The case of Zephaniah "Zephi" Trevino demonstrates how desperately systematic changes are needed to address human trafficking.
National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is recognized each year on January 11th. Despite the increasing amount of attention on the issue, the U.S. criminal justice system is still massively flawed. Take the case of Zephaniah “Zephi” Trevino, a nightmare which demonstrates all too perfectly how desperately needed systematic changes are.
In 2019, “Zephi” Trevino, a North Texas Latina teen, was accused of capital murder and then later prosecuted as an adult. The incident that led to her prosecution was an armed robbery staged by Jesse Martinez (18 at the time) and Philip Baldenegro (19 at the time). The robbery left one man dead and another injured. Zephi, Martinez, and Baldenegro were arrested and charged, Zephi was charged as an adult even though she was only 16 at the time, but that’s not the only thing that had everyone speaking out on Zephi’s defense.
Those close to her and who knew her instantly began wondering, how could the bright-eyed, loving girl who months before was only an average teenager in her sophomore year of high school now be facing murder charges? Her mother’s testimony made what was going on crystal clear. Her mother, Crystal Trevino, shared how concerned she had become for her daughter towards the end of her school year. Trevino stated, “She started losing weight, with dark circles appearing under her eyes and bruises showing up on her body. “That summer was pretty much like a hurricane,” her mother recalled.
According to her family and lawyers, the true story behind the incident is much more gut-wrenching than it seems. Zephi wasn’t a willing accomplice in the crime as the Prosecution was alleging, she was a victim of sex trafficking, and her aggressors were Martinez and Baldenegro themselves. Zephi had been taken there to “lure” the man that was going to purchase her, and after a conflict arose between him and the traffickers, he was shot by one of them. The man who died from a gunshot wound was 24-year-old Carlos Arajeni-Arriaza Morillo.
Public Support Grows
Zephi was a child who the system failed to protect and a sex-trafficking victim. So how was she charged with capital murder and tried as an adult on top of it all? She was just 16 at the time of the crime.
Many, including some popular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jamie Lee Curtis, came to her defense, hoping to get the DA to drop Zephi’s charges. Much of the initial media coverage on the case also minimizes the fact that Zephi was actually a sex trafficking victim, with many outlets brushing it off as an aside, rather than investigating further into all of information coming to light. “We have evidence to show she was being sex trafficked and abused by the triggerman in this case,” says Zephi’s attorney Moore. “She should be receiving services, not punishment.”
Celebrities, thousands of people, and over 100 human rights organizations called for the dismissal of the charges against Zephi, but she still had to stand trial as an adult. Zephi spent 13 months in jail before her trial, in which she was charged with capital murder. Her bond had been set at $750,000, while her trafficker paid $35,000 to be released. As of March of 2021, Zephi was able to return home to her family. However, the fight isn’t over, and no updates have been made on the case as of recently. To keep up and give support, you can follow @freezephi on IG and Twitter.
You can also sign the following petitions:
Zephi’s case is one of the 24.9 million estimated cases of human trafficking worldwide. There are no specific victim traits for it; It’s a reality that everyone should be aware of. And it’s important to continue spreading awareness, remain informed and conscientious about it, and always listen to and allow victims the benefit of the doubt when they come forward.
Ways to Help End Human Trafficking
There are many things the public can do to fight against human trafficking: https://www.state.gov/20-ways-you-can-help-fight-human-trafficking/
If you are in the United States and believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or report an emergency to law enforcement by calling 911. Trafficking victims, whether or not U.S. citizens, are eligible for services and immigration assistance. (state.gov)