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Bondi wants revamp of state's human trafficking laws

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi Wednesday renewed a push for legislation to  end slavery. James Call reports, Bondi says she wants to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking.

Law enforcement says Florida is a gateway for human trafficking, ranking behind New York and Los Angeles. The FBI lists Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville among the top 13 metropolitan areas for the sex trafficking of children. 

“Why Florida? Florida has all the fuel, Florida has tourism, Florida has construction, Florida has Miami International Airport, and that is essentially fueling labor trafficking and sex trafficking in the state.”

Anna Rodriguez is a victim advocate who helped prosecute one of the first modern-day slavery cases. In 1999, she responded to a domestic violence incident in Collier County. Jose Tecum had beaten his wife and while gathering notes, Rodriguez discovered a 15-year old girl was living with the couple.

“That’s when we realized something was not right, so we end up taking the victim, the young girl, she was taken into DCF custody and when we got federal law enforcement involved that’s when we found out, that I had rescued the first human trafficking victim.”

Tecum had kidnapped a young girl from a Guatemalan village, brought her to Florida, put her to work picking tomatoes during the day and as a sex slave at night. To get a prison sentence imposed on Tecum, a prosecutor had to use Florida’s 19th century law against slavery. The incident led to Rodriguez starting the Coalition Against Human Trafficking and to lobby the state to update its laws.  Tuesday she stood with a handful of lawmakers to promote a proposal which clarifies the definition of human trafficking, makes it a first degree felony and empowers a statewide prosecutor to pursue people who smuggled humans into Florida for the purpose of involuntary servitude.Miami Senator Anitere Flores is sponsoring the proposal.

“What we are doing today, telling all those folks, putting on notice sex traffickers and people across the state, Florida is not going to stand on the sidelines anymore. We are going to take it seriously and we are going to go after you. We’re going to go after you and we’re going to make it so this is not a profitable business and this is not something you should be doing.”

Florida’s agriculture and tourism-driven service economy facilitates labor and sex exploitation. Victim advocates say the involuntary servitude of maids, restaurant workers, produce pickers and sex workers is a $32 billion industry. Stuart Representative William Snyder is sponsoring the house bill. Snyder is a graduate of the FBI academy and served 20 years with the Miami-Dade police department.

“What I found most appalling is, when we started to peel it back just how little we and society collectively know about the phenomenon. What we found is that we have victims that are quiet, they are behind the scenes, they’re voiceless and they are crying for attention. And they are crying for help. I believe sincerely, sometimes in Tallahassee we do bills that make political statements. And other times we do bills that are serious public policy. And this bill is about serious policy.”

Snyder’s bill makes a small, but what he calls significant, change in the law. The current law requires the state attorney to prove force in compelling someone into servitude. The proposal changes the word to coercion.  Many victims are lured to Florida from across the country or from other countries by promises of jobs. Once here, their passports and IDs are confiscated and violence is threatened against them or relatives if they do not comply.

“The majority of labor trafficking victims arriving in the state of Florida and the United States are entering the country with guest worker visas. And they are being brought by corporations of greed. Of money and being exploited. And being sexually abused. And a lot of these victims are not just male sand females but are children.”

The U.S. Justice Department says up to 17,000 people are sold in the United States every year. It estimates more than a 1,000 slaves have been freed in Florida since 1997. The FBI currently has 31 open cases in south Florida where children were victims of sex trafficking.  It is an issue that Attorney General Pam Bondi became involved in after a visit to south Florida refuge house for victims of sexual abuse.

“It is not just international sex trafficking, many of these are young runaway girls, from within our country, 13, 14 years old, who end up in Miami and are basically sold into prostitution because it is the only way they can survive.”

Bondi was joined by Snyder, Flores, prosecutors and police officers Wednesday to promote the initiative. The proposal is in the House Appropriation Committee. Its Senate companion is before the Budget committee.