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.

Hello out there

By Jazmine Ulloa

I picked up my pink, Pocahontas diary one day in January, and as my opening line, in jagged letters wrote: “I have six boyfriends, Andrew, Michael, Sean, Paul, Stephen and Mark.” I was just learning English. I meant to say crushes. But it was a bold declaration for a 7-year-old, and my family still makes fun of me for it.

For this very first official post, I was trying to think of the very best first sentence, something just as bold. But I kept coming up bare and then remembered that is how my collection of blank journals came to be stowed away in a flimsy cardboard box underneath my desk.

I used to carry some of them around with me in an old book bag, at least three or four notebooks with beautiful covers and crisp, white pages. I wanted to fill them up with words and thoughts and pieces of the days I always wanted to remember, but I never knew where to start.

Brian, Jess and me.

That intimidation came to an end five years ago when I met Brian in a small, rundown hostel in downtown Amsterdam. A close friend and I were sharing a bunk bed-filled room with him and 14 other strangers, but the three of us quickly got to talking and in less than 24 hours had trekked through parks and museums, jazz clubs and smoke shops.

As the sun set, we found ourselves sitting at the edge of one of the city’s canals, sharing headphones and swapping stories. He was about our age, in his early 20s, and backpacking on his own through Europe. He let me read an entry in his black notebook about his stop in Barcelona. I unzipped my book bag and showed him my untouched journals. “Shit, you are not writing the Bible,” he said. “Open it and write.”

And in my chicken scratch writing, I did. “Hello out there,” I said.

Here’s to the beginning.

An intro to the cops beat

The first time I rode in a police car I was 15, maybe 16. And I was in the backseat. I wasn’t in handcuffs, but I was in trouble.

I’d broken curfew by crossing back into my hometown of El Paso from Ciudad Juarez in the early morning hours without parental supervision. It was a measure El Paso had to keep young kids from partying in the Mexican city before it became one of the deadliest places in the world. And it was a rule we were constantly looking for ways to get around—sometimes, like in this case, unsuccessfully.

But let’s skip the details. Needless to say, the drive of shame isn’t a proud memory. My mother’s glare burned through the steel of the car. She hit my head with a good, ol’ coscorrón, fueling all stereotypes of a Mexican mother’s wrath, as soon as she bid the officer goodbye and slammed the door. My relationship with my mom is awesome, but with law enforcement it had been one of fear and some disdain ever since.

That’s changed since I came to San Antonio three months ago and took the job as, ironically, the night crime reporter. Now I listen to scanners. They chat away in my dreams sometimes, dictating dispatcher code of emergencies in faraway lands. I’ll admit it. I wasn’t fond of it. Not at first. So much to get used to, the winding and intertwining highways, the briefs, the tweets, the constant updates on so many deaths—then checking the fax machine the next day for the police reports (which I still forget to do sometimes).

My perception has quickly changed, though. I like the rush of getting to the scene, the chase after information, the beauty in the details of some cases. I’m learning to be strong, even in the most heart-wrenching of crimes, and yet to remain sensitive when it seems like the same shootings and stabbings and assaults keep happening time and time again. There are people hurting for loved ones behind so many of the stories we write.

I’m also getting to know the police officers, realizing they’re not always craving donuts or out to get me. Just this week, I even got to ride in another cop car — this time on a voluntary ride-along. Things looked different from the passenger’s seat, and Jason Macias, an overnight officer from the police department’s Central Substation, took me around his typical patrol areas, giving me a tour of the inside world I’m always trying to peek into from the other side of the yellow caution tape.

He told me about his job, how he loved the freedom of it and having his office in his car. He wanted to help people but was often frustrated seeing the same criminals he helped put away, soon back on the streets. Then near 3 a.m., just as I was dozing off and we were going to stop to eat, the scanners started calling out a shooting on East Market Street and Alamo, smack in the middle of downtown. We arrived to find two men bloodied and lying curled up on the sidewalk. One struggled to get up. The other victim had this look on his face. It’s cliché to say, but I’ll never forget how he was there … and then just gone. It reminded me life is precious. That it’s short.

As published May 7, 2011 in the Rap Sheet Blog of the San Antonio Express-News

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

On the road with my crazy mother

My younger sister and I grew up in my mother’s red, beat-up little Escort, traveling the 15-hour plus ride between Texas and California, back and forth. Twelve childhood years packed up in brown, cardboard boxes.

First, it was my father’s new job that led us to the Golden State, and then it was the divorce that drove us back, followed by my mother’s new love and new marriage with a U.S. Marine that returned us to the Sun Valley in California. That didn’t work out. He left one cold morning, when the fog had just settled. He didn’t look back at us. Not a glance. And so we arrived again in El Paso, just the three of us.

For her sporadic changes of mind and heart and location, my mother has been described euphemistically as a “free spirit” and bluntly as, well, “crazy.” And maybe she is, a little. She likes to blast the music on the radio and revels in the open road. The odd jobs she has taken on have been as fickle and short lived as her hair color, which has gone from brown, to black, to red, to orange, to a mesh between dirty and metallic blonde. But she is beautiful, in my eyes, a curvy woman with disheveled tresses and soft painter’s hands. Don’t ask me why she does what she does. Like all else in her life, she just does.

And we have had our fights. Bitter ones. I have stormed out of the house in outrage. She has slammed the door in my face so hard the windowpanes shook.

Some times were rough. At 13 I thought I knew everything. I reproached her for everything. I wanted clothes and shoes and stuff she could not afford. I wanted her to be normal, whatever that was. To bake cookies or give me a curfew, or something. To stop moving us around. It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized she had given me more than I could possibly ever need. She gave me all her love, her adventurous spirit and her strength.

