Human slavery is often considered an uncomfortable truth that’s rooted firmly in the past, but sex trafficking is alive and well, globally, as well as locally.
A crowd of nearly 50 people gathered Tuesday night in the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach for a documentary screening and a Q&A about sex trafficking in South Florida.
Sex trafficking is whenever someone sells sex due to force, fraud or coercion, or whenever the victim is under the age of 18. About 400 cases are reported in Florida every year, just a few of the estimated 100,000 cases in the United States annually.
The group watched a 25-minute documentary titled Chosen, about two teen girls in Washington. One was groomed to be trafficked, but was saved at the last minute. The other victim was abused, trafficked and exploited before she got help.
Moderator for the night was Jorge Veitia, executive director of the Life of Freedom Center, an organization that helps female survivors of sex trafficking get back on their feet. The group provides free therapy, advocates, food, clothing and 24/7 support.
The center tackles human trafficking in a two-pronged approach. By day, the volunteers drop off informational posters at businesses and educate the owners on the signs of human trafficking.
By night, they look through the nearly 300 new ads on Backpage, a craigslist-type site for buying sex. Volunteers call and email the women posting the ads, offering help, resources and a caring ear.
Veitia told the crowd that last year, major credit card companies removed Backpage’s ability to accept credit cards when charging for their ads, but the website’s response was to make the adult advertisements free to post.
“That gives you an idea of the demand,” he said.
The typical victimized child is a runaway or homeless, he said. They may have a history of abuse and feel disconnected from their friends and family.
Only 1 percent of sexual trafficking victims are identified.
Women are the traditional face of sexual trafficking, but as many as half of sexually trafficked teens are boys, said Nathan Earl, founder of Ark of Freedom, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization.
Men and boys face unique problems when it comes to reporting. A big part of the issue is the stigma of a boy being forced to have sex with a man.
LGBT children, who are at higher risk for homelessness, are easy targets for sex traffickers, Earl said.
“The commonality of trafficking is vulnerability. Targeting these groups increases their vulnerability,” he said.
The root of the problem is simple, Veitia said: demand.
A study found that in Miami-Dade, 6 percent of men (or 140,000 people) over the age of 18 regularly buy sex, according to a study by Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.
Traffickers can make up to $250,000 a year off one child, Veitia said.
“Everyone here is living within five miles of a commercial sexually exploitative situation,” he said. “It’s strip clubs, massage parlors, even fancy hotels.”
Veitia displayed mug shots of South Floridians convicted of trafficking teen girls.
One case, in which a pair of Southwest Miami-Dade brothers forced a 16-year-old girl to have sex with 24 men a day for a month, brought an edge of disgust into his voice.
“For that month, none of those strangers did anything for that teenager other than what they paid to do,” he said. “Their desire for sex superceded their desire to help a child in need.
“They [the buyers] are free and they are out there in our community,” he told the audience.
Special Agent Victor Williams, the coordinator for the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, talked about the 2014 case of a 13-year-old girl trafficked into stripping and prostitution at Club Madonna in South Beach.
“What services are available for those kids?” he said. “We’re culturally built to think if people are walking around free, they’re making a choice. But they’re not.”
The women, men and children who walk away from sex trafficking leave with PTSD, borderline personality disorder and triggers, Olivia Turner told the crowd.
Turner, South Florida director of Refuge for Women, said the triggers are for average things like social media and cellphones — commonplace in the lives of regular people, but tools of oppression for people forced into attracting clients for prostitution.
“The law is doing what it can, but the more people we have talking about it — that helps,” Turner said.
That’s why Karla Garcia, a 30-year-old Miami resident, came to the event with her friends.
“Miami is ‘sex everything,’ so I don’t think a lot of people think it happens here,” she said. “They tell themselves ‘It doesn’t happen in my backyard,’ and that’s just not true.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 800-THE-LOST
Florida Hotline: 800-96 ABUSE
National Human Trafficking Hotline 888-3737-888
Signs of Sex Trafficking, from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center
Common Work and Living Conditions:
- Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
- Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
- Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
- Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
- Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
- Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
- Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
- High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded-up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior:
- Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid
- Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
- Avoids eye contact
Poor Physical Health:
- Lacks medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer
- Appears malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harmful chemicals
- Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
Lack of Control:
- Has few or no personal possessions
- Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
- Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
- Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
- Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying or give an address
- Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or of what city he/she is in
- Loss of sense of time
- Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story