It’s the fourth Friday of the month, which means that in a few hours, several dozen volunteers of all races and backgrounds—young professionals, middle-aged couples, bearded country boys in John Deere caps and cowboy boots—will fan out into the darkened alleys and dimly lit cantinas of Houston’s thriving sex trade. There, they will confront, face-to-face, pimps, prostitutes, and whatever else emerges from the sordid shadows.
But that’s in a few hours. First they must prepare themselves, first they must pack into a makeshift chapel that is housed, like the rest of Elijah Rising, the crusading anti-trafficking organization, inside what used to be a brothel called Angela’s Day Spa.
An hour of singing and fervent prayer ensues, complete with keyboard accompaniment, the music punctuated by volunteers standing and asking for Jesus’s protection and guidance. Then, the spiritual pep rally ends and the room quiets as the pulpit welcomes Elijah’s leader—a tattooed woman taller than six feet, her hair in a spiky silver mohawk. She is aware that for many this will be their first encounter with the streets, which is why Cat French’s sermon is delivered as a chilling gut check to the room.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” she warns. “Nobody has ever been hurt, but if we are not careful out there and somebody gets shot, it could be the end of Elijah Rising.”
She reminds the crowd of one recent incident in which some group members were forced to bolt out of a cantina after encountering unsavory characters who looked like they might reach for weapons. She reminds them too that many in the sex trade worship Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, the folk saint of death venerated by Mexico’s working classes and outcasts. For French, who keeps a grainy video on her computer depicting a Santa Muerte shrine she encountered in a cantina backroom, it is a not-too-subtle reminder that tonight’s battle is a spiritual one. She’s prospecting for souls.
French freely confesses to having a low tolerance for rules, and places few restrictions on those who volunteer on behalf of Elijah Rising. Still, there are limits. Participants who interact with women in the streets must pledge to abstain from such things as premarital sex, pornography, weapons, and judgment. Male volunteers, she notes, are particularly vulnerable to flirtatious advances by women in the trade.
“It’s easy for victims to look to male outreach workers with an unhealthy, erotic admiration, and it’s easy for the guys to enjoy it,” she tells the crowd, reminding men to pass victims off to female volunteers as quickly as possible. “If you catch a male worker looking too long, just say, ’Hey bro, you’re ogling. Let’s go have a taco.’”
With that, the volunteers divide into five separate groups, each with a different destination. Group One will go to hotels along Highway 59 and pass out information about sex trafficking to staffers working the front desk. Group Two—known as the Pancake group—will work a strip in southwest Houston known for prostitution, and hopefully lure a few young women to a nearby IHOP, where they will stage an intervention.
Inviting unsuspecting sex workers into one’s car does come with risk, French tells the group. “If you’re caught in a police sting,” she says, “call Morgan at the office and Morgan will try to talk the police out of arresting you.”
Group Three will try to make contact with women in brothels, and Group Four will remain at Elijah Rising’s offices—Mission Control, they call it, on nights like this—to field text message updates from volunteers around the city and give instructions for prayer. The prayer group at Mission Control might seem like the least exciting to be drafted into, but it’s considered by everyone involved to be crucial to a successful fourth Friday. Volunteers in the field frequently check in with news of miraculous occurrences: dangers narrowly averted, random strangers who suddenly appear offering assistance. Each instance of divine providence is logged and tracked, and miracles are commonplace. There was the time a sex worker came down with a toothache at just the right moment, which led Elijah workers to take her to a 24-hour emergency dentist, and then a subsequent intervention.
“The landscape out there,” French explains, “is intensely spiritual.”
It is the mission of the final group—Group Five—that makes it the most unpredictable and therefore dangerous. Ten or so bilingual volunteers—several Hispanic women in their early 20s, a couple of pastors from Hispanic congregations, and a smattering of random young people from all over town—will attempt to penetrate the cantina sex trade. We are in Group Five.
