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Sunday, July 25, 2004

OrlandoSentinel.com: If you are serious about human slavery

OrlandoSentinel.com: State News
A Salvadoran woman allegedly held against her will and forced to work as a maid in a multimillion-dollar mansion.

Democrats and other Bush critics called portions of the president's speech at a Tampa conference on human trafficking earlier this month thinly veiled campaign rhetoric aimed at key Florida voters. But most who work to fight human trafficking in Florida said they are grateful for the attention the president's visit brought to the issue, if not the political spin that came with it.

"I think we live in a political world and there is no avoiding that. . . . [but] Bush helped shine the light on the tragic reality facing our state," said Robin Hassler Thompson, program director of the human-trafficking project at the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.

Modern-day slavery

As many as 17,500 trafficking victims are brought into the United States each year, many as young as 12. In Florida those victims include legal and illegal immigrants, the homeless, teenage runaways and others.

Across the state, including in the Orlando area, trafficking victims are forced into prostitution, sexual servitude and labor in sweat shops, farms and even the homes of affluent captors, said Chief U.S. Assistant Attorney Doug Molloy of Fort Myers, who has four investigations under way.

"We have cases where you have millionaires who are taking advantage of situations with cheap labor, too," said Anna Rodriguez, whose investigation of a human-trafficking case for the Collier County Sheriff's Office led President Bush to praise her dogged detective work.

Now the director of the Immigrant Rights Advocacy Center in Naples, Rodriguez said she is checking into allegations that a Salvadoran woman was brought to Florida on a tourist visa by a wealthy business owner who took her passport and forced her to work in his mansion.

There have been six federal cases brought in South Florida alone in the past six years. Most involved forced labor of farmworkers. But investigations have also uncovered elaborate prostitution rings using young women who were virtually slaves of the ringleaders.

Just last year, federal agents broke up the prostitution ring that used Cadillac Escalades and other vehicles to deliver a half-dozen underage Mexican girls to the homes, trailers and apartments of as many as 20 clients a night in Bonita Springs, Immokalee and Naples, Molloy said.

A much larger prostitution ring that had enslaved as many as 40 Mexican women and girls was broken up in 1997. Based in southwest Florida, leaders of the ring forced them to work in brothels in migrant-worker communities across Florida and Johns Island, S.C.

The victims, some as young as 14, were lured by promises of jobs as waitresses or nannies in the United States and promised wages of at least $400 a week plus tips. In brothels operated out of trailers and rundown houses, the women were forced to have sex with as many as 30 men per day.

The brothels were in Ocoee and a dozen other communities farther south.

Members of two Mexican families were charged with operating the prostitution ring. One family member, Rogerio Cadena, pleaded guilty to federal slavery and prostitution charges and was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $1 million. Six other members of the ring pleaded guilty to similar charges and received sentences of two to 6 years.

Advocate investigators

Three of the human-trafficking cases in South Florida were brought to light by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Collier County. Most recently, the organization, which has more than 200 members, conducted an undercover investigation that led to the 2002 prosecution of a slavery ring involving more than 700 people held captive in migrant camps in Lake Placid.

Members of the Ramos family, Mexican immigrants, and their operatives were buying and selling illegal immigrant farm laborers from Mexico and Central America. The workers were smuggled into Arizona, brought east and forced to labor for little or no pay in fields from South Florida to North Carolina, according to the FSU human-trafficking report.

The Ramos family leaders charged workers a $1,000 transportation fee and held each in bondage until they had worked it off. Workers were also charged "exorbitant" amounts for room and board. Two Ramos brothers were sentenced to 12 years in prison and a cousin received 10 years.

Abuses continue

The aggressive advocacy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has greatly raised awareness of the problem among migrant workers who increasingly come forward with reports of abusive treatment. But the fight continues, Perkins said.

"They [traffickers] will only be eliminated when there are serious efforts made by the corporations and the produce industry that benefits from low wages and bad working conditions to make a change," Perkins said.

Sister Maureen Kelleher of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Immokalee, which has provided legal services to impoverished farmworkers for 20 years, said the president could prove himself "a true champion by taking care of prevention as well as punishing after the fact."

Kelleher and other advocates expressed frustration that the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, which would permit undocumented farmworkers to earn legal status, was recently tabled by Republican leaders.

"If you are serious about human slavery in both the sex and labor trades, let's bring the undocumented into the sunshine so they can step out of the shadows and not be victimized," she said.

Wes Smith can be reached at dwsmith@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5672.

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