Willacy County to hold Human Trafficking Awareness Day; Event to help residents identify smuggling operations

For years, Interstate 69 has been a major corridor for smugglers guiding migrants into Willacy County’s vast ranchlands as they journey toward a better life.

For many, it’s turned into one of the most dangerous treks of their lives.

“It’s dangerous for people crossing the border, especially if you don’t know the area,” Willacy County Chief Deputy Joe Jimenez said Thursday. “It took me three years just to learn the ranches. If you don’t know the area, you’re going to get lost.”

On Saturday, the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office will help host the area’s first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, aimed to curb the smuggling of human cargo which too often turns deadly.

“It is going to make us more aware of our surroundings to enable us to know more about how to spot a human trafficking situation,” said Gloria Cortez, coordinator of Behavioral Health Solutions of South Texas’ Rural Border Intervention program.

As part of the program, a representative of BCFS’s Common Tread program, which helps survivors of human trafficking, will help residents identify smuggling operations so authorities can stop them, Cortez said.

“It could be right next to us and we might not be aware because we don’t know what to look for,” she said.

The program will feature a “survivor” of human trafficking.

“She’s going to share her story — what she endured,” Cortez said.

Dangerous journey

For more than 10 years, Jimenez has followed the smugglers’ paths into the sprawling brush lands leading into the King Ranch.

“We still get them going through,” he said, referring to smuggling operations. “They’ll come to Willacy and drop (migrants) off north to the King Ranch and tell them, ‘Once you get past the ranch, there’s Houston,’” Jimenez said.

In the last two years, he said, deputies have helped rescue two injured migrants after smugglers left them in ranchlands west of I-69.

In those cases, smugglers left a girl with a sprained ankle and a man who had apparently suffered a broken ankle, Jimenez said.

“They leave them behind — you’re on your own,” he said. “They’re not going to worry about carrying over weight.”

[email protected]