It’s been more than a year since Angela’s Day Spa was shut down, but the air inside the box-like brothel at 5818 Southwest Freeway is still heavy, still reeks of something fetid—visitors describe it as a cross between incense and sex. Thick screws that once fastened the in-house ATM are still visible in the concrete floor beside the front door, as is the pane of Plexiglas that once separated a hapless row of young, Southeast Asian women from the men who wanted to rent them out by the hour. Straight ahead and down a narrow hallway, the windowless complex opens onto a larger, dimly lit chamber lined by private showers where, we are told, customers were bathed at the outset to check for police wires and weapons.
The showers are empty now, almost. Elijah members have filled one of the darkened tile rooms with confiscated booty from their raids: high-heels, neon signs reading MASSAGE, several gallons of lubricant, lingerie, plastic hand ties, a large glass crack and/or meth pipe, and, most disturbingly, multiple human-size cages. The building is mid-renovation, and exposed reinforced concrete walls are now visible where once they were covered with drywall painted pink, an eerily bright shade reminiscent of a little girl’s bedroom.
Dottie Laster never thought she’d see the inside of this building, she tells us. After all, the longtime human trafficking activist spent nearly a decade trying to close it down. She never succeeded, however, as a lengthy Texas Monthly article documented in 2010. Laster still refers to the building by its address—5818—betraying a weary familiarity with her former foe.
“It was a consummate Houston brothel,” she says. “There were bars on the doors, cameras everywhere, and a chamber inside the front door that you had to pass through to get to the back. It wasn’t posing as a cantina or sports bar. It was just a brothel.”
Laster first tried to close the spa in 2004 when she was appointed to the then-new Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance, a task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials created by the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District. At that time, according to her calculations, 330,000 cars drove by the brothel each day. One of those cars was Laster’s, and each time she passed she’d curse the building and make a silent promise to herself to shut it down. She petitioned local and federal authorities, pressured media outlets, and wrote grant applications that ultimately netted thousands of dollars for the fight against Houston’s sex trade. Still, when it came to Angela’s, nothing seemed to make a difference, not even the Texas Monthly article containing a photograph of the brothel and its street address, she says.
“I know that I failed,” Laster says, looking back. “We all did. But now it doesn’t matter because Cat succeeded.”
You get the sense that Cat French minus the mohawk, the tattoos, and the towering frame would still be intimidating. A perpetually tense 54-year-old whose demeanor suggests an incapacity for levity (though this is not the case), she appears just one leather jacket and Harley away from joining a biker gang. She is actually, or was actually, a professor of sociology at Houston Community College and Lone Star College. Those were her Marxist days, as she terms them, before French transitioned out of academic life and began fighting human trafficking full-time in 2010. Thanks to her passion for the cause and her imposing figure, she quickly gained a reputation for ruthlessness among fellow activists, not to mention Houston’s law enforcement and religious communities, who often criticize her approach as reckless.
“Her philosophy is not to tolerate sex trafficking no matter what,” says Laster. “She may go into a brothel and create a disturbance or she might confront a pimp and, in my opinion, risk a potential reprisal against the victim. She does things her own way and it rubs some people the wrong way.”
And yet, in only a few short years French has, by her own count, rescued approximately two dozen or so victims of the international sex trade and shut down 13 of what she estimates are the city’s roughly 300 brothels. (Police estimates generally fall in the 100 to 300 range.) Among the 13, none was bigger or more notorious than Angela’s. In one sense, it seems odd that French would choose to make it Elijah Rising’s home, but in another it seems almost poetically apt. The place is outsize, imperious, and notorious—and so, of course, is French.
Sitting on a folding chair in the building’s front room, the same place where Thai women could once be purchased by the hour, French says that what she has done, essentially, is set up a forward operating base in the heart of enemy territory. The surrounding area, just southwest of the Galleria, is littered with businesses connected to the commercial sex trade. She believes there are 12 separate brothels within just a few blocks of Elijah Rising, some openly advertising as massage parlors or spas, others disguising themselves as after-hours nightclubs.
