Florida's status as a hub for human trafficking has state officials pushing a "zero-tolerance" policy toward criminals who exploit others for profit.
"It's important to me because this is a crime against humanity, it's truly modern-day slavery," State Attorney General Pam Bondi said in an interview.
The problem of people slave-driving others in the Sunshine State is so bad that Florida is regarded by human trafficking experts as one of the most active states in the country.
Citing a 2011 study by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Bondi said that Florida ranks third to only California and Texas. The study tracked the number of reports to the center's anti-trafficking hotline.
As a result, Bondi said legislators, investigators and prosecutors are working hard to better combat the problem. She pointed out changes to Florida's human trafficking laws that bring stronger penalties.
Among the changes: The state will now be able to designate convicted sex traffickers as registered sex offenders, Bondi said. Offenders will be subject to the same monitoring requirements used to track the whereabouts of other abusers and molesters.
"We want to continue to bring awareness to this horrific issue and we're proud that we've significantly strengthened our laws in the state," Bondi said.
Looking to bring more attention to the issue, Bondi is taking part in a human trafficking "summit" Monday in Tallahassee. Advocates and officials will discuss ways to combat the problem – and bring it into sharper focus.
"Because it's so ugly, I think a lot of people don't believe it's actually happening here," Bondi said.
In South Florida, officials are stressing that the problem is very much happening here.
Recent cases include Mexican women being lured by the promise of love and a better life to the United States, only to find themselves coerced into prostitution, and 39 Filipino workers being forced to work for little or no pay in exclusive country clubs in Palm Beach County.
At the federal enforcement level, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Martinez said the number of human trafficking cases being prosecuted in federal court rooms between Key West and Fort Pierce are at all-time highs.
Between July 2011 and June 2012, federal prosecutors in South Florida racked up 12 convictions and brought six indictments involving human trafficking, Martinez said.
"I believe that this is has been the highest number of trafficking prosecutions we've ever had," said Martinez, the Human Trafficking Coordinator for the Southern District of Florida.
Tonja Marshall, group supervisor for Homeland Security Investigations' human trafficking unit, oversees a team of special agents, investigators and analysts that probe cases in South Florida.
"What draws me to it, I think it's being a voice for the voiceless," Marshall said.
Law enforcement officials like Bondi, Martinez and Marshall believe human trafficking is thriving here because the state is a destination for tourists, transients, runaways, migrant workers, and organized crime.
It's also a market for every kind of exploitation, whether it be sex work, farm labor, tourism jobs, domestic servitude, nail salons, or massage parlors, among others.
The concept of people being smuggled or held captive and forced to do work for little to no pay is not new to law enforcement.
What is relatively new, at least to the general public, is the term 'human trafficking.' It refers to the exploitation of people who are forced into situations where they are essentially used as slave labor, in some cases for sexual purposes. The victims could be anybody: U.S. citizens, illegal aliens, or legal immigrants, authorities say.
"Contrary to some misconceptions, human trafficking crimes do not require any smuggling or movement of the victim," says the Department of Justice on its website.
Both Marshall and Martinez said investigators working with the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force — a group that includes federal and local law enforcement agencies — look at the circumstances of a case before deciding whether or not to prosecute it under state laws or federal laws.
"Literally, whoever has the biggest hammer," Marshall said. "When you have all these entities coming together, it's very significant in the fight against human trafficking."
Federally, a number of statutes in the criminal code cover human trafficking, with Section 1591 focusing on sex trafficking that involves children. People convicted of trafficking minors face sentences ranging from a minimum of 15 years to life.
Under the state legislation, which took effect July 1, human smuggling will no longer be a misdemeanor but a felony, meaning stronger sentences, Bondi said.
Any property proven to be used to traffic humans — for instance, houses or cars — will be seized and subject to forfeiture.
Massage parlors will also be subjected to stronger enforcement, Bondi said. Massage workers will be required to show valid government-issued photo identification
upon request to police or Department of Health inspectors.
"We want to end the sex and labor trafficking in our state," Bondi said.