She was forced into stripping at 14, prostitution at 15. Now 24, "Sue", not her real name, is a victim of human trafficking. It's a modern-day form of slavery. Police tell ABC Action News Investigative Reporter Matthew Schwartz that human trafficking is a big problem in the Tampa Bay area.
"Sue" says she ran away from a foster home at 13. She met a man in his 40's who promised her free rent, meals and a job. After a few months, "Sue" says things changed, drastically.
"He started beating me with sticks, poles, knives, hammers. It really got out of control. So besides fighting the street you had to fight this non-human.
i was told, if we left, he was gonna hunt us down, and, you know, kill us."
"Sue" was held at a house with other women. She escaped two years ago and is in hiding locally. Investigators say many victims are teenagers from broken homes. They move in with their traffickers because they provide food, shelter and a job. But eventually there's abuse...and sometimes, torture, like in another victim's case. We'll call her "Sara."
"Sara" says the traffickers who held her poured gasoline on her while they held a match. "They kicked and stomped on me. They dragged me by the hair. Fifteen guys circled me and stomped on me."
Many victims are immigrants who pay traffickers to smuggle them into the U.S., then are forced to work for them, fearing deportation or violence if they try to escape. The federal government says about 16-thousand victims are trafficked into the U.S. every year
Giselle Rodriguez is a victim advocate with the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, located in Clearwater.
Ms. Rodriguez told Matthew Schwartz, "It's becoming a huge problem. As of right now, Florida is the number two destination spot for human trafficking victims."
Rodriguez says the sunshine state is behind only California in the number of victims, and attributes that to the state's high number of transient workers, especially in the agriculture, tourist and restaurant industries. Victims are forced to work in strip clubs, restaurants, and on farms, among other places.
Human trafficking is a big enough problem that Clearwater Police Detective James Mcbride and Special Agent Cal Cundiff of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement work full-time on it, paid through a federal grant.
Det. McBride says of the victims, "a lot of 'em come over here fearing law enforcement, fearing deportation, not understanding the law and not looking at themselves as a victim of human trafficking."
Special Agent Cundiff says a lot of people don't realize that this is going on in the U.S. in 2007.
The Clearwater area human trafficking task force has rescued four victims over the past year. Investigators showed us two homes that used to be brothels run by traffickers. They were busted and deported back to Mexico. Investigators say cracking these cases is hard; they need help from the community to identify victims, like "Sue," who says, "we are very good at covering it up, because we try to be strong in this situation, but on the inside we're screaming out for somebody to come save us, come help uS.
Human trafficking is punishable by up to life in prison. Investigators say the laws aren't the problem, it's that both victims and witnesses are afraid to come forward. If you know anything about human trafficking, or think someone in your neighorhood may be a trafficker or a victim, please call your local police department or the Cleawater Area Human Trafficking Task Force immediately.
Adapted from: Matthew Schwartz, "Human Trafficking." Action news.com. 11 November 2007.
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