Homeland Security launch anti-sex trafficking campaign

The video displays a beautiful, bare-shouldered adolescent wearing bright red lipstick, perched on a swing in a large birdcage, while a man leers at her from outside.

It might be a scene from a local strip club, except for one poignant difference: The young woman is weeping.

"I didn't leave my country for this," she cries out in Spanish.

The bilingual TV promotional spot, which began airing Monday in South Florida, is sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection Division. It is asking Floridians to keep an eye out for a certain class of human beings: slaves.

That includes sex slaves, especially young foreign women forced into prostitution in the U.S., and other people imported from abroad and forced into indentured servitude in underpaid or unpaid labor.

"Some of these activities can be going on right in neighborhoods where people live," said Chuck Prichard, Border Protection's South Florida spokesman. "We're not asking people to play detective, but there are signs that can tip people off to that activity and we are asking people to report in if they suspect people are victims of traffickers."

Florida key battleground

Because of its large market for undocumented workers, Florida is seen as a key battleground in the fight against trafficking and forced labor.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department named six U.S. cities where it will base new Anti-Trafficking Coordination Teams. Miami is one of them.

"Each ACTeam, which is comprised of federal prosecutors and federal agents from the participating federal enforcement agencies, will implement a law enforcement strategic action plan to combat identified human trafficking threats," said a statement released by the Justice Department.

Wifredo Ferrer, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, will head the effort out of Miami.

"Human trafficking is modern-day slavery," he said . "The fight against human trafficking is a top priority for the Department of Justice, and for my office in particular."

Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreign laborers, many of whom work in agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, roofing, construction and other fields. Many were smuggled into the United States. But Prichard says there is a big difference between most of those workers and victims of human trafficking.

"For those other people, the smugglers do their job, get paid off and that is the end of the relationships," Prichard said. "But for victims of human trafficking, they are not allowed to end that relationship."

The traffickers often charge exorbitant amounts to the smuggle people into the U.S., and supposedly give those people jobs that will allow them to pay off the debt. But they often pay them little and make victims pay large amounts for room and board and other fees so that those individuals end up having to work for months or years for the traffickers.

Some who have tried to escape have been beaten and even killed. Unable to leave those jobs, the victims end up in positions that approximate slavery.

One of the most common forms of human trafficking victimizes young women who are promised jobs in the U.S. as housekeepers in hotels, private maids, waitresses, etc., but are forced into prostitution to pay smuggling debts. Because Florida has so many male undocumented workers, who come to this country by themselves, those women are often forced to work in brothels serving those foreign workers.

Area prostitution ring

In Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, one of the most egregious cases in recent years was that of a prostitution ring run by Juan Luis Cadena-Sosa, originally of Mexico. Cadena-Sosa ran the illegal enterprise in the late 1990s but wasn't sentenced to prison until 2008, when he was extradited from Mexico.

"The Cadena organization informed the women and girls that they owed the organization a monetary debt for bringing them into the United States and they would be required to repay this debt by engaging in prostitution in the Cadena organization's brothels," according to documents filed by prosecutors in 2008. "There was also a conspiracy among these members of the Cadena organization to operate its brothels, by the use of force and threats of physical harm to compel the women and girls to engage in prostitution in the brothels."

The prostitution ring catered to Hispanic farmhands and construction workers. Federal agents said the ring had brothels in Fort Pierce, Lake Worth and Boynton Beach, as well as in other cities in Florida, and the women were rotated among sex houses every 15 days.

The television spots asking South Florida residents to report suspicious activity are part of a campaign called "Don't Be Fooled." The campaign also features a spot about forced labor in a garment trade sweat shop.

In February 2010, Customs and Border Protection launched a related campaign in Mexico and

Central America. It warned against traffickers who might try to lure people to the U.S., promising well-paying jobs, and then enslave them.

"Death, disappearance, and enslavement: These too often are the futures that await illegal immigrants who mortgage their lives to human smugglers," David Aguilar, U.S. Customs and Border Protection deputy commissioner, said in launching the new campaign.

Red flags of possible human trafficking

Some of the common signs to look out for:

Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips.
Works excessively long and/or unusual hours.
Is not allowed breaks; has unusual restrictions at work.
Owes large and/or increasing debt.
Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work.
Is living or working in a location with high security measures, such as opaque or boarded-up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras.
Exhibits unusually fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid behavior.

How to help

Knowing or suspect that a person might be a victim of trafficking? Call (888) 373-7888.

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