On July 16, the country's first-ever national training conference on human trafficking was held in Tampa. The keynote speaker was President George W. Bush.
It wasn't the average stop on the campaign trail. Since 2000, shortly after President Bill Clinton signed the first antitrafficking policies into law, the Bush administration has placed a growing emphasis on the government's efforts to combat what some have called modern-day slavery.
"Human trafficking is an affront to the defining promise of our country," Bush said. "People come to America hoping for a better life. And it is a terrible tragedy when anyone comes here, only to be forced into a sweatshop, domestic servitude, pornography or prostitution."
The remarks were especially relevant here, because Florida's location and economic characteristics make it relatively easy for traffickers to slip through the cracks. It is one of the top three states (New York and California being the other two) in trafficked men, women and children, according to the United States Human Rights Report on Trafficking in Persons.
"Driven by criminal elements, economic hardships, corrupt governments, social disruption, political instability, natural disasters and armed conflict, the 21st-century slave trade feeds a global demand for cheap and vulnerable labor," says the Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report of June 2004.
Two accounts of trafficking in Florida follow. The first is from an Orlando Weekly interview with a Mexican man forced to work harvesting oranges in Immokalee. The second is taken from a report published by the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights called "Florida Responds to Human Trafficking." Both help illustrate the problem of trafficking as it exists in Florida today.
THE RAMOS CASE
Juan Pena, a Mexican immigrant who aided the Justice Department in a major Florida trafficking investigation, works at a furniture store in Immokalee. He likes his job, he says through a translator, because no one yells at him. His time in the United States hasn't always been so pleasant.
Pena and his friends took the offer, though they didn't know where they were going. They climbed into a crowded van with 11 other immigrants and drove nonstop for three days. Pena says they were not given food, and weren't allowed bathroom breaks.
When the van finally stopped, they were in Lake Placid, Florida, 100 miles south of Orlando. When they got out of the van, they were introduced to the Ramos brothers.
Ramiro and Juan Ramos, along with several cousins and in-laws, ran R & A Harvesting, a company that employed thousands of immigrant workers in South Florida and South Carolina as fruit and vegetable pickers. The brothers, nicknamed El Diablo (the devil) and Niño (boy), seemed cordial at first, recalls Pena.
"They told us we owed the van driver $1,000 each for the trip from Arizona. Then they handed us a phone and asked us to call someone who could pay for our trips," says Pena. "Of course we knew no one, so the Ramoses offered to pay our debt."
Soon the threats began.
"The Ramoses told us we were `in Lake Placid` to work, and that if we tried to leave before we paid them back, they were going to fuck us over," he says.
For Pena and his friends, this was the first glimpse of their new reality. The month ahead was both grueling and terrifying. Held at gunpoint, the men were forced to work 14-hour days, six days a week in the scorching sun.
"We had to work every day from sunup to sundown and pick oranges from trees that hardly had any oranges on them. We weren't given any breaks, and we weren't allowed to leave," says Pena. "We were constantly followed by guards, even if we wanted to use the phone to call someone. They told us they would feed us to the alligators if we tried to escape. We were told we were nothing to them, and that they would pump us full of lead if we left."
The Ramoses deducted charges for rent, food, equipment, check cashing and the ride from Arizona from each paycheck. Pena says he barely made $30 a week.
During their stay, the workers saw what would happen if they tried to escape.
"One day, we learned that one of our fellow workers managed to escape, and we heard the Ramoses talking about how they were going to hunt him down and kill him," says Pena. "That's when we knew we had to find a way out."
Members from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization established to improve and modernize work conditions in Florida's fields, had already heard stories of workers held against their will in Lake Placid before Pena and his friends had arrived.
In May of 2000, an Immokalee van driver was transporting citrus pickers northward to follow the harvest. According to Coalition member Julia Perkins, Pena's translator for his interview with Orlando Weekly, the van made a stop at El Mercadito, a store off Highway 27 in the Lake Placid area. Near midnight, two pickup trucks full of armed guards pulled up beside them. Seven gunmen ambushed the van, dragging driver Jose Martinez from his vehicle and smashing all of the van's windows. The assailants pistol-whipped Martinez until he was unconscious splitting his forehead open and permanently disfiguring his face in the process, according to Perkins. Coalition worker Laura Germino was contacted by a van passenger. She arrived 30 minutes after the attack, shortly after the police arrested the Ramos brothers.
"They were screaming, 'You are the motherfucking sons of bitches who are stealing our people!'" says Perkins. "It was just horrible. The Ramoses wanted to send a message to all the worker transportation vans not affiliated with them. They also wanted the workers in their fields and the townspeople to be afraid so that they wouldn't leave."
After the attack, Coalition members began working inside the Ramos brothers' campsite.
"Workers at the camp showed an incredible fear of being singled out by the Ramos informants if they showed visible interest in learning about their rights," says Perkins.
U.S. Border Patrol agent Michael Baron described the situation to New Yorker writer John Bowe. "Most of the time, these workers are housed miles from civilization, with no telephones or cars. They're controllable. There's no escape. If you do escape, what are you gonna do? Run 17 miles to the nearest town, when you don't even know where it is?" he says. "And, if you have a brother or a cousin in the group, are you gonna leave them behind? You gonna escape with 17 people? You'll make tracks like a herd of elephants. Whoever's got you, they'll find you. And heaven help you when they do."
A Coalition member agreed to go undercover and pose as a worker in the Ramos camp. Ultimately, Coalition members were able to help Pena and some of his companions escape. Despite his fear that they were being tricked, Pena knew if he