Authorities launch Orlando human-trafficking task force
Florida has one of the highest instances of human trafficking in the country.
The Orlando-area human-trafficking task force will assist victims and also help the public know how to identify such cases.
Florida has one of the highest instances of human trafficking in the United States, and Orange County leads the state in the number of trafficking cases referred to the Department of Children and Families, Sheriff Jerry Demings said Monday.
Teenage girls who are trafficked into Orlando are often forced into prostitution on Orange Blossom Trail and in hotels in the region's tourism corridor.
In some cases, the girls and young women have been locked in hotel rooms, had their cell phones taken, and were beaten by their pimps when they tried to run away or refused to have sex.
Many times, these teens and young women are too afraid to seek help or have nowhere safe to seek refuge.
In response, a team of law-enforcement officials, child-welfare professionals and representatives from numerous service organizations on Monday announced the formation of a local human trafficking task force.
"It's a cause no one can ignore," said Tomas Lares, chairman of the newly formed Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force. "One victim is too many."
Lares said there is a great need for a collaboration of services, and this group will bring together more than a dozen subcommittees on a variety of topics ranging from law-enforcement to housing.
Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation Director Larry Zwieg, whose agents investigate human trafficking cases in Orange and Osceola counties, announced Monday the agency's vice unit is expanding with the addition of agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, FBI and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
Calling human trafficking "modern day slavery," Demings said the community must be proactive so the problem doesn't proliferate.
The goal of the task force is to have seamless services and a victim-centered approach, said Lares, president of Florida Abolitionists, an Orlando-based anti-human trafficking nonprofit.
The Orlando area has been home to several cases in recent years that involve men forcing teenage girls and young women into prostitution.
In March, Weylin "Rico" Rodriguez of Orlando was sentenced to life in federal prison for kidnapping a 15-year-old girl in Tampa's Ybor City and forcing her to become a prostitute on Orange Blossom Trail. His co-defendant, Pria Gunn, was sentenced to nearly four years for holding the girls captive in motel rooms and acting as Rodriguez's enforcer.
Authorities say their mission can be an uphill battle: Even when child-welfare workers try to help some teens, the girls run away and return to the streets.
One of the main goals of the newly-formed task force is to provide emergency shelter for victims. The Lifeboat Project, a Central Florida nonprofit that provides services to human trafficking victims, plans to use modular homes for housing, and is currently looking for land.
Each subcommittee of the task force is partially tasked with securing funding for their targeted area. There is no funding yet for the task force, and members and other associates so far are working pro-bono.
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