French has one of the latter in her sights, a nondescript, run-down, two-story townhouse surrounded by mechanic shops and warehouses just a few blocks away. It’s no secret what’s going on there. Out front are Christmas lights and a pair of large nude female statues, plus a pair of hulking bouncers near the door. Somehow, however, the establishment has eluded the authorities anyway. And that, French says enthusiastically, is exactly why hers is the perfect location from which to launch an offensive.
“There has to be some backstory for people who don’t give a shit as much as me,” she tells us. Just then, French is interrupted by the arrival of a middle-aged Hispanic man at the door. He awkwardly peeks inside Elijah Rising, stumbles a moment, and then tells us he is looking for a massage. French sends him away, and even as we confess to being amazed that the man hadn’t seen the big placard announcing the building’s new direction, French is already back on message. “I’m pretty prepared to defy social convention because I’ve never benefited from social convention,” she continues. “It’s never favored me, so I don’t owe it anything. That has ruffled feathers, especially in the church world.”
Though she didn’t start “running with Jesus,” as she puts it, until she was nearly 40, French believes she has been fighting spiritual battles since before birth, when her mother developed a blood condition that “made her allergic to me.” As a result, mother and daughter never bonded in their Wisconsin home, she says, and as her father was often on the road for work, young Catherine grew up without any parental attachment. On the plus side, her predicament engendered a certain callousness that permits French to absorb more human suffering than most, or so she believes.
“Books were my way of avoiding people,” she says of her childhood. “They were really my only friends at a very young age.” Eventually, they led her to sociology and a temporary career path. She got her master’s in the subject at UH in 1999 and began teaching it at HCC the same year, taking pleasure in “hijacking young minds.” For a time, it seemed like a good fit.
“I’ve always been, like, angry, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in not so good ways,” she admits. “I’ve always taught the issues of injustice and oppression, the haves and have-nots and the bloody overthrow of one thing or another.”
In 2007, however, after attending a conference on human trafficking in San Francisco, French began to grow restless. Trafficking began to dominate her focus and bleed into her classroom, where surprised students were treated to an increasingly angry primer on Houston’s commercial sex trade. “She seems to be in another dimension,” wrote one HCC student on the website ratemyprofessors.com. “I learned a lot about the world in this class, not too much about sociology, though,” wrote another. “I LOVED HER,” someone else added. “Sure, you don’t learn anything other than human trafficking, but you haven’t gone to college until you have had her. She’s super funny, awesome, awkward, and fun all together. I didn’t want to miss a class.”
Around the same time, she was asked to document Houston’s sex industry for a nonprofit organization, one whose name French refuses to give, citing possible reprisals from law enforcement. During that period, she visited more than 200 massage parlors and spas around town, discovering, among many other things, that 77 percent of the businesses weren’t even licensed. More than that, it was a world of depravity such as she hadn’t seen, and soon she found herself giving tours of it to friends. Friends told other friends, and before French knew it she was acquiring a 15-seat passenger van to keep pace with demand. It was around this time that her academic career came to a close.
“Yeah, I can teach Marx’s Das Kapital and advocate for extreme social change, but what am I actually doing?” she remembers thinking. “I decided, no more theory. It’s entirely too theoretical for me—it’s bullshit.”
These days it’s mostly suburban church ladies who take French’s van tour, a 90-minute trip that leaves them with a “kicked-in-the-stomach feeling,” she says. Such tours, which French estimates she has given to more than 5,000 people in the past six years, have been criticized by public officials. But Angela’s Day Spa might still be open today if not for them. French stopped her van in front of the spa for two solid years, even tape-recorded a confrontation with the landlord. In the recording, she says, he admitted to knowing about the illegal activity going on in his building, but was loath to give up the $10,000 that the spa paid to him in cash each month.
French always names names on her tour, and last spring one of her passengers recognized Angela’s landlord as a close relative of someone with whom she was about to sign a building contract. The woman promptly canceled the contract, and shortly thereafter, French says, a defamation of character lawsuit from the landlord arrived in her mailbox. It was like getting a gift. The suit allowed her to draw media attention to her cause and again confront the landlord. This time the man claimed to be ignorant of the goings-on in the spa, at which time French reminded him that she had him on tape admitting otherwise.