A few weeks ago, when I last visited my hometown of El Paso, she and I held each other close in one final embrace before I drove by myself from the western tip of Texas to the southern one, back down to Brownsville. All of our arguments and disputes were far behind us. It was only the two of us in my old room full of high school memories, a room that for a short while had stayed exactly as I left it, hoping for my return.

This year will be tough for my mother. My sister, now 18, also will leave soon to attend a university in Massachusetts. So many roads we have traveled together, and now we are each learning to travel them on our own. But we will always remain close.

On this Mexican Mother’s Day, I want to tell my mother that I love her, with all my heart, with everything I’ve got.

As published May 10, 2010 in The Brownsville Herald

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

(My mom is the beautiful one in blue.)

 

A Night at Chico’s

Savoring an institution from 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly

Chico’s Tacos sits on Alameda Avenue in a humble area of El Paso known as the Lower Valley. Though a chain of five eateries now share the Chico’s name, el original is this one. Here, wedged between a graveyard and a small park where the homeless often congregate, the city’s most famous hangout has been sustaining El Pasoans with its processed cheese and soupy tomato sauce since the day that late boxing promoter Joe Mora opened its doors, on July 4, 1953.

As a kid, this was my favorite place to go on Friday evenings with my grandmother. I’ve since moved away—for college, for work—but as anybody from El Paso can tell you, Chico’s leaves a greasy imprint, and one cool night this past November, I returned with friends. The restaurant looked radioactive in the darkness, a humming beacon with fluorescent lights that turned the beige brick walls yellow. Inside, the booths were the bright-red vinyl I remembered. Arcade games, the same ones I’d begged quarters from my grandmother for as a rotten eight-year-old, blinked in the corner. It was almost nine at night on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was as busy as a lunch-hour rush. An employee rattled off orders over a crackling intercom as families, trailing children in pajamas, pushed through the doors. A group of teenagers giggled by the counter.
Full story.

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

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.

Daily and enterprise stories from the night crime beat.

Online collective aims to ‘print’ plastic guns

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Cody Wilson’s idea was not to sell guns but to print them — lots of them — with the mission of developing an open-source design that could be widely shared and distributed online.

But the second-year law student at the University of Texas has found himself at the center of a legal controversy after the 3-D printing company that allowed him to borrow a printer sent a team of contractors late last week to reclaim its property a day after it was delivered to his central Austin apartment near Hyde Park.
Full story.

Family, co-workers mourn man killed while changing tire

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Ana Margarita Loredo had been joking with her father last week alongside the curb of their East Austin home, when she said she saw a silver Mercury Tracer violently swerve in their direction. She does not know how she managed to escape its path, she said, but she regrets not moving quickly enough to save her father.

“I keep thinking maybe there was something I could have done, but I never thought the car would hit my car,” she said in Spanish on Monday.
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.

Lack of funding leads to backlog of untested rape kits

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
To investigators in San Marcos, he was an unidentified strain of DNA, a sequence of numbers and letters swabbed off the skin of his victim in February 2011 and entered into a national FBI database under unsolved case 11-09621.

But not until last month did Buda and Austin police learn his name, officials said, by tracking him down in a separate sexual assault case that led to his arrest.
Full story.

Austin drug seizures are up, but what does it mean?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
On display last month on long, white tables next to guns and stacks of cash were more than a dozen bricks of cocaine and six small bundles of heroin. Four blocks of marijuana the size of throw pillows sat nearby.

The narcotics seizures made by the Austin Police Department in three separate cases over an estimated three weeks were among the largest in its history.
Full story.

Austin police’s missing-person unit has high rate of success

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
A call came in this month from a mother who said her 18 -year-old son was gone. He took the car and had not attended school, made it to work or even picked up his paycheck in the two weeks since he was last seen. She did not know his friends or have any of their names, phone numbers or addresses. She could not think of a reason why he would have just dropped everything and left.

On a muggy December morning, Detectives David Gann and Timothy Hoppock , with the missing persons unit of the Austin Police Department , stood outside the woman’s East Austin apartment, running through all the possible leads.
Full story.

Remains of Kyle woman missing for seven years identified

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
KYLE — On Wednesday morning, Maria Piñeda received a painful answer to the question she said she had been asking herself for the past seven years, “Where is my daughter?”

Authorities with the Hays County sheriff’s office and the Justice of the Peace came to tell her that remains recovered from the Blanco River in March were identified as her 24-year-old daughter, Laurie Piñeda, who was swept away at a flooded low-water crossing northeast of San Marcos on Nov. 14, 2004.
Full story.

Body found may be missing elderly woman, police say

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In the days after Mary Townsley was reported missing, her longtime friend and neighbor, David Robert Bravo, said he kept listening for a knock on the wall.

Townsley, 81, is a frail, quiet woman whose hands and feet are disfigured and often ache, he said. Whenever she fell, she could not get back up and would tap at the thin plaster dividing their apartments to call him.
Full story.

Woman’s kin hope for answers in slaying

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
A photo of Maria Teresa Leon kept next to the urn holding her ashes shows a woman with solemn eyes and long, dark hair. In the days before she went missing, her parents recalled, their daughter had seemed
quieter than usual.

Leon, 38, worked at a local shoe factory. She was reserved and prone to worry, and she rarely smiled, said her father, Abel Leon. A single mother to an 8-year-old boy and sole provider for her parents, there were bills to pay, chores to do and homework to help with.
Full story.

Courthouse partiers just want to go home

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
The trip was to last three months, the adventure of a lifetime.

The idea was to tour the United States from the East to West coasts and back in a rented recreational vehicle, breakdancing on the streets to scrounge up extra cash as needed.

The five young men, all French citizens, saved money for six months, charting routes, booking hotels, buying tickets. But the cross-country trek ended abruptly after two of them broke into the Bexar County Courthouse early Wednesday.
Full story.