SEBRING - Years ago, before she was elected Highlands County sheriff, Susan Benton was part of a joint operation doing surveillance on a farm.
They had received information that workers were being brought in from Mexico or other countries as farm workers and then being kept essentially as virtual slaves. The workers received a salary, but it never paid for what they were charged for food and lodging, Benton said Thursday.
"In essence they were making no money," she said. "They couldn't come and go as they pleased. They were in servitude."
The investigation and resulting arrests of farm crew leaders has been Highlands County's most significant incident of human trafficking.
Since then, there's been no comparable incidents, but Benton said her office has received intelligence that human trafficking continues to go on behind the scenes. Partly because of the belief that it exists, Benton said, her office recently started a campaign to increase awareness of the crime.
Deputies have posted signs at hospitals and doctor's office, some in just Spanish, that ask people aware of the problem to call authorities, said Capt. Jeff Barfield, who is in charge of the patrol division.
Barfield said so far they've distributed more than 20 posters, mostly to doctor's office and hospitals. Now they've begun to ask convenience stores to display the posters.
Materials used by the sheriff's office for training define human trafficking as "a form of modern-day slavery."
It "involves the exploitation of persons for the commercial sex or forced labor," the materials say.
In a letter Benton is sending to recipients of the posters, she said, "Worldwide there are an estimated 27 million people enslaved in human trafficking both through sex and labor activities. Of these, women and girls together count for as much as 75 percent of all trafficking victims globally."
Benton said her office has received intelligence that women were being transported to Highlands County for prostitution purposes, possibly involving migrant workers.
"We've never been able to make a case," based on that information, she said.
Barfield said one of the major problems is that victims are afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. However, in the trafficking case a few years back, an apparent exception, authorities became aware of it because a worker escaped and contacted them, Benton said.
That's why the sheriff's office tries to educate people that, "We're not interested in their status," she said.
Some victims also don't report it, she said, because they're afraid the authorities here are corrupt like some in their countries, she said.
Benton said a federal program allows victims of crimes who have cooperated with authorities a path that allows them to stay in the country legally. In the past most of the people helped by the program were victims of domestic violence, she said, but added, it could easily apply to victims of human trafficking. Benton said she has to sign a form stating that the person is a crime victim and that they are providing information to law enforcement.
Generally, Benton said, human trafficking occurs in communities with a large number of people of one nationality or an ethnic group. That situation is most prevalent in agriculture in Highlands County, she said.
In some larger communities, there's been evidence of human trafficking at motels where many of the employees are part of one ethnic group, she said. That's not been the case in Highlands County, she said.
People who want to report human trafficking can contact the sheriff's office at (863) 402-7200 or in cases involving children, call (800) 96-ABUSE.