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Sexual trafficking: ‘Hidden in plain sight’

March 6, 2019
North Fort Myers Neighbor

The U.S. map on the Polaris website is chilling: colored spots marking the sex trade spread across the country with a proliferation of large blood-red blotches highlighting trafficking hotspots.

Given recent headlines, few might be surprised to find that Vero Beach down through Miami is among the worst problem areas for what Indian River County law enforcement bluntly calls modern day slavery.

Multiple agencies, including the Vero Beach Police Department Special Investigations Unit, the Sebastian Police Department Criminal Investigations Unit and Indian River County Sheriff's Office Vice Unit, spent six months investigating multiple massage parlors in Indian River County.

The investigation resulted in nearly 200 arrests for solicitation and, key, hard charges against seven "main targets." Those individuals, investigators say, operated five "massage parlors" that used sexual trafficking victims to provide services. Many of the women were here from China on temporary work visas but were moved from "spa" to "spa," and forced to work in the sex trade, officials said.

But communities on the east coast are not isolated anomalies in a state known best for its sunshine and beaches.

Florida comes in at No. 3 (behind California and Texas) in terms of calls made to the national human trafficking organization whose mission is rescue and resources for individuals bought, sold, kidnapped, beaten, drugged or otherwise coerced into an illegal industry that rakes in an estimated $150 billion annually worldwide.

Southwest Florida - nearly the entire Gulf Coast - is also marked as tainted with what is nothing less than a cancer that festers beneath the surface of illegal or misused immigration from countries that move women and children much as they traffic drugs; beneath the surface of preyed-upon runaways, an estimated 88 percent of whom were in state care before they ran.

Think we here in Lee County are exempt?

We assure you - and both ACT and the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking will tell you - we are not.

In January, four Lehigh Acres men were accused of forcing a 16-year-old runaway to be a "sex slave" for more than a year.

A couple of years ago, a 14-year-old Lehigh girl was lured by traffickers offering a job as was a 16-year-old Cape Coral girl. The Lehigh child was found out of state and returned home. The 16-year-old was assaulted and robbed by the "man with a job" who was arrested on sexual battery, kidnapping, robbery and human trafficking charges.

Both teens had been first lured by women.

Vero Beach police say the well-patronized "massage parlors" there were "hidden in plain sight," common storefronts in small shopping centers.

Police could have done what is typical - send in some undercover officers and make an arrest or two for prostitution.

Instead, investigators aimed a lot higher, formulating a case not only against the spa operators but alleged customers, including some with serious name recognition, including, but not limited to, billionaire Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. Mr. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to two counts of soliciting prostitution.

We commend the police effort, which includes surreptitious recording to secure evidence for prosecution.

But we ask, not law enforcement, but ourselves and those following this story that has been reported nationwide: Would this tip-of-the-iceberg case have gotten the attention it has if billionaires and big names were not among the alleged clients?

Probably not.

Sadly, probably not.

And that blind eye is, perhaps, what makes the sexual servitude possible and its purveyance so profitable.

The Vero Beach investigation began with a tip from a health inspector, someone who did not turn a blind eye to the conditions in which these women were existing.

The National Human Trafficking hotline operated by Polaris can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.

Or call local law enforcement.


-Neighbor editorial



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