“At that point, it’s whoever blinks first loses,” she says.
The landlord abandoned his pursuit of legal action, instead offering to close down Angela’s and lease the property to Elijah Rising, which French had founded a year prior. The monthly rent he was asking, less than $4,000, was low, so she jumped at the opportunity.
A few minutes after French dismisses them on Fourth Friday, Group Five packs into a large white van and heads toward the Houston Ship Channel. The mood is undeniably tense as we head east on I-10, and members of the group begin taking turns praying aloud. A middle-aged woman starts speaking in tongues, but the surrounding prayers have grown louder, so no one seems to notice. It is just after 10 p.m. when the van exits at McCarty Drive, lumbering past trucking companies and nameless industrial lots before finally reaching a windowless, one-story brick building painted bright orange. Bar Caliente it is called, and the thumping beat of conjunto music pours out into a potholed parking lot packed with dusty pickup trucks.
Marlon Sanchez, a 38-year-old Elijah Rising staffer and the leader of tonight’s expedition, selects four volunteers—two men and two women—to enter the darkened building, take a seat, and survey the scene. They do so, awkwardly making their way to a table near the corner of the room. There are maybe 15 other people in the bar, mostly blue-collar men in jeans and baseball caps, along with scantily clad young Hispanic women in skirts and high-heels, sitting on stools at the bar. Each immediately cranes her neck backwards to take in the painfully out-of-place newcomers, all of whom are too scared to approach the bar and talk to them. Four minutes into it, the mission is scuttled, and everyone is back in the van feeling defeated.
By 11:30, the group has driven to two more cantinas but still failed to make a single intervention. In fact, they have spent three times as much time in the van praying for safety than the 15 minutes total they’ve spent inside the cantinas. Every place they go, the regulars appear puzzled by the group’s sudden arrival, but otherwise neither concerned nor interested.
And then we come upon La Estrella.
French likes to point out, with no small amount of irony, that not only is Houston home to North America’s two largest churches—Second Baptist and Lakewood—it also played host to the two largest cantina and brothel raids ever conducted. The first, in 2005, targeted a strip mall bar in northwest Houston, ultimately freeing 120 trafficking victims and capturing kingpin Maximino “El Chimino” Mondragon. The second, the Gerardo “El Gallo” Salazar case, freed dozens more after authorities raided multiple cantinas and an apartment complex along the Gulf Freeway that same year.
“These realities don’t compute, and both of these churches have carefully avoided officially jumping into the [Elijah Rising] mission,” she says. “But there’s a very robust underground at both places that supports us.”
The opinion that the city’s churches have been too cautious when it comes to fighting human trafficking is common among Elijah Rising’s seven-person staff, who see themselves as following their namesake, the prophet who warned the Israelites to mend their ways lest God descend from the heavens and wreak havoc. Most echo the sentiments of Sam Hernandez, a vivacious 24-year-old Houston Baptist University graduate who does community outreach and PR for Elijah Rising. She says she’d grown tired of fellow Christians telling her she needed to calm down about the sex trade.
“They’d say, ’I know you believe that the Bible says this or that, but we have to leave that to the police and other organizations,’” she says. “When I saw Cat foaming at the mouth about this stuff, it was a huge relief. Like, great, I’m not that weird. Other people tried to put out my fire. She put gasoline on my fire.”
Elijah Rising’s strength, staffers say, is its aggressiveness, which can include everything from approaching prostitutes and their pimps directly on the street or in a cantina to performing undercover operations, such as using a multi-person team (including a former Marine) to lure a prostitute from an online ad to a hotel room for an intervention. (According to the group’s website, the first type is “moderately” risky, while the latter is “high” risk.)
“We deploy people into places that don’t lend themselves to handing out a gift package, but we do it because the Gospel obligates us to,” says Morgan Goatley, the woman French tells volunteers to call if they get caught in a police sting. She tried working for several secular anti-trafficking groups but joined Elijah Rising because of its commitment to victims no matter where they are.
