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Targeting Human Trafficking

The conference that brought together military, law enforcement, social service providers and academic experts shared a wealth of important information, paving the way for further collaboration.

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 30, 2014) – It’s not easy to talk about. The very mention of human trafficking causes some to want to turn away. Nonetheless, ignorance is human trafficking’s best friend. Whether victim, unwitting accomplice or unsuspecting observer, individuals and society suffer the consequences of not paying attention.

Something as simple as being aware, closing off access to children via the internet or caring enough to make an anonymous call to a hotline are enough to make a difference. Doing more to end modern day slavery and help its victims is even better – and a lot easier than one would think.

These were some of the messages conveyed by an array of front-line experts at a three-day conference at USF: “Promoting Collaboration and International Partnerships to Combat and Mitigate Human Trafficking*,” presented by the USF Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), in coordination with the United States Southern Command (U.S. SouthCom).

A keynote address and six panels of “shared conversations” focused on the various aspects of human trafficking from forced agricultural labor to sexualized labor, as well as the importance of prevention through education, legislative initiatives and helping victims move from “survivors to thrivers.” All of the conference participants were actively engaged in some way with fighting, helping, researching and wanting to put an end to this scourge.

For a truly comprehensive overview of both labor and sex trafficking, representatives from five realms, domestic and international non-governmental organizations (NGO), law enforcement, government – local, state, federal or international – as well as the military and academia took part in each panel discussion.

The idea was to “discuss international collaboration and strategies to effectively fight these horrific crimes,” said ISLAC Director, Associate Professor Rachel May. “We were particularly honored to have the active involvement of such high level participants and what was most extraordinary was the quality and breadth of knowledge they shared. And for these experts, it was a unique opportunity to connect in a welcoming academic setting.”

What emerged from the three days was a multifaceted portrait replete with alarming facts and figures and a sense of the toll it takes on the victims and those who have made it their life’s work to help them.

A National Security Threat

Keynote speaker, General John F. Kelly, the commander of United States Southern Command (US SouthCom) in Doral, Florida, gave his perspective as a leader whose job is to protect the nation’s borders. He put the spotlight on human trafficking’s many dangers, among them this crime’s connection to organized criminal networks and illegal drug trafficking.

Calling human trafficking “a threat to national security,” he observed that it “fuels everything” and all manner of crimes, including narcotrafficking and organized crime. “It’s part of the same network and it pays very well.” Emphasizing the human toll, he said, “It’s someone’s daughter or son being treated as a commodity.”

Southern Command’s Operation Martillo has targeted illicit trafficking routes in the coastal waters along the Central American isthmus. Where there are drugs there is human trafficking as well. Identifying Florida as “probably one of the biggest slave states,” Kelly said “within 40 miles of here you can find forced labor” as well as sex trafficking.

In the audience for Gen. Kelly’s speech were representatives from elected officials’ offices: Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and U.S. Representatives Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor, some of whom also participated in the next two days’ panels.

Lively question and answer sessions were part of each gathering and Kelly’s event was no different.

Regarding a question about those who “employ” slave labor, Kelly observed how most people eating out at restaurants “don’t know there are slaves in the back” and that it’s necessary to “go after the people hiring them.” But as long as “big business says, ‘We need these illegals to do these jobs,’ it’s a problem.”

Underscoring the general’s message about the role of drugs and drug traffickers were representatives from the military and government: US SouthCom Chief Human Rights Officer Leana Bresnahan, USAID Deputy Development Advisor to U.S. SouthCom Mark Kerr, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Senior Advisor to U.S. SouthCom Ed Daniels; NorthCom Analyst David Pope; DHS Deputy Political Advisor Rodney LeGrande; and Department of Health and Human Services Human Trafficking Health Policy Advisor Rochelle Rollins.

From law enforcement, panelists included Marion County Deputy Sheriff Zackary Hughes (IAHTI); Special Agent William Williger and Victim Assistance Specialist Judy Dreher (Homeland Security Investigations); Assistant Special Agent Carmen Pino (U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement); and Special Agent Greg Christopher (FBI).

