MANATEE -- Modern-day slavery is being conducted on the streets of Bradenton and Manatee County.
Its victims are often forced to sell their bodies for sex. Their pimps roam the streets, many on bikes, officials say.
Human trafficking has begun to come out of the shadows as law enforcement, government agencies and community organizations become more educated about its victims. Experts on human trafficking gathered Thursday for the Manatee Tiger Bay Club monthly lunch to discuss how they are helping victims and enforcing the laws against human trafficking.
Experts included Elizabeth Melendez Fisher, president of Sarasota-based SelahFreedom; Kindsey Neeson, director of operations and strategic development at SelahFreedom; Bradenton police Deputy Chief Warren Merriman; and Bradenton police Sgt. William Knight. SelahFreedom is devoted to combat human trafficking and assist its victims.
"Prostitution is the No. 1 way we see it happening on the streets of Bradenton," Neesen said.
Young girls are being sold seven to 15 times a day by their pimp, Neesen said. Many are forced into prostitution as victims of human trafficking.
The victims are not all of international descent as is often misconceived, the experts said. This is a domestic issue as well.
And, according to Fisher, Manatee is the No. 1 Florida county for prostitution arrests.
"It is real and it happening," Fisher said. "It's getting closer and closer."
How many human trafficking victims are victimized in Manatee County is unclear. The experts say the crimes were often not identified as human trafficking before.
Florida authorities are beginning to become educated on what human trafficking truly looks like. They say many cases involving charges for prostitution and brokering previously were actually cases of human trafficking.
"People who come in contact with this have no clue," Knight said.
The panel stressed prostitution is one of the major avenues where young people are being sold against their will. Bradenton police say they are going after many of these pimps.
"The predators are very skilled at what they do," Fisher said. "They know how to be very coercive. They know what the kids need."
Human trafficking has become a $35 billion business nationwide, and is soon expected to surpass the $36 billion drug trafficking business in profitability, Fisher said.
Many criminals have realized it is more profitable and less dangerous to pimp than to sell drugs. It doesn't require continued repurchase of product.
With the change of the definition of human trafficking in Florida to mirror the federal law, in addition to two new laws signed by Gov. Rick Scott last week, it is becoming easier to aid human trafficking victims as well as go after those responsible.
"The prostitute usually has been the one held accountable," Knight said. "These new laws are changing so that the right person is held accountable."
The new laws allow for records of the victims to be expunged and raises the mandatory age for victim testimony from 11 to 16.
Knight stressed the new laws are making it easier to identify and assist victims.
Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.