine
 
With foldable chessboards in small, oblong bags slung over their shoulders, armies of excited children squeeze through the halls of Filemon B. Vela Middle School on a winter Saturday morning. Everywhere, coaches, teachers and volunteers shuffle groups back and forth from one corridor to the next to gaming areas set up throughout the small campus in Brownsville. Alongside follow mothers and fathers, cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else the competitors’ families have invited to the annual Chess of Champions, one of 10 major chess tournaments held for students in kindergarten through high school in this border city.
Full story.

The Iron Canvas

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
On a windy, late-February Sunday in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”
Full story.

Proposal calls for upscale businesses

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.

But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.
Full story.