Gainesville, Yoho trying to fight scourge of human trafficking

FBI investigators and Alachua County Sheriff's Office officers talk to a man in a case involving unauthorized immigrants.

File photo
Published: Monday, February 3, 2014 at 6:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 3, 2014 at 6:46 p.m.

In the spring of 2012, a man at a Gainesville hotel along Interstate 75 called authorities anonymously to report possible prostitution taking place.


Events this week:

Tuesday: Casting Justice, 7 to 9 p.m. at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Gainesville. Sculptures by artist Jenn Garrett depicting the experiences of human trafficking victims will be displayed. A short movie also will be shown. This event is by invitation only.

Wednesday: Bittersweet Slavery, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Cymplify at 5402 NW Eighth Ave. A presentation on inhumane practices associated with production of coffee and chocolate.

Thursday: Human Trafficking Symposium, 7 to 9 p.m. Reitz Union at UF. Law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates and others will discuss the subject.

Saturday: Run Toward Justice, noon to 3 p.m. at Haile Plantation Village Center. A 5K run open to the public.

When authorities arrived, they discovered Bertram Harrison of Palatka pimping a 14-year-old girl, also from Palatka.

Ultimately, Harrison was sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges not involving prostitution, but rather sex trafficking.

Increasingly, authorities are considering cases such as this part of a growing epidemic of human trafficking, and they are paying more attention to trafficking of all kinds.

In Gainesville, the nonprofit group FIGHT — Fight Injustice and Global Human Trafficking — hopes to one day create a shelter for adult female victims.

A group of women from Trinity United Methodist Church has evolved into the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking with representatives from law enforcement, social service agencies and others in a position to help victims and prosecute perpetrators.

And U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, has declared the fight against human trafficking to be one of his top priorities.

“This is something that all Americans, that everybody, should be involved in. It is unconscionable,'' he said. “The estimate is that 22 million people around our globe are traded in the human trafficking market. To think in the 21st century that we are still doing practices from thousands of years ago is unacceptable.”

In 2011, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center ranked Florida third in the number of calls received by the center's hotline for all sex and labor trafficking, according to State Attorney General Pam Bondi's office.

Human trafficking falls into two broad categories: sex and labor. The North Central Florida area has had high-profile instances of both.

In 2000, a Chinese couple who ran several restaurants were charged with harboring unauthorized immigrants when as many as 30 people were found living in a house on Williston Road.

The people were forced to work in restaurants 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The house was divided with makeshift walls, and some of the victims told authorities that others were kept in padlocked buildings.

The couple were convicted, but the conviction was overturned. A higher court then reinstated the jury's decision.

Meanwhile, in 2010, three people were indicted on human trafficking charges involving Haitian farm workers in LaCrosse. The charges later were dropped, apparently because they were based on a law that had not yet taken effect.

And in October 2013, two women in Ocala were charged with human trafficking by a multi-jurisdictional task force after a confidential source paid a deposit for sex with three women.

People trying to combat human trafficking believe that many more instances are happening but never come to light.

In cases of sex trafficking, police might consider it simply prostitution without digging deeper to learn if the prostitute is being trafficked.

Meanwhile, the zeal to fight illegal immigration tends to focus on documentation of the workers without exploring whether they are, in essence, modern slaves who are kept working under threat, moved from place to place and housed together in virtual confinement.

“I've heard the analogy that human sex trafficking is at the stage that domestic abuse was back in the '60s and '70s. People knew it was happening, but nobody really wanted to call it what it really was,” said FIGHT founder Richard Tovar.

“There are a lot of laws out there for sex trafficking, but a lot of law enforcement and society itself not only turns a blind eye to it, they do not want to do much about it.”

The problem in sex trafficking is the buyers, not the prostitutes, Tovar said. That is especially true when children are involved.

Tovar said he believes few pimps are being prosecuted because police are not looking for them.

“Here in Gainesville, are kids being exploited sexually? Of course they are. Are we prosecuting the people who are exploiting the children? Not really. Is law enforcement even looking for them? They are not. They really aren't because that is not what they are trained to do,” Tovar said.

“Our job is to just basically talk about it, talk about it, talk about it to the point where people do things,” he said.

Police said they do investigate cases of human trafficking but first have to learn about suspected instances to start an investigation.

Gainesville Police Department spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said, for example, officers on the North Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force investigate child sex chases.

“We are aware of the issue, and have taken steps to become more familiar with them. ICAC detectives have attended training over the past year on the subject of human trafficking and are attempting to make a shift to more proactive enforcement of this type of crime,” Tobias said in an email. “The biggest hurdle is that we generally don't know about any occurrences unless someone approaches us with that information.”

Yoho said lack of awareness is something he hopes to change and made a start with a recent summit for law enforcement attended by representatives from sheriff's offices and police departments from the 3rd Congressional District.

The first-term congressman said he began learning how widespread trafficking is through serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A presentation by the Department of Homeland Security that included information on its “Blue Campaign,” an effort to stem human trafficking, was especially eye-opening, Yoho said.

The campaign — explained in detail at — tries to combat human trafficking by placing equal value on identifying victims and finding help for them, as well as the investigation and prosecution of traffickers.

Yoho said his goal is to raise awareness of trafficking, clarify existing laws regarding human trafficking for employers and law enforcement, and strengthen laws.

“We want to work with local law enforcement agencies and state attorneys to toughen up the laws on both the people who are trafficking and the people who are using the services, whether it's the sex trade, domestic help, farm help,” Yoho said.

“It relates real strongly to the immigration issue, and I think this is one of the more compelling reasons to secure the border and have strong law. So before somebody even thinks of bringing in a container of people — women or children, farm workers — they are going to know that Americans have toughened up border security.”

By mid-year, Yoho said he plans to have another summit that will involve nonprofits, law enforcement and other stakeholders to create a human trafficking task force.

A number of government agencies and nonprofits are already members of the Alachua County Coalition against Human Trafficking.

Marie Samec, one of the founders, said it began with a Trinity United women's group that learned about human trafficking in Florida and whose members were so moved they decided to take it on as a cause.

The women put together some educational materials and in 2012 held a seminar featuring the Child Advocacy Center, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Williams, Tovar and others as speakers.

Together they formed the coalition. Also joining were law enforcement agencies, civic groups and victims organizations.

Samec said a focus is on trying to get victims of human trafficking connected with agencies that can help.

“A woman came forward who has been a child sex trafficking victim for years and had long-term effects from this,” Samec said. “We realized that they have long-term needs and started looking into what is available here, and it wasn't much. We're trying to rectify that situation.”

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