Human Trafficking Dims Florida Spring Breaks
March 6, 2013 | WMFE, Orlando--This week is spring break for the University of Central Florida and other schools, increasing tourist activity in the Orlando region. Beneath the legitimate business of attractions and hotels, lies the darker economy of human trafficking.
[Sex trafficking victim Octavis speaks at Human Trafficking Awareness Day, January 25, at Lake Eola Park. Photo: Amy Kiley, WMFE]
In legal terms, human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to trap a person in prostitution or other work. In colloquial terms, it’s slavery.
Millions of Victims
The International Labor Organization estimates the world currently has about 21 million human trafficking victims. Florida is third-worst in the U.S. for the crimes, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. It tabulates tip line data and finds, in just the first half of last year, Florida saw over 800 trafficking reports.
A 12-year-old Girl is Smuggled and Trafficked
Behind the statistics are people like Central Florida resident Kathy, who won’t give her last name. Born in Honduras, she believes, a neighbor sold her sister and her to traffickers who smuggled them into the U.S. Kathy was 12 years-old. Her sister was eight. “He used to tell us to dress a certain way, to not talk," Kathy says. "And now, I can go back and say, ‘yes, I was drugged,’ you know? Because I don’t remember some of the days, but, at that point, I didn’t know.”
When Kathy and her sister reached Texas, things got worse. Three men locked them in a small room with about 18 other people. They had to shower in front of men. “They had my mom’s phone number, and they used to call her, telling her, ‘you need to give us money for these girls, or we’re going to send them to Mexico.’ They were telling her that they were going to send us over there for prostitution and stuff. And, my little sister was eight years-old. And, I was 12.”
Kathy thinks that room might have been a sales hub. She says occupants would sometimes leave – and not return.
After about two months of captivity, Kathy and her sister were freed in a law enforcement raid. She moved to Florida, and, though homeless, she graduated high school and got into college. She even won two top, national honors from Girl Scouts for community service.
Kathy thinks most people in that room were victims of labor trafficking. The men promised them good jobs – but instead exploited and even enslaved them. Data suggests about a quarter to a third of Florida victims fall into that category.
A Pimp's Daughter Turns to Survival Sex
Most victims in the state suffer sex trafficking, like Octavis. She spoke at Human Trafficking Awareness Day at Lake Eola Park this winter.
She talked about growing up the daughter of a pimp. She became a prostitute to survive, saying, “Prostitution is triggered from a person being frequently raped.”
Octavis said she also worked as a recruiter, witnessing first-hand how pimps use violence, drugs and manipulation to control children in the sex trade. Most start between ages 11 and 14. "I persuaded them to join a business that sounded pleasurable at first but that became your worst nightmare if you ever decided to leave," she recounts.
Why Florida Has a Human Trafficking Problem
Such stories are all too common in Florida, and Tomas Lares thinks he knows why. He leads the Great Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, a coalition of governmental and nonprofit groups addressing the problem. Lares says, "We’re kind of a perfect storm too with the agricultural community, the hospitality community, the tourism, the transients. It’s a real hot spot, too, whenever there is large conventions, sporting events, for traffickers to exploit victims."
Sgt. Patrick Guckian agrees. He leads the sex trafficking unit for Orlando’s Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation and says there’s a misconception that prostitutes want to do what they do. People often don’t understand how pimps control them. He notes, "When you talk about the 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girl forced into the commercial sex industry, it is human trafficking because legally, morally and ethically these girls they can’t choose to be bought or sold for sex."
Laws to Help
Guckian praises recent laws that make it easier to prosecute traffickers.
Behind them are politicians like U.S. Representative Bill Posey, who hosted a human trafficking symposium in his Melbourne-area district. He says legislators need a dose of awareness too. "It’s not been on the radar until recent years. It really hasn’t been," Posey says. "And, when we looked at the border, we looked at the drug trafficking. We looked at the arms trafficking, you know. We didn’t really focus this much on the human trafficking."
To help tackle the issue, experts say companies could audit contractors to weed out labor exploitation.
How You Can Help
*LEARN the indicators of human trafficking. The Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking group in the U.S., has compiled them here at polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs.
*BE AWARE of suspicious behavior, like those in the link above. Central Florida has had problems with pimps, recognizable when controlling a group of females with matching tattoos. Another trafficking conviction in the region involved children selling door-to-door during school hours.
*REPORT potential trafficking situations by calling the the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Online and text submissions are available through the link above.
*GET HELP if you're a victim using the information above. Asked what awareness she wants for the community, Kathy addresses potential victims, saying, "People can sometimes promise you stuff. And, yes, they can promise you a job and a better life, but that’s not what you’re gonna get.”