Now Interstate 75, which runs north and south along the length of the Florida peninsula, has earned its own nickname because of the predators that prowl the corridor: Human Trafficking Alley.
Already the state with the third-highest number of human trafficking cases, it’s a reputation Florida’s leaders planned to tackle as the Florida legislative session began Tuesday, which was also Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
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Among lawmakers who have filed bills aimed at the problem are state Sen. Ileana Garcia (R-Miami), state Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island) and state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa).
Working with the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking, all three legislators have filed bills intended to make life much less comfortable for both labor and sex traffickers working out of Florida.
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The bills also provide greater protections and assistance for the victims of trafficking, including ensuring that those who are forced against their will aren’t charged as criminals for complying with their traffickers.
Toledo announced Monday that House Bill 1439, and Bradly’s companion Senate Bill 294, the Human Trafficking Reduction Act, continue the gains won last session for prosecutors and trafficking survivors by banning hourly rates at motels, increasing the penalties for first-time sex buyers, protecting survivors when they petition to expunge crimes committed while under the control of traffickers, and supporting law enforcement efforts to gather and collect data to deter and detect trafficking across the state.
See related story: Human Trafficking Awareness Day Tuesday; House Member Files Bill
“I said it last year and I will say it again, we want to make sure the message is loud and clear that Florida is closed to human trafficking,” Toledo said. The Human Trafficking Reducation Act “will give our law enforcement partners the necessary tools not only to deter and prevent this horrendous crime, but also to have the data they need to best address trafficking in their part of the state. Additionally, we are continuing to reform the expungement process for survivors so that they may regain their lives and livelihood.”
Toledo was appointed to the Florida Statewide Council on Human Trafficking in December 2020 by Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R- Palm Harbor). In 2021, she passed a nationally acclaimed bill on human trafficking that streamlined advocate training, helped in expunging victims’ criminal records and strengthened the state’s role in the prosecution of trafficking cases to assume the role of victim, preventing the victim from reliving the trauma repeatedly throughout trial.
“Eliminating hourly-rate motels in our state is more one step toward eradicating this crime by shutting the doors on places for this illicit activity to occur,” Toledo said. “By raising the bar for penalties associated with first-time sex buying from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, we will deter potential johns from entering into this multi-billion dollar marketplace. The bill also offers survivors the ability to petition for confidential expunction of a criminal record obtained while they were victims of trafficking.”
“We are not making room at our hotels here in Florida for trafficking. While Florida has certainly made strides in its legislative response to human trafficking in recent years, we are not done,” Bradley said. “Florida still ranks third in the country in instances of human trafficking. Our work in the state Legislature will not be done until we eradicate it from our borders.”
Garcia’s bill, Senate Bill 294, aims to protect the identities of people who are victims or provide testimony against traffickers in Florida.
“In order to end human trafficking, we must ensure that those who wish to support our efforts in Florida are not deterred due to the fear of disclosing personal information, and this bill aims to provide that protection,” said Garcia when presenting her bill to the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs on Nov. 30.
In July, Garcia was appointed by Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) to the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking Board of Directors. The alliance was created by the Florida Legislature to provide funding, support and assistance to the statewide effort to end human trafficking.
“I became a state senator to help defend and protect the most vulnerable in our community, and children being trafficked and abused deserve all the support we can provide,” Garcia said.
Labor Trafficking Along I-75
Florida troopers can testify that all the stories told about the horrors of human trafficking aren’t urban legends.
On a single day, Nov. 8, troopers pulled over two vehicles in Hernando and Sumter counties, and were taken aback to discover that all the passengers were undocumented aliens.
In the first incident, around 3 p.m. in Hernando County, troopers pulled over a Toyota Sienna minivan for having a fake Texas temporary license plate. Upon interviewing the driver, Juan Carlos Cueva Cano, 25, of Honduras, they learned he’d been paid $1,500 to transport two immigrants to Tampa.
Minutes later, troopers pulled over a Ford E-350 van on I-75 in Sumner County for a window tint violation. The driver, Gustavo Santiago Cruz, 37, of Mexico said he was paid $200 each to take four undocumented aliens from Mexico to Florida.
The next day, Nov. 9, troopers pulled over a Florida van towing a trailer south on I-75 in Sumter County for illegal tinted windows and speeding. The driver, Gustavo Santiago Cruz, 37, of Arcadia had his young daughter and son with him in the van.
Troopers also found three “disheveled” men concealed behind the second row of seats, “wedged in with luggage and other belongings.” On further inspection, they discovered a fourth man hidden behind some luggage.
All four men were undocumented aliens from Mexico. Cruz said he met up with the men in Michigan and agreed to drive them to Florida for $200 each.
