Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Florida’s Tampa Bay Area ID’d as Major Hub for Human Trafficking

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee joins forces with other law enforcement agencies to combat human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery. The task is daunting, the drive to succeed steadfast and formidable.

By D’Ann White

The 16-year-old mentally challenged girl was living a life of unimaginable abuse and daily degradation, said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

In a form of modern-day slavery, she was transported from one migrant farm worker camp to another, throughout Eastern Hillsborough County, where she was forced to commit sexual acts with anyone willing to pay her captor.

An investigation in 2010 by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, U.S, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Clearwater/Tampa Bay area Human Trafficking Task Force led to the arrest of Mario Alberto Laguna-Guerrero, 25.

“This girl was rescued from a nightmare, which could only have gotten worse," said Gee. "The teamwork among law enforcement agencies cannot be underestimated when it comes to protecting children and the innocent. There is one less predator on the streets, and one more reason that this task force is so valuable."

If convicted as charged, Laguna-Guerrero faces a maximum penalty of life in federal prison.

That may be one human trafficker who’s now off the streets, said Gee. But there are more lining up to take his place.

According to the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, human trafficking involves the commercial exchange and exploitation of humans including forced prostitution and pornography, involuntary labor, servitude and debt bondage.

It’s a growing problem worldwide, recently rising to the second most common criminal activity behind the illegal drug trade. Currently, there are approximately 27 million people enslaved throughout the world with 2.5 million located in the United States. Each year, 600,000 to 800,000 more people are being trafficked worldwide, according to the coalition.

Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, has been identified as a hub for human trafficking activity.

That’s one of the reasons state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, got involved.

“Florida is one of the top three states for human trafficking, behind New York and California,” said Burgin. “And most of that activity is taking place right here in Tampa Bay.”

Burgin displayed a Department of Justice map. The map uses circles to indicate where incidents of human trafficking are most prevalent. One of those circles sits on top of Tampa Bay.

Burgin said she was unaware of the severity of the problem until she happened to attend a national conference in Washington, D.C.

“I was seated next to a woman who started an international organization to stop human trafficking,” she said. “She told me about her international work and the significant increase in human trafficking over the past few years. I was surprised to learn how pervasive the problem is. I began looking into it and discovered that Tampa Bay is a hub for such activity.”

In fact, seemingly innocuous storefronts along Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway are actually fronts for human trafficking operations, said Burgin.

“You see them all over the place, massage parlors with signs that say they’re open until 2 a.m. seven days a week,” she said. “What kind of legitimate massage parlor is open until 2 a.m.?”

Other signs indicate directions to a rear entrance so patrons can enter the establishment surreptitiously.

“In these places, women are brought in, usually staying for no more than six days, and forced to perform sexual acts,” said Burgin. “The businesses are well-known by law enforcement. The problem is law enforcement must actually catch them in the act in order to prosecute them. And that’s very difficult to do.”

Working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, Burgin authored a bill in 2009 designed to empower law enforcement.
In addition to increasing the penalties for those convicted of the crime, Burgin’s bill would require massage parlor employees to have identification on them at all times.

“One of the ways the traffickers hold these women hostage is by taking away their identities,” said Burgin. “Without a passport, visa or other documentation, these women can’t escape. They can’t travel, they can’t do anything.”

Her bill would require massage parlor employees to carry a valid U.S. passport, driver’s license or Employment Authorized Document. That would give law enforcement authorization to request identification, and determine who’s working illegally, she said.

That first year, Burgin’s bill passed the House but failed to pass the Senate. She reintroduced it last year, joining forces with Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. This time it passed the Senate but the House rejected it.

Its failure baffles Burgin.

“There are differing opinions on what’s important in Tallahassee,” said Burgin. “Because they don’t have human trafficking there, I think it’s not perceived as a big problem. It’s not an issue people want to talk about or even acknowledge it exists. But it’s a very big problem in Tampa Bay.”

Undeterred by the Legislature’s acquiescence on the issue, Burgin plans to reintroduce her bill during the 2012 legislative session. This time she believes the it will get the attention it deserves due to the national attention the issue is now receiving.

On June 27, U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., issued a statement on human trafficking based on a recently released report from the U.S. Department of State. “This important report is a chilling reminder of how prevalent this dehumanizing practice is all over the world,” said Rubio. “I am also concerned that Florida is disproportionately affected by this scourge, requiring our own vigilance.

“With the input from Sen. Rubio, maybe it will become more of a priority,” said Burgin.

As law enforcement has discovered, a disproportionate number of the victims are from other countries, said Burgin.

“They’re either tricked into coming here with the promise of a job or they are sold into slavery by a relative,” said Burgin. “They come from all different countries – Asia, the Middle East, Central America, Africa and Europe. Every person’s story is different but they have one thing in common – they are being forced to work in unpleasant environments under duress.”

What’s especially disturbing to Burgin is the changing profile of the victims.

“It used to be most of the victims were in their 20s,” she said. “Now the biggest age group is 13 to 17 years old. It’s a horrible crime. And we need to find a way to protect these children.”

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