Officials think Florida is a top destination for those who traffic in prostitutes and menial laborers.
By Associated Press
Published February 25, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Human trafficking - modern-day slavery - is "alive and well ... right here in our own back yard," the head of a human rights center said Tuesday as it released a report on people forced to work as prostitutes, crop pickers and maids across Florida.
Traffickers bring thousands of people into the United States each year, and Florida is believed to be one of the top three destinations, along with New York and Texas, according to the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.
Although there have been several high-profile prosecutions of human trafficking in Florida, many people don't realize the extent or even existence of the problem, according to the center's report.
No one knows how many people in Florida are under the control of traffickers, said Terry Coonan, executive director of the center.
In South Florida, federal prosecutions have indicated that hundreds of farmworkers were victims of human trafficking and that a forced prostitution ring involved as many as 40 young women and girls brought from Mexico. The center also cited a case of "domestic servitude" in southwest Florida.
But the problem is not limited to those areas or those industries, according to Robin Thompson, director of the research project.
Researchers heard about human trafficking "anywhere from Fort Walton Beach in the motel industry to cleaning services here in Tallahassee to migrant farmworker places," Thompson said.
"All you have to do is look where cheap labor is required and where there is a potential for labor exploitation, which pretty much can put you anywhere in our state."
The center organized a working group of advocates and law enforcement to study the issue. The project was funded by a federal grant.
Lt. Bill Rule, with the Collier County Sheriff's Office, works with victims and served on the center's working group. He called human trafficking "one of the most lucrative businesses" that criminals might undertake.
Unlike drug trafficking, where the product is gone once it's sold, human traffickers "use the person over and over and over again."
Graciela Marquina, a graduate student in social work at Florida State, worked on the project and interviewed some of the victims forced into the prostitution ring.
The young women and girls, duped into believing they were coming to Florida to work as waitresses or nannies, were beaten, raped and threatened. They were closely guarded and frequently moved from one Florida city to another.
"Their faces are like yours and mine," Marquina said. "Their children are like our own children. You would never believe that such a horrible experience happened to these women."
The center's report emphasized that not all victims of human trafficking are illegal immigrants. Many victims enter the United States legally but because of their poverty or inability to speak English are exploited.
And some victims are Americans, Thompson said, pointing to the homeless, addicted and runaways as potential victims for traffickers.
All indications are that human trafficking is on the rise in recent years, thanks to the loosening of national borders, Coonan said.
"The greater the awareness, the more likely these cases will be reported and prosecuted," Coonan told reporters. "This is almost an invisible crime because the victims are kept out of the public eye. We need to crack this code of silence."