All the passengers in these cases were turned over to U.S. Border Control. They had illegal crossed the border from Mexico to the United States seeking work as mostly farm laborers.
Just four days earlier, troopers arrested a man driving a Nissan SUV south along I-75 in Sumter County. Once again, troopers noticed the windows on the SUV had an especially dark tint, preventing passersby from seeing inside.
Troopers said the driver, 23-year-old Esvil Miguel Soto Perez of Phoenix, Arizona, was carrying a “large sum” of U.S. currency along with several receipts for large currency transfers to Mexico. He said he’d been paid to drive his four passengers, all undocumented aliens, to Tampa.
Troopers barely had time to let the ink dry on their affidavits for these cases when they pulled over a Dodge Journey SUV on I-75 traveling south through Sumter County, It, too, had illegal dark tint on the SUV windows.
The driver, 33-year-old Simon Mendoza Robles, was also carrying a large amount of cash.
He said he’s been paid $200 to $300 to transport five men from Arizona to Florida. All were undocumented. Troopers said the van stank from the odor of the men who were disheveled, filthy and hungry. One of the men said they’d been held in a stash house in Arizona for weeks with 20 to 30 other migrants.
All these incidents happened in just one month.
Sex Trafficking On I-75
Law enforcement officials are also seeing an increase in more insidious human trafficking cases along Human Trafficking Alley.
I-75 has proven a popular route for sex traffickers to transport teen girls and boys and adult women from other states.
Some are runaways escaping abuse in their homes or foster homes. They are lured off the streets or kidnapped with the promise of shelter and drugs.
Others slip into the country to escape poverty in Mexico, Central and South America, the Ukraine and Central Asia. They’re promised jobs and the hope of living the American dream. Instead, their saviors become their captors, hooking them on drugs, physically restraining them and threatening them.
Once they’re dependent on their captors, they’re sold as sex slaves.
It’s a crime so heinous that Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco have formed human trafficking units to specifically target traffickers as they travel along I-75 through both counties.
They’ve partnered with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, other Florida police departments and sheriff’s offices in a longtime effort to thwart these crimes.
Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi initially launched the effort, forming the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement learned in 2013 that there was a well-organized, well-funded human trafficking ring operating along I-75 in Collier, Charlotte, Hillsborough, Hendry and Lee counties in central and south Florida.
During one arrest in Collier County, troopers found six women who had been smuggled into the United States after being promised jobs and reunions with family members who preceded them to America.
Once in the country, the women, ranging in age from 25 to 35, were forced to work as commercial sex slaves, performing sex acts on 25 to 45 men a day six days a week, earning $190,000 to $320,000 a year for their captors.
While the victims rescued in that case ranged from 25 to 35 years old at the time, “some of these victims were forced into prostitution when they were just 18 years old,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen. He said the FDLE “put an end to the nightmare for these women.”
Current Attorney General Ashley Moody has carried Bondi’s mantle in the hopes of making a dent in these crimes. Both Chronister and Nocco sit on the state council.
While sex trafficking seems to get the most media attention around the annual NFL Super Bowl, a notorous gathering place for human traffickers, Moody said law enforcement battles the crime every day.
On Oct. 18, Chronister announced the conclusion of one in a ongoing series of sex trafficking stings conducted by his 12-member Human Trafficking Squad that resulted in freeing three women and a 17-year-old girl from their captors. The sheriff also arrested 125 men, both traffickers and johns, including a public school teacher and a church pastor.
“Our approach and efforts year-round are proactive and relentless,” Chronister said. “Our strong team of detectives will continue to work tirelessly to take down and put a stop to human trafficking. It’s a sickening practice, and it’s a business that, in the most unfortunate way, resembles modern-day slavery. Throughout the year, we run undercover operations in hopes of catching these criminals who prey on the most vulnerable in our society. It’s a non-stop job.”
In 2018, the Pasco sheriff’s office became the state’s first agency to use technology to combat trafficking online.
Partnering with the nonprofit U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, which has set up Trafficking-Free Zones around the country, the sheriff’s task force is composed of a cadre of tech geeks who use bots to monitor thousands of local websites, classified ads and social media, searching for sex solicitors and sellers.
When they find a potential trafficker or sex predator, they often pose as pimps seeking johns to purchase sex or as innocent teens or youth vulnerable to solicitors who try to build a relationship to lure them into trafficking.
It’s a model that’s since been duplicated by other Florida sheriff’s offices, police departments and the FDLE.
In just two months monitoring two sites using Pasco and Hillsborough counties as filters, Stephanie Costolo, Florida regional manager for the Trafficking-Free Zone, said the bot teams found more than 32,000 ads aimed at people looking to buy sex.
“They’re not standing out on the street corner. They’re using technology,” Nocco said. “All we’re doing is catching up to the technology.”