|Posted on September 12, 2010 at 8:43 PM|
In Our Own Backyard: Modern-Day Slavery in the US, Florida, and the Tampa Bay area
"I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more had they only known they were slaves." - Harriet Tubman
The term “human trafficking” tends to conjure up images of Asian girls smuggled into massage parlors or Russian mail order brides stashed in a basement. These concepts are representative of true cases, but narrowing a crime to far-away stereotypes is dangerous; one reason among many is because they can keep other realities hidden and keep us distant from having to acknowledge crime exists right in our own neighborhoods. Slavery was officially outlawed in America in 1865 by the 13th amendment to the Constitution, but chains and the US history of African-American slaves are no longer the markers of current conditions of slavery in the US. In 2007, the Department of Justice reported that 63% of trafficking victims within our borders are actually US citizens.
The reality is Florida has the second highest incidence of trafficking in the United States, in the top 3 with California and New York. Furthermore, it is not just foreign women being brought in for trafficking purposes, but also alarming numbers of American women being trafficked within. A lucrative industry, sex trafficking is the 2nd largest form of organized crime behind drugs. In US dollars, it brings in about 9.5 billion. Congress has stated that trafficking is a “modern form of slavery, and it is the largest manifestation of slavery today”. Unlike drugs or weapons with only a single initial point of sale, women become reusable property which can be sold again and again indefinitely for labor or sexual purposes.
Estimates of 600,000-800,000 mostly women and children are trafficked each year across our US borders, according to the Department of State. If figures include those trafficked within our own borders, the numbers jump to 2-4 million. Exact data can be difficult to obtain, being that federal mandated programs within states still do not have regularly and accurately reported numbers. While trafficking can happen to anyone, trends overwhelming show females are of highest risk, around 80% of victims being female: 70% of that for sexual exploitation and up to half of that being minors. In Florida, current victims are estimated around 50,000.
Human trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (federal law criminalizing trafficking), as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
Human trafficking is “the recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving persons by means of threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person for the purposes of exploitation”, from the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons.
What hides these victims from our societal view, is their frequent status as workers in the sex industry—strippers, escorts, adult entertainers, porn workers, or prostitutes. While they are members of our community, they can remain unseen by a veil of blame and humiliation due to their "choice" of occupation. Women and young girls are much more likely to be prosecuted as criminals related to sex worker status, rather than recognized as victims.
Why such risk here in our own palm tree filled backyards? Everything about Florida is ripe for the trafficking profit. Location with multiple bodies of water and easily accessible areas of lesser economic opportunity or stability provide a climate rich for luring in poor and at risk women or girls, along with large airports, coastline access, and ports. Agriculture has a door wide open for the migrant farm workers, and is a common attraction to persons involved in trafficking. Our tourism industry is a huge factor which is accompanied by the hotel, restaurant, and cruise businesses. The sex industry thrives here, all one needs to do is count the erotic clubs even just in the Tampa Bay area and notice the patronage. Often the linkage between another industry to the sex industry facilitates the crime, for example a woman takes a housekeeping job and is then forced to perform sexual acts or enter the sex industry, turning her money over to the perpetrator(s). Sex trafficking is also greatly prominent near military bases, of which Florida has eight. Physical and sexual abuse is frequently used in conjunction with the force and coercion for either non-sexual or sexually-related occupations. High demand for unskilled labor or sex work coupled with the downturn in the economy has created an atmosphere of danger.
Three Broward were convicted of conspiracy of sex trafficking minors and sex trafficking by force, threat, and coercion August 2010. They created an organization which forced prostitution of adult and minor females through national and international hotel chains out of Broward County from September 2009 to March 2010.
In 2008, a developmentally challenged teen was transported to migrant farm camps in Hillsborough County and forced to perform sex acts on the workers. He took all her money and tried to coerce her to convince her friends to prostitute for him also.
Recently here in our own Tampa Bay area, a domestic sex trafficking ring was busted by Pinellas County Sheriff’s department, and the case is still ongoing. Several women were rescued from the Treasure Island mansion (and also allegedly a St. Petersburg apartment) where they were kept and regularly raped and abused, transported and forced to work at strip clubs (in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, and Broward counties) and perform sex acts, then forced to turn over all of their earnings to their captors. The women were watched at all times. Kenyatta Cornelous is believed to be the ring’s leader and awaits trial, charged with three counts sexual battery (carrying a life sentence) and three counts human trafficking and deriving proceeds from prostitution. He abused and raped the women (sometimes in front of the others to make an example) often for punishment of attempting to escape (“we banged on the walls and screamed for help” or not making enough money (“I got beat really bad for that”;), and he threatened to kill them if they disobeyed the rules or tried to leave. Colin Dyer was listed on leases where the women were held captive, and helped transport them to and from the clubs and residences and also allegedly raped them. One woman in particular (the only one to come forward to authorities at the time of the arrests) who testified in his June 2010 trial stated Dyer raped her 12 times (and Cornelous, 8 times) in the 10 days she was held. In her testimony, recounting details of the horror, the victim stated she was told by Cornelous she had to “give any of his men anything sexual that they wanted, whenever they asked, wherever they asked.” She never saw any of the money she made at the club, sometimes around $1000 per shift. Dyer faced one count capital sexual battery and two counts human trafficking, but was found not guilty June 11th, 2010. If this verdict feels like a wrong one to some and certainly to the victims, some consolation may be found in the fact Dyer is in federal prison likely to be deported back to England as he is not a legal US citizen. Edward Jones was arrested, allegedly transporting girls and a “middle-level member” of the ring, and faces 2 counts of human trafficking. Corinna Shafer, an exotic dancer allegedly transporting girls and collecting their earnings for Cornelous, faces one count of human trafficking. Cornelous and Jones were also charged late March 2010 in Scott County, Iowa, with running a drug operation; both are charged with drug conspiracy-participating in the manufacture, possession, and distribution of 50 grams of crack and 5 kilos of cocaine and Cornelous is also charged with distributing crack. The Change committee will be closely following the upcoming cases on both individuals for human trafficking at the Pinellas County Courthouse, Clearwater.
