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MCLENNAN COUNTY, Texas - Human trafficking is a problem that continues to grow around the world. In the United States, 20 percent of trafficking victims pass through Texas. Here, state legislators recently passed a law making it tougher on criminals and helping the victims stay out of jail.
Texas became the first state to make buying sex a felony. It's a crime that can be easy to miss unless you know what you are looking for, with the victim often punished too. But not here in McLennan County where a sheriff's office detective is changing the game.
"We keep the heat turned up on them and the hammer down on them," said Sheriff Parnell McNamara.
Sex trafficking often conjures up images of big city crime committed quietly under the cover of darkness but it's happening in small towns like Waco too and often in plain sight.
"It's almost easier to order a human than it is a piece of pizza at this point," said Detective Joe Scaramucci who started the human trafficking unit in 2008.
McLennan County sits between Dallas and Austin.
"The numbers of buyers that were reaching out and the number of traffickers that were coming to this city. It's decreased substantially," said Detective Joe Scaramucci who started the department's human trafficking task force in 2014.
Scaramucci's two-man team has been using internet savvy to build intelligence and target hundreds of sex traffickers and buyers, with a finely tuned ground game that's often outpacing much larger agencies.
"They're still trying to build cases based on prostitution and based on the backs of the victims, rather than on the merits of what the suspect has done," he said. "I've had every age from literally 15 years old to mid-80s and every race imaginable."
Regular stings include Scaramucci posing online as a sex worker to lure buyers looking for a tryst.
"We haven't had one yet, where we're like, we're not going arrest you," said Det. Andrew Hermes. "Even if you don't show up, chances are we'll work it backward and get an arrest warrant and go pick you up."
Scaramucci is the only officer who testified in support of Texas' new law cracking down on predators and shifting blame away from victims.
"Who's creating the demand for trafficking, it's the sex buyers, right? So, if we can take the buyers out of or at least put them in fear of operating in this city, then we can kind of decrease the amount of trafficking because it makes it much more high risk," said Scaramucci.
Online ads selling the same woman across state lines, tattoos consistent with prostitution, and photos other than selfies are telltale signs of sex trafficking. Most of the victims are females lured into prostitution. But in these busts, sex workers get help but not jail time.
"Most of the time these women we've rescued don't want to be prostitutes. They get pushed into it or lured by traffickers. These people are slick," said McNamara.
On standby during stings are members of Unbound Now, which recently opened the state's second residential safe house for trafficked girls.
"Help get the medical, food, shelter. Just really walk with them and then do case management. Recovery from trafficking is very difficult. Their life has really been robbed from them through a lot of complex traumas," said Susan Peters, founder and CEO.
When Scaramucci's unit shut down county massage parlors a few years ago not one sex worker faced charges.
"They feed you drugs. So, then it becomes you're already numb to what you are doing. Then it becomes you must keep that high. So, you give them their money. To make sure you have your drugs, and nobody gets hurt," said sex trafficking survivor Randa Rice.
Traffickers prey on people of all ages and backgrounds, resulting in an estimated 25 million victims worldwide at any given time. Not only is McLennan's no-nonsense approach to the problem getting media recognition and prestigious awards, but international law enforcement agencies are also reaching out to learn from its success.
Still, the work is daunting. In Texas alone, tens of thousands of victims are minors, many peddled through the darkest corners of the internet. Especially troubling to law enforcement is the rising number of parents willing to sell their own children to predators. When Scaramucci enters a chat room claiming to be a father of two willing to make a deal the phone lights up.
"These are from people who want to engage in sex with kids or trade pornography. If we can track them down, we're able to take somebody who runs the potential of sexually abusing children and oftentimes has sexually abused children and created child sexual material, we're able to identify those children in many cases and get them help," he said.
Survival rates for any age are low, with an average life expectancy of just seven years. The hope here is to keep as many people as possible from becoming a statistic.
"What we've done here is evidence, you can get a handle on it I think honestly community members get loud, right? You know tell your police department or sheriff's office. We know what's going on here. What are you going to do about it?"