Coalition to battle human trafficking

Each year, thousands are smuggled into the country and forced into sex or slave labor, a state gathering is told.

Published June 9, 2006

FORT MYERS - The girl thought her miserable days at the orphanage were over. She thought the nice woman was bringing her to live with an aunt.

Instead, the girl was locked in a room in a dingy flat, starved, raped and forced to have sex with countless men day after day.

The girl's life played out on film, depicted in a dramatization shown Thursday to detectives, social service workers and federal officials from around Florida, including Hillsborough County and Clearwater.

When the lights went on, the audience learned the girl's fate: She pried open the sealed window of her locked room in a high-rise building and plunged to her death.

The meeting was the first statewide gathering organized by the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. The approximately 100 law enforcement officers and social service workers who attended said they have firsthand experience with similar stories because of a growing problem: the trafficking of human beings for sex or slave labor.

Florida is the second-most popular destination state for human traffickers after California, said Anna Rodriguez, who founded the state coalition two years ago in Fort Myers.

An estimated 18,000 human trafficking victims are smuggled into the United States every year, with 2-million in the country at any time.

Many victims fear coming forward because captors threaten to kill them and their families. Some victims are U.S. citizens - runaways or homeless. Others face language and cultural barriers, she said.

During the past 11 months, Rodriguez's coalition has worked with nine victims in Florida from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala - two adults, six girls and a boy, she said.

Traffickers move victims across the Mexican border and rotate them among brothels in several Florida counties, Rodriguez said. That's why agencies throughout the state need to coordinate their efforts.

Rodriguez encouraged audience members to increase services and outreach. Sometimes workers in code enforcement, domestic violence and even cable and phone companies are the first to spot signs of trafficking, she said.

Rodriguez asked audience members to help plan statewide meetings every few months. Clearwater police Sgt. Steven Sears said his city could possibly host the next one. Officers there just broke up a prostitution house where they suspect women were victims of human trafficking and sex slavery, he said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.