Palm Beach County is 'perfect storm' of human trafficking

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Recruited from the Philippines and other developing nations, the workers were promised jobs that paid $7.50 an hour as servers at the Polo Club of Boca Raton.

It was a lie.

After arriving in the U.S. with temporary work visas, they were shipped out in a pickup truck to a grubby trailer on the edge of the woods in Purvis, Miss., where they would work 12 hours a day, six days a week picking pine straw, which is used to make mulch. At night, they slept in a filthy, unheated trailer with no potable water. It was November 2009 and there was snow on the ground.

"We were afraid," said Regie Tesoro, 35, one of the victims. "We didn't even know about why these people were doing this to us — just for money."

Tesoro is one among thousands of victims of human trafficking, a crime federal investigators say is growing across the country – and in South Florida. Palm Beach County , with its agriculture and tourism industries always on the lookout for low cost labor, is a "perfect storm" for human trafficking, investigators say.

"It's a multibillion dollar business," said Carmen Pino, assistant special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami. "It's everywhere."

Pino said the crime is creeping into everyday life in South Florida, even though many people might not realize it.

"The possibility of anybody at anytime encountering a victim of human trafficking in South Florida is very possible," he said.

Human trafficking is akin to slavery and involves people, often foreign workers, being forced to perform work for little or no pay, usually by organized crime groups.

Whether it be prostitution, farm work, the hotel and restaurant industry, nail and beauty salons, or domestic help, the fields in which exploited people are working are many and varied, agents say.

Because of its tourism and agricultural sectors, Palm Beach County is a "perfect storm" of human trafficking, said Nestor Yglesias, ICE spokesman.

"We have seen a huge increase in human trafficking in Palm Beach," Yglesias said.

Pino and Yglesias said there were no state-by-state numbers available from for human trafficking investigations to quantify the rise in South Florida.

There are, however, national numbers.

In 2010, there were 651 human trafficking investigations, 151 indictments and 144 convictions.

In 2011, there was a marked increase on all fronts: 722 human trafficking investigations, 444 indictments and 271 convictions.

Those numbers come from ICE, which initiated the investigations that lead to the indictments and convictions.

Locally, Pino and Yglecias point to other indicators besides statistics. They say authorities are receiving more investigative leads from both average citizens and local law enforcement officers.

For instance, it was an anonymous tip in March 2010 that led to the arrest of Veronica Martinez, who was sentenced to 87 months in prison after smuggling two Mexican women into the country and forcing them to work at a Palm Beach County bar to pay off their smuggling debt.

In November 2010, two Boca Raton residents pleaded guilty forcing 39 Filipino workers to work in local country clubs. A year later, in November 2011, a Miami Gardens woman was sentenced to eight years after trying to smuggle 31 foreign workers into the U.S. by boat.

That same month, three Mexicans got 15 years each after forcing Mexican women to work as prostitutes.

More recently, in August 2012, four migrant workers who entered the country illegally launched a civil suit against a Cape Coral staffing company and three of its workers, all of Belle Glade, for allegedly abusing and threatening them while they worked in the fields.

They also said they lived in squalid conditions and were paid a fraction of what they had been promised.

In April 2012, one of the three Belle Glade farm managers pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Pino, who heads up an investigative team that probes human trafficking cases from Fort Pierce to Key West , said Mexican drug cartels traffic farm workers and prostitutes in the western parts of Palm Beach County . Closer to the beaches, workers are trafficked for hotels, restaurants, and as servants in the homes of wealthy residents, he said.

In Broward, especially the central part of the county, there are the massage parlors run by Asian organized crime groups, he said.

In Miami -Dade, Pino said Israeli and Russian criminal groups traffic high-end prostitutes in South Beach.

Then there are the brothels in suburban homes, he said, where Mexican women and girls are forced into prostitution and sold to make money for the cartels. Often the girls will be kept on high dosages of antibiotics to stop their menstrual cycles and keep them working.

But Pino also talked about something a little less criminally apparent, like nail salons.

The way he explained it: say a customer notices that every single day, the same person is working at the nail salon. The customer might

try to spark a friendly conversation with the worker, who seems evasive. The boss will then come over and put a stop to the chat, acting like a gate keeper. That's probably a sign the worker might be a victim of human trafficking, Pino said.

"It's truly hidden in plain sight," he said, urging South Floridians to be on the lookout.

Tesoro, now living in New Orleans on a four-year visa granted to victims of trafficking, did what many victims don't do and came forward after escaping from the trailer.

Along with close to 40 other victims, he is suing West Palm Beach immigration fraudster Michael V. Lombardi and over a dozen other defendants.

"Lombardi, with the assistance of local recruiters in the Philippines, was bringing the workers over and perpetuating visa fraud," said the plaintiffs' Mississippi attorney, John Davidson.

According to a grand jury indictment brought against Lombardi in 2011, Lombardi applied for the foreign workers to be granted temporary work visas that would allow them to work in Boca Raton. The workers were granted the visas.

When the workers arrived in the U.S., they were instead sent to Purvis, Mississippi, in violation of their visas, according to the indicment.

Davidson said the Polo Club of Boca Raton was dropped from the civil lawsuit. Doug Green, president of the club, declined to comment.

"I don't have any response because I'm not involved in this whatsoever," Green said.

Lombardi, 41, was sentenced in August to four years and three months in prison after pleading guilty to visa fraud.

"It's really trafficking," Tesoro said.

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