Representing public officials in government were the Florida Attorney General’s Office Deputy Chief of Staff Nilda Pedrosa; U.S. Department of Justice Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit Investigator Theresa Segovia; Statewide Assistant Prosecutor Jeremy Franker; Department of State’s Amy Rofman, from the Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking; and Florida 6th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lynn Tepper.

A Need for Help from the Public

Those in law enforcement expressed the need for the public to act as their eyes and ears, even as some are working against them.

“A lot of responsibility is with this country and the consumption of drugs,” said Bresnahan, who also pointed out that the drug problem is spreading to smaller countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where traffickers are paying people with drugs and are making for a regional problem.

With drugs come people. Pope said that human traffickers use the same networks and charge a tax for people who move through their areas. “They move anything and they don’t care where a child ends up,” said Pope. Some victims are forced into becoming mules. “What we find is there’s always a facilitator here.”

And law enforcement finds it hard to keep up with well-funded operations. “We’re always playing catchup to the drug cartels, they’re adapting faster than we can adapt. Until we can get resources to get ahead of them, it’s going to continue,” he said.

Pino added, “Traffickers have sent proxies to attend our meetings to find out what we’re doing… It’s hard to stay one step ahead.”

As much as traffickers succeed at hiding, their victims have to come out into the open at times – often enough to be seen. But some people either simply don’t know what to look for, or worse, pretend not to notice and actively ignore the signs.

Rollins pointed out that, “The victims see health care providers while they are in captivity,” and said that health professionals in particular need to understand that they’re not violating HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy rules when they alert law enforcement. There are waivers just as there are for reporting child abuse.

Judge Tepper hopes to see a day when there are reporting protocols for calling attention to human trafficking as there are for domestic violence and child abuse, and better yet, a mandated requirement to notify law enforcement whenever there is a suspicion.

“We need to see this information (about human trafficking) everywhere,” she said.

The panelists agreed that neighbors also should report what they see. FBI Special Agent Christopher described how a child sex trafficking ring operated in a neighborhood where everyone knew what was happening but no one called the police. An anonymous tip ultimately saved the children but it could have and should have happened a lot sooner.

The struggles they detailed, from trying to find and arrest the traffickers, to working with unstable witnesses and trying to overcome bystander apathy, take a toll.

“Did you notice how many are bald or have grey hair,” said Hughes, observing that many in the field suffer from vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue and need to attend to their own health in order to remain effective in their jobs.

From Rescue to Recovery

Providing a sense of the human toll were representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Kylla Leeburg, deputy director of Truckers Against Trafficking; Dotti Glover-Skipper, from the Heart Dance Foundation; Nikki Cross from the Stop the Abuse and Rescue (STAAR) Ministry; Nora Ledezma, director of Justicia Para Nuestras Niñas; Laura Germino, Coalition of Immokalee Workers; Margarita Romo, director of Farmworker Self-Help in Pasco County; and Laura Hamilton, president of Bridging Freedom.

The academic perspective came from ISLAC’s May, College of Behavioral and Community Sciences (CBCS) Researcher Melissa Johnson; Department of Criminology Instructor Robert “LeGrande” Gardner; College of Public Health Professor Tom Mason; Anthropology Associate Professor Heide Castaneda; and College of Public Health Associate Professor Dr. Ricardo Izurieta. Moderators were also drawn from USF faculty: Professor Ann Cranston-Gingras, director of the USF Center for Migrant Education; CBCS Associate Professor Mary Armstrong; and Anthropology Assistant Professor Angela Stuesse, College of Public Health Professor and Director of the Harrell Center for the Study of Family Violence Marti Coulter; Department of Government and International Affairs Associate Professor Bernd Reiter; and Anthropology Associate Professor Erin Kimmerle.

Conference attendees learned that when victims (see sidebar) are rescued by law enforcement, they are connected with victim advocates at a variety of NGOs to overcome “fear of the (prosecution) process and fear of the trafficker,” as they begin the “stabilization process” to reenter society, according to Johnson. Williger said that victims require “wrap-around care” that involves health care, trauma counseling and assistance with acquiring the basic necessities of life on the way to becoming productive, tax-paying citizens.

Prevention was also part of the discussion.

