SEBRING — A 15-year-old hanging with friends in Ybor City met an older man who offered her a ride home. Instead of taking her home, Weylin Rodriguez drove to Orlando to force C.G. into prostitution, the Orlando Sentinel reported in 2012.
But human trafficking doesn’t just happen in Singapore or Brasilia, the human trafficking capital of the world, where the United Nations estimates 2 million young people under the age of 18 have been trafficked into prostitution. And it doesn’t just happen in Las Vegas or New York.
“I first got engaged on trafficking issues through my work with domestic violence shelters,” said Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who was appointed in July to the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking. “They began to see a prevalent number of women and minors being rescued by law enforcement.
“Of course, there are a number of ways a person can be trafficked. It can sometimes be for forced labor, and what we have especially found is that trafficking is being fueled by the sex trade,” said Grimsley, who also chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee. “Human trafficking is prevalent throughout Florida and I am convinced suburban communities like Sebring and Avon Park are not immune.”
In fact, Lake Placid was the subject of a 2007 book by John Bowe, “Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.”
In 1997, the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office was called to investigate the killing of Ariosto Roblero, who was shot in the back of the head in part because he was a bus driver who picked up Hispanic pickers and took them to jobs in other states.
Deputies found an empty van parked in a migrant-worker ghetto near Highlands Boulevard. Roblero lay face down in a pool of blood. He had been shot once in the back of the head, execution-style. Beyond his body, a pay phone was mounted on a pole.
“This has been going on for years,” Lt. John Chess said in 2007. He recalled investigating the case.
The author also described three Mexican men who crossed the border, were found by a driver who took them to Lake Placid, and were greeted by Juan “Nino” Ramos. Since the three men had no money, the Lake Placid labor contractor paid the driver $1,000 each.
“You’re going to have to pay us back,” the book quotes Ramos as saying. “And the work is very hard. If I pay for you, and you leave, we’re going to beat the ---- out of you.”
The murder remained unsolved, in part because workers were afraid of the Ramos brothers, and in part because migrant workers are reluctant to talk with the police.
Between July 2011 and June 2012, federal prosecutors in South Florida racked up 12 convictions and brought six indictments involving human trafficking. Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Martinez told the Sun-Sentinel that the number of human trafficking cases being prosecuted in federal court rooms between Key West and Fort Pierce are at all-time highs.
“I believe that this has been the highest number of trafficking prosecutions we’ve ever had,” said Martinez, human trafficking coordinator for the Southern District of Florida.
“It’s important to me because this is a crime against humanity, it’s truly modern-day slavery,” State Attorney General Pam Bondi said two years ago at a human trafficking summit. She described Florida as a hub for human traffickers, ranking third to California and Texas. “Because it’s so ugly, I think a lot of people don’t believe it’s actually happening here,” she said.
Human trafficking is a market for every kind of exploitation: the sex trade, farm labor, tourism jobs, domestic servitude, nail salons and massage parlors.
Criminals have turned to classrooms and social media sites to recruit students into forced sex and labor rings. Because young people are frequent kidnapping victims, schools in Florida, five other states and the District of Columbia have turned their focus to human trafficking, launching all-day workshops for staff members, classroom lessons for students and outreach campaigns to speak with parents about the dangers American children face.
“This dark-hearted market preys on women and children,” Grimsley said.
Florida’s Department of Children and Families has 100 children in foster care who have been identified as victims of sex trafficking, spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said. The national average age of a child involved in prostitution is between 12 and 13; in Florida it’s between 10 and 11. The youngest victim was 8, and she was from Central Florida. Most were runaways.
FBI agents told the Orlando Sentinel that Rodriguez picked up three other girls on the way from Tampa to Orlando with C.G. and took them all to the Knights Inn on Orange Blossom Trail, notorious for prostitution. Furniture was pushed against the motel room door and phone cables were pulled out of the wall.
C.G. wasn’t even allowed to go to the bathroom by herself, and she was told she had to work the Strip that night. If she earned enough money, she could go home.
In April 2011, several months after Rodriguez brought C.G. to Orlando, he told an 18-year-old woman he could help her become a model. He lured B.W. to an apartment. Instead, B.W. was beaten and forced to prostitute, agents said.
It is not known publicly what became of B.W. or other victims, but the Orlando Sentinel found court records showing that in December 2010, a man pulled up and talked to C.G. She told him what happened. The man allowed her to use his phone, and they arranged to meet her mother in Apopka.
Federal prosecutors filed sex-trafficking charges against Rodriguez, who was convicted.
“Trafficking networks can operate out of nondescript homes and neighborhoods,” Grimsley said. “They can be right under our noses. We think people have to be locked up or in chains, but many times the chains are mental because the trafficker leverages fear and intimidation.
“I think it’s important that people become educated, study the trends and keep a watch for the signs of trafficking. Law enforcement can help in this way,” Grimsley said. She encouraged the public to get involved with organizations helping transition trafficking victims once they’re rescued.
“It’s happening right here in our communities, and our own children are being swallowed up by it,” Grimsley said.
For more information on how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org