While there are various forms or incidents of trafficking, both foreign and domestic, many of the ways in which women are procured and maintained as modern day slaves is the same or similar in nature.
1) Unequal status of women and girls: this is an underlying cause that allows trafficking to flourish either under current conditions and/or the effort to escape such conditions. Traffickers are primarily men, and their privilege is often protected socially and legally in public and private spheres, in other countries more severely, but still also in the US. For victims, the social inequality is often inseparable from the economic challenges, thereby leading many to already be involved in at-risk occupations such as strippers or prostitutes, making them easy targets, less likely to report activity, and often less credible to the community.
2) Force: women are often initially taken by force and/or kept in their conditions by force. In addition, threats, coercion, and/or violence are used in conjunction for control. Physical and sexual abuses are frequent mechanisms used, as well as rules-punishment systems set up and tangible preventions for resistance and escape (locks on doors and windows, being kept in small spaces, confiscating identification and money, controlling food and water, etc.).
3) False promises: these can come in many forms before and during capture, and some do not appear false until it is too late. Because economic instability causes many women to become victims, traffickers are savvy and resourceful in what will lure their victims, offering a safe place to live, clothes, a job, money, a better life, etc. What is unknown at first is that each and every thing offered will come at the price of the woman’s body or labor sold at his control and with him keeping the profits. As with inequality issues, perpetrators exploit the vulnerability of their victims to full advantage.
4) Fraud: women are often convinced they’re being brought into the country or given employment on certain legitimate conditions and then instead forced into sex slavery or held captive upon accepting their occupations. These can include false advertisements, interviews under a façade, and fake contracts. Women are often stripped of their identities and given fabricated documentation. Advancements in technology have made and continue to make trafficking easier and more successful. Because of the shame surrounding sex crimes and sex work, perpetrators can continue to use the same methods unsuspected and unpunished.
5) Initial consent: a victim may agree to obtain a job or move to an area or into the US initially consenting to work in the sex industry, but will then ultimately be living under forced or slave-like conditions and/or forced to exceed the understood parameters of her job or her willingness. One common example is women dancing in bikini attire, and then forced to dance topless or nude and/or perform sex acts “behind the scenes”. Because of the environment in the sex industry, victims (foreign and domestic) are often arrested for drugs, nudity in an establishment licensed to serve alcohol, or prostitution while club owners, pimps, and traffickers escape arrest and prosecution (despite helping create, perpetuate, and profiting from the environment). This serves to increase the victims’ servitude, and gain her punishment from her perpetrators while increasing their control.
6) Entry to US: often an accompaniment to the previous conditions, victims may be forced to comply after being brought to the US using indebted servitude or confiscating identification. Women brought into temporary citizenship under the false employment premise will overstay their visas and be forced to pay off the costs for entering the US. Traffickers will confiscate any real documentation and control the false identifications they give victims to use. Of course, debts are never actually even plausible to be paid off, since the victims’ wages are also collected. Fear of deportation and arrest also serves to keep them under captors’ control.
What can you do?
• Many cases have been successfully investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted based on initial tips from a concerned citizen, so one person can make a difference in reducing human trafficking!
• Studies have shown that an overwhelming number of trafficking victims in Florida had contact with professionals but were not identified as victims. Especially if you are a worker in healthcare, social, or legal services, learn to recognize the signs! The Clearwater/Tampa Bay area Task Force on Human Trafficking has tips and suggested questions to ask clients here: http:/www.catfht.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10&Itemid=20
• Lack of community awareness perpetuates the already high demand and low risk—be informed! It is likely each one of us has walked by or seen a trafficking victim and just didn’t know it. Increasing community tips will help law enforcement apprehend perpetrators and get victims to safety and healing. Here are some ways to identify victims and how you might be able to help. http:/humantrafficking.change.org/blog/view/do_you_recognize_the_warning_signs_of_human_trafficking
o Comprehensive information regarding trafficking victims: http:/humantraffickingmovie.com/how-can-i-recognize-victims-of-human-trafficking.html
• Store this number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-3737-888
• Expand awareness! National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is January 11th.
• Check out these ideas for action: http:/mgjack.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/40-ideas-for-action-on-national-human-trafficking-awareness-day-from-fair-trade-to-fundraising/
• Learn more about the Blue Campaign, and how you can get involved: http:/www.dhs.gov/ynews/gc_1279809595502.shtm
Sources: Florida NOW, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, Shared Hope International, FBI, Department of State