Runaways are often recruited within 48 hours of hitting the streets. If they knew how open to being victimized they are, they might avoid entanglement with sex traffickers. Meanwhile children, who are seemingly safe in their own homes, can also be vulnerable.

The Threat to Children

USF cybersecurity expert Gardner warned about the threat to children in opening doors made available online. Children would never be allowed to enter such doorways in the real world. The internet invites “opportunities to be manipulated by people who are intentionally trying to find victims and recruit them,” he said. “A lot of people take advantage of that and they’re very good at what they do. A lot of them are organized” for this purpose. By “allowing the box into your house you are becoming more vulnerable, hence the need to become more educated.”

Parents and children can go to FBI.GOV and find age-appropriate information provided in an engaging way. “They’re actually fun,” said Greg Christopher who explained that his children never get to use the internet without parental supervision, something he recommends to all parents. “They show what you should be aware of and how kids cover up what they’re doing online.”

Just as individual parents, neighbors and health care workers need to be educated, groups also need to learn how to combat human trafficking.

Rollins talked about the importance of getting the subject of human trafficking in front of large organizations. “The next doors we’re knocking on are those of the Public Health Association and asking, ‘Is this topic even on your agenda?’”

Government agencies are just now getting on board. Rollins said that for the first time U.S. citizens who are victims of trafficking will benefit from the kind of assistance only offered to foreign refugees in the past and that “a broad spectrum of human services” required for victim recovery will be available through coordinated efforts between agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Departments of Justice, Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity. She also said that her agency, Health and Human Services, is putting a new focus on prevention with the “most vulnerable” populations – namely the poor as well as women and children.

Wage Theft as Human Trafficking

In her work with agricultural laborers, Romo talked about how “wage theft is a form of human trafficking,” she said. “Pretty soon weeks go by and they’re weeks behind and they find out they’re not going to get paid at all.”

But the threat of being exposed at the conference made a difference. She shared some good news that a group of migrant workers just received their back pay after their promised wages kept being delayed.

Child labor in agriculture is also a problem. It is possible to cause a shift, “If we can keep kids in school and raise the grade level by one grade,” said Mark Kerr, USAID. Education is the ticket out of being exploited in the short and long term.

Something often overlooked is the impact of human trafficking on public health. Dr. Izurieta discussed this issue in relation to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as the problems created by drugs used to maintain control of victims that lead to addiction and its associated ills.

At more than one panel, the issue of reliable data and data collection came up for comments. Though the population of enslaved people is estimated at 27 million, the number could be higher. Ledezma said that in Mexico, “data from government can be whitewashed” primarily because “they don’t see the disappearance of girls as a problem.”

Also some governments and municipalities don’t know or want to admit they have a problem. Rofman said they are often quick to say “we don’t have trafficking.” What gets in the way are “fear, shame, lack of understanding” but by taking a “victim-centered approach” and with funding, victims can be found. Her agency uses NGO data to help get an accurate picture of the problem and in order to get the victims’ perspective. There was general agreement that with more outreach, there’s generally an upswing in tips and that with more money, more victims would be found.

The conference closed with a meeting moderated by Joanna Gutierrez Winters, founder of The Winters Group, and a reception for all of the panelists. They talked about finding more opportunities for working together with USF in a collaborative way without reinventing what’s already in place in order for the university to serve as the link between rescue and recovery.

“We have tremendous human capital, knowledge and ability to research, get grants to provide useful data and so much more,” May said as they discussed the importance of including universities – in multiple disciplines – and the private sector.

The conference established the groundwork for a forthcoming website that ISLAC will maintain, May said. The site will provide ongoing statistics, follow-up on whatever progress is made as well as additional resources and a list of organizations battling the problems associated with human trafficking.

People in the audience expressed an interest in helping.

Hamilton said, “Whatever your talent and interest, you can start volunteering, if nothing else start off as a volunteer.”

This event was sponsored by ISLAC, USF World and USF Research One.

For more information, contact ISLAC at (813) 974-0307; or Rebecca Blackwell at or visit And for more information about human trafficking visit TIP Report.

*DISCLAIMER: The title of the agenda and its content are for informational purposes only and the participation of Southern Command in this event does not constitute an official endorsement of USF by Southern Command or the Department of Defense."

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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