Manatee officials combat rising scourge of human trafficking

jdeleon@bradenton.comMay 30, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Ana left her children in a small Guatemalan hometown with her parents after they urged her to go to America to find a good job.

Her parents scraped together all the money they could to pay smugglers Manny and Inez Rodriguez to take Ana safely across the border to find employment as a nannny.

They failed to tell Ana's parents it would cost $3,000 extra to find her employment and $2,500 for lodging and food.

Ana found a job as a nanny, but now must work almost 80 hours just to pay room and board and repay the Rodriguez's at $100 a week.

Human trafficking victims live in fear as their handlers hold their passport and threaten their families if the steep bills go unpaid.

In hopes of saving people like Ana from a life of slave labor, legal professionals gathered Wednesday to hear experts discuss human trafficking at the Manatee County Bar Association annual Law Day lunch at Pier 22.

Experts included Assistant State Attorney Dawn Buff; Luz Corcuera, program director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County; Maj. Connie Shingledecker from the Manatee County Sheriff's Office; and Kindsey Neesen, director of operations from the nonprofit Selah Freedom House.

"The biggest part of this is taking it out of the darkness and into the light," Buff said.

Florida is considered No. 3 on the list of destination states for human trafficking.

"Something is happening that we are not noticing,"

Corcuera said.

The Florida definition of human trafficking was changed in July 2012 to mirror federal law.

"Human traffic in Florida is exploiting any person for any reason," Buff said.

Buff said the comprehensive definition today includes domestic servitude or forced prostitution."

Human trafficking itself has changed, according to the experts.

"The face of human trafficking now are young teenage girls that are American that are being prostituted by thugs who realize it is a lot more profitable than selling drugs," Shingledecker said.

Law enforcement finds it difficult to identify victims until they end up in jail on prostitution charges, according to Neesen.

"It is really important that we are educating the jail system of what these victims look like," Neesen said.

Panelists said community education is necessary to stop human trafficking, They discussed the kinds of people in good position to help.

"The cable guy, because everybody is going to let the cable guy in," Buff said. "Hairdressers because who doesn't talk to their hair dresser?"

The hope is more human trafficking will be exposed when suspicious activities are reported by alert observers.

"When things don't look right, report them," Shingledecker said.

Protecting victims and finding housing while cases are built is also a challenge.

"We need to have a lot more secure safe houses," Neesen said. "Without that they are going to run right back to their pimp."

Agencies in Manatee and Sarasota counties are in the process of creating a human trafficking task force.

Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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