Human Trafficking Infects Florida
ORLANDO — In 2018, the state of Florida saw the third-highest number of reported cases of human trafficking in the entire country, trailing only portions of California and Texas. The largest concentration of occurrences happened in urban centers, led by Central Florida.
In 2016, greater Orlando ranked third in the nation in the number of human trafficking reports to the hotline. Last year alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded a statewide total of 1,885 contacts and 767 reported cases, according to the organization’s 2018 annual report on Florida. The report includes sex and labor trafficking victims.
While human trafficking holds the entire nation in its grasp, the multibillion-dollar industry has a stranglehold on Florida. Even without factoring in unknown numbers of unreported cases, a number that is likely much higher than the reported, available figures paint a gut-wrenching portrait.
Tomas Lares, founder, president and CEO of United Abolitionists, formerly Florida Abolitionist, is a leader in the fight against what he describes as “modern-day slavery” — sex and labor trafficking exacted by force, fraud or coercion. Founded in 2009, his organization works with local leadership, law enforcement and nonprofits to help rescue and rehabilitate victims.
“I found out that Florida had one of the first cases of human trafficking, called the United States vs. Tico, where people were being brought in from Guatemala to be labor trafficking slaves and domestic servants in homes,” Lares told The Florida Free Press in a recent interview. “That happened in 1999, when a victim was discovered, and they actually had to use the laws from 1865 to convict the traffickers because there was no modern-day slavery law.”
As a result of the “Tico case,” formally referred to as the United States vs. Alberto Martinez, Congress in 2000 passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which created a modern legal structure for human trafficking cases. This decision shone a light not only on the case at hand, but on the breadth of the crisis. The human toll of the practice is staggering, victimizing both children and adults, men and women, foreign and homegrown, of all races and religions.
According to the International Labour Organization, a U.N. agency dedicated to preserving labor standards and promoting fair work practices, human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion each year, from the mistreatment of approximately 25 million victims. These estimates suggest human trafficking is the second-most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, behind drug trafficking.
But sifting through the numbers is as overwhelming as it is confusing. Even discerning whether the available data are reliable or not can prove impossible at times. No accurate methodology for measuring the impact exists, so available numbers are limited to reported instances.
“What’s reported is not necessarily a sample — or 100-percent accurate — of what’s really occurring,” Lares said. “There could be more labor trafficking in Florida than sex trafficking, but labor trafficking is really under-reported, and many first responders don’t know how to identify it. Sex trafficking is mainly of minors, and under current legislation there’s a lot of mandates, so that’s what’s being found.”
Lares believes progress has been made since 2000 in certain legislative areas, such as with House Bill 99, or the Florida Safe Harbor Act, which protects minors from being prosecuted when arrested in prostitution busts. Previously, the individual suspected of prostitution would have been arrested, while the johns would often go free, Lares explained.
Due to a combination of tourism, international accessibility and a booming hospitality industry, Central Florida is a top choice for traffickers, with demand likely to continue to increase.
This story is part of an ongoing series investigating the extent and impact of human trafficking on the state of Florida.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733. If you have information regarding suspected human trafficking of a child in Florida, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873).
Written by: The Florida Free Press
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