Like their leader, French’s staffers tend to be Christians of an apocalyptic sort. They believe, as she does, that these are The Last Days, and that saving the enslaved is of utmost importance. For her part, French says she is an unapologetic member of the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement, a Pentecostal offshoot.
“I’m not an end-times wacko, but I do believe we are in the end times and I believe that this is the battlefront,” she says, casting her eyes at the pink and grey walls surrounding her. “It does provide a sense of urgency about our fight and it informs a sense of—oh, shall we say— martyrdom.”
Theirs is a battle so fraught with pain and danger, staffers say, it can only be effectively fought if one is empowered by Jesus, whose name is thrown around the office like that of a friendly relative no one has actually met. This shared sense of desperation is what attracts staffers to French and her commanding presence, Goatley says.
“She’s an intense personality, and she’s one of the people who says the emperor has no clothes, and ’how can this be going on and you look the other way?’ There has to be someone who embodies that urgency in this line of work, or it’s too easy to look the other way.”
“People look at her, and they think she’s just crazy or just bold, and that’s not the truth,” adds Hernandez. “But the reason that she’s effective is that she’s bold and she’s crazy.”
French says she doesn’t mind being called crazy. People willing to risk their lives for a cause have always been labeled thus.
“Yeah, we might die in this fight,” she says. “We know that, because the Bible says it.”
Meddling in the affairs of human traffickers is an unquestionably dangerous undertaking. A criminal industry that generates billions of dollars in profit every year, the brutish criminal underworld that traffickers and their victims inhabit is complicated and unpredictable, says Misa Nguyen, the deputy director of United Against Human Trafficking, a coalition of Houston-area nonprofits that works closely with law enforcement to fight trafficking. Nguyen says her team does not advocate anyone staging French-style brothel interventions unless they’re working with law enforcement.
“These aren’t teddy bears—these people have guns,” she says of the traffickers. “There is a high level of danger and complex trauma issues inherent in the crime of human trafficking and its victims that private citizens are not equipped to investigate and serve.”
Another reason to involve law enforcement, Nguyen says, is that it remains the only entity capable of investigating crimes and building cases that not only rescue victims, but prosecute traffickers. If members of the public want to fight trafficking, she says, they should start by raising awareness or supporting organizations involved in the struggle already. And yet, Nguyen says, she isn’t willing to criticize another group’s approach, Elijah Rising’s included.
“At the end of the day,” she says, “we are all working towards the same mission: to end human trafficking.”
When the van parks in La Estrella’s lot, someone suggests buying alcohol when they go in, which might help the group blend in with their surroundings. It is a good idea, but one that the volunteers greet with uncertainty. Most of them don’t even drink alcohol. They decide to pretend for the sake of the cause, at which point Group Five enters yet another run-down one-story building with pickup trucks out front. The dance floor is bathed in colorful, spinning lights and loud Mexican pop, but lies mostly empty. Men of all ages, some in Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats, others tattooed and wearing baggy shorts, play pool, sit at the bar, or gather in groups in the shadows.
Unlike the young women at the other bars the group has visited this evening, those in La Estrella make their presence felt. At least a dozen of them hover around the bar in short, thigh-clinging skirts, low-cut tops and glossy high-heels. They stumble from one group of men to the next like waitresses without trays of food, their eyes glassy and their steps uneasy, until all at once a stranger grabs one of them by the waist, pulls her close, and drunkenly leads her to the dance floor.
Occasionally, the young woman in high heels is actually a young man, which nobody but Group Five seems to notice. We look at each other, eyebrows raised.
The volunteers take their seats at a table near the entrance and the usual stares ensue, but at La Estrella the dizzying lights and dark shadows provide more cover. After several minutes, two male members of the group get up the nerve to push through the crowd and order some beers at the bar. Moments later, three scantily dressed women approach and ask in broken English if the men will buy them a couple of Bud Lights. Wearing woozy smiles, two of the women explain that they are originally from Mexico, have children, and frequent La Estrella regularly. Then, without missing a beat, the oldest of the three points to the bartender.
“You pay him $20 now,” the woman, who appears to be in her late 30s, yells over the music. The bartender nods. “Then you and me—we—you know—talk.”
