Slavery in the United States exists and it’s thriving in the form of human trafficking.
According to statistics from the Washington, D.C.-based anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris Project, South Florida is ranked third in the country for the despicable trade — typically centered around either prostitution and/or cheap and free labor.
“It’s modern-day slavery,” said Adriane Reesey, director of the 1 Human Trafficking Coalition, or 1HTC, a Florida-based nonprofit that aims to raise awareness to the growing human trafficking problem. “People are controlled for other people’s profits.”
It’s something to keep in mind next time you have your nails done for $10 by an Asian woman who speaks no English.
“Where did they get their cosmetology license?” Reesey asked.
The man mowing your grass — is he keeping the money you pay him or is someone collecting a cut from him?
Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises, and using the criteria that slavery is the exploitation of people, particularly vulnerable people, for money, there are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history, Reesey said.
According to Polaris, reports of trafficking to the group’s hotline have more than doubled nationwide between 2012 and 2016 — more than 8,000 cases reported in 2016, up from 3,400 cases four years earlier.
Reesey said the numbers reflect a blend of bad and potentially good news. The bad speaks for itself. But the good news could be that more people are aware of human trafficking in their communities and are now notifying the authorities when they notice it.
“It also means we’re doing a better job at education and reporting,” Reesey told a group of health-care workers, law enforcement officials, nonprofit and congressional staffers and media gathered in a room at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter on Plantation Key Tuesday.
Florida ranks behind California and Texas in leading the nation in human trafficking, according to Polaris figures. The group tracked 550 reported cases in 2016 in the Sunshine State, up from 237 reported in 2012.
In the Keys, the problem is smaller than in mainland counties, but it does exist, said Lt. James Norman with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit. The problem for local law enforcement, Norman said, is getting inside trafficking networks. Many victims are either too frightened of their captors to cooperate or, in some cases, they don’t want to, because their current situation is much safer and more comfortable than where they came from.
“It is happening here,” Norman said. “But how do we infiltrate it?”
Norman discussed prostitutes arrested a few years ago in Key West who were trafficked in to the United States from Romania. When detectives asked them about who they were working for, the women didn’t want to say because as far as they were concerned, their pimps delivered them to a better life in the United States than the hell they faced doing similar work in Romania.
“When you talk to them, they will look at you like, ‘You don’t have a clue on how good you have it. You don’t know what life on the mean streets is,’ ” Norman said. “They say, ‘I got it good here. Maybe not good to you.’ ”
“Its a matter of perspective,” he said.
Another major obstacle in cracking down on trafficking, particularly in prostitution cases, is the degrees of separation that often exist between the victim and the boss. Many times during a prostitution arrest involving more than one person, the person in charge is known as the “bottom.” It’s typically a woman, Norman said, and she too was likely a victim of her pimp who has worked her way up to become his lieutenant of sorts. She won’t talk and the pimp remains free.
The signs of trafficking in the community are there if you look for them, Reesey said. And it’s not just blatant instances of prostitution, although that appears to be a fairly thriving industry in the Keys, as Reesey demonstrated by showing a search she did for “Key Largo” on the Backpage.com website — a site frequently used by pimps to advertise prostitutes.
“Where craigslist left off, we have Backpage.com to take its place,” Reesey said.
The links that appear don’t specifically spell out that prostitution is being offered, but the thinly coded promises of “massages” and “rub downs” indicate one would not likely encounter a licensed masseuse if he or she solicited these listed services.
“You have this happening here,” Reesey said. “Is it all trafficking? The chances are pretty high.”
Reesey’s presentation happening at the Children’s Shelter was not by coincidence. The shelter became involved with 1HTC in the aftermath of one of the Keys’ highest-profile human trafficking cases, which originated at its Plantation Key facility.
“In 2014, we experienced the shocking revelation that one of our youth-care workers was arrested for sex trafficking involving two minor females who resided in our shelter but chronically ran away,” Ben Kemmer and William Mann, co-chief executive officers at the shelter, said in a statement.
The Atkins case
They’re referring to Ricky Atkins, 30, a former shelter staffer who was sentenced in 2016 to 32 years in federal prison for trafficking two then-15- and 16-year-old girls to Miami, where he and his partner, Sandra Simon, prostituted them — and advertised their services on Backpage. Simon, 25, pleaded guilty before the trial began in Miami and cooperated in the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s case against Atkins. She is serving 11 years.
The girls’ testimony during the trial revealed an ugly underworld that exists in the Upper Keys, often inhabited by similar victims, wise beyond their years because of the broken homes in which they were raised. They also told of adult men living in the community with no qualms about spending time with underage girls.
“Their whole foundation was built on quicksand,” Reesey said.
Atkins’ victims were frequent runaways from the shelter and didn’t need much prodding to go with him to the mainland. At least one of them had romantic feelings for Atkins, which is often the case in human trafficking situations. That affection is frequently used by traffickers as a tool or weapon against their victims to maintain control over them.
Reesey calls people like Atkins “the Romeo pimp.”
“They groom and psychologically manipulate their victims” who are seeking someone to care for them, Reesey said.
“If you think somebody loves you, that’s the most powerful four-letter word out there,” she said. “What you will do for love is amazing.”
Shelter staff have taken steps to make sure another Ricky Atkins doesn’t get hired there, and they’re trying to make it harder for girls like Atkins’ victims to run away and fall prey to traffickers.
“Even though the investigation showed that the Children’s Shelter had followed all employment screening and safety protocols, we have increased our safeguards by conducting routine employee background screenings and additional staff training, added security cameras and alarm systems, and revamped our screening and intake process and no longer automatically accept all placement referral,” Kemmer and Mann said.
They acknowledged, however, challenges remain and are growing given the types of backgrounds their residents come from — fraught with abuse, neglect and addiction.
“Our passion for serving the community is unavoidably accompanied by certain challenges, which we are certainly willing to take on,” Kemmer and Mann said. “Sadly, we have witnessed a steady increase in at-risk youth dealing with a history of severe mental and behavioral health issues, often combined with alcohol and substance use/abuse.”
For more information, go to www.1HTC.org.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204