TREASURE COAST, FL--Mention the term “human trafficking” to your neighbor and he or she is likely to tell you that no such thing happens around here.
But that isn’t true, says a coalition of Treasure Coast law enforcement agencies and others who have vowed to rescue victims and smoke out the perpetrators who enslave them. Florida is one of the top three destinations for human traffickers in the United States.
According to a 2007 U.S. Department of State report, an estimated 800,000 adults and children are trafficked across international borders yearly. But many more are U. S. citizens who are forced into slavery within the borders of the United States.
The victims are commonly put to work as prostitutes, farm workers and in a variety of low-paying jobs such as domestic work, restaurant work and manual labor. They are lured from their homes with promises of good jobs, but once they arrive at a location, they are told that they are in debt and must pay it off before they can be free.
“We are more likely to see victims here in farm labor, or sex trafficking, and less likely to see victims working in hotels and restaurants like you might find in the Miami area,” said Detective Fred Wilson, a member of the Treasure Coast Human Trafficking Coalition who works at the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office.
About a year ago at a Soroptimist workshop in Martin County on human trafficking, several groups talked about forming a coalition.
Afterward, Lt. John Silvas of the Martin County Sheriff’s office spearheaded the creation of the Treasure Coast Human Trafficking Coalition. At its first meeting last spring, the group decided to ask a similar coalition in Clearwater for help getting organized. Since then, Treasure Coast members have been networking with other local agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, explaining the problems and asking them to get involved.
In St. Lucie County, the Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie police departments are now part of the coalition. In Martin, Okeechobee, and Indian River counties, the sheriff’s departments are enlisting the aid of other agencies, both inside and outside of law enforcement.
Many times cases cross county and state lines, Wilson said, so setting up networks is essential.
“When we find a victim it can be a huge undertaking in terms of the number of people who can become involved,” he said. “We have to pull the victims out of that life and get them somewhere safe and secure, and get them counseling while we work to find the traffickers.”
The coalition is getting ready to start a public education program to acquaint the general public with the issues and teach people how to recognize possible victims. The members haven’t decided exactly how they are going to do that yet, but they are working on it, Wilson said.
“Many times the victims are very fearful because the traffickers have threatened them and told them that if they say anything, they’ll kill the victim’s family.”
Some of the signs of trafficking include being afraid to talk, appearing to have been coached in what to say, and not being allowed to contact family or friends. Some, but not all, may not be free to go wherever they want to go.
“If people see anything they think looks strange, they can call the anonymous Crimestoppers tips line at (800) 273-8477,” Wilson said.
Copyright 2010 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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