It is the first step in what promises to be a series of cash transactions, each successive exchange leading to a new level of talking. But before any money can trade hands, three female members of Elijah Rising appear from behind, encircling the young women and introducing themselves in Spanish. The trio of apparent sex workers looks confused, but remains temporarily cooperative as the male volunteers peel away, retreating to the sidelines to avoid temptation and keep an eye out for trouble. Despite the music, the dancing, and the swirling crowd, the entire sequence unfolds in plain sight next to the bar, and some in the crowd appear to be aware that La Estrella has been infiltrated by some sort of network.
From that point on, a sense of uneasiness seems to descend on the bar. The faces of Elijah members, but also bar-goers, register a vague terror, as if something terrible might happen at any moment. What kind of something? No one in La Estrella seems to be sure. All anyone can do is read nods and glances, look for patterns in body language that may or may not exist. The patrons wonder if the stone-faced men watching from the shadows pose a threat, if the suburban Christians milling about their bar are tolerable oddities. Elijah Rising’s members wonder too, if the young women before them are indeed victims of traffickers, or if perhaps they’re willing participants in a larger scheme to rob their male clientele. It’s close to midnight now, and nobody can be sure of anything, except of course for that one thing—that La Estrella is becoming a more dangerous place with each passing moment.
The conversation comes to an end, and the volunteers hand each of the three women a card with a helpline number. This is the signal that their fellow volunteers have been waiting for, the signal that it’s time to depart. Group Five’s stint at La Estrella has been longer than anywhere else, about an hour by now, though once again they have little to show for their efforts. Outside, the feeling of being liberated from the dingy cantina is almost palpable. You can’t help but wonder if on some level the volunteers are relieved not to have found a willing convert, if only because they didn’t have to confront a nasty pimp or ascertain the truth about the woman’s situation.
Back at the van, which has been idling at an adjacent gas station all this time, the group is preparing to head home when suddenly they spot the three women from the cantina. They are walking toward them across the bar’s gravel parking lot. After a moment of hesitation, one of the pastors hops out of the van and approaches them.
“Can I talk to you all?” he asks.
“You want to talk to us about Jesus?” one woman replies, nearly laughing, and the trio walk right past him toward a beat-up minivan, the pastor in hot pursuit. Two get inside the van, but a third stops to listen to him. She is very young, with long brown hair, and wears tight black pants and a low-cut top. From the Elijah van it is impossible to hear what the pastor is saying, but after a minute or two the woman’s smile fades and her head begins to droop. She nods, and then, moments later, begins sobbing and shaking her head. Soon, the woman’s companions have driven off in the minivan and she finds herself surrounded by the pastor and two more volunteers. They form a circle around her, closing their eyes and praying and placing their hands on her head. The group’s bodies are pressed together so tightly, the young woman seems to disappear completely into the prayer huddle.
A few minutes later they coax her into the Elijah van and we learn that her name is Anna. She is 25 and originally from Mexico, a single mother with a five-year-old daughter. By day, she works as a secretary, she says, but sometimes on the weekends, when she needs the money, she comes with her sister to the bar to meet men. She does not tell the group what she does in exchange for cash, only that she does not enjoy herself while she’s doing it.
“No, no, no, that’s not me,” she says, her words slightly slurred. “I just go there because I need the money.”
Is Anna a trafficking victim? That’s unclear. Is she not a victim but rather an agent, a woman who has chosen to work as a prostitute? Perhaps. Is she at risk and in need of help? Probably. Was anyone else going to help her tonight? Of course not.
The group gives Anna a ride home to her apartment complex in southeast Houston, praying for several more minutes before the young woman departs, thanking Elijah Rising for its support. She is obviously overwhelmed and embarrassed by all the attention, but also seems to appreciate the group of strangers that latched onto her and is now praying for her salvation. She trades contact information with the pastor she first spoke with, then gingerly exits the van in her heels and slips back into the night.
“We will be praying for you,” someone says.
“Thank you,” Anna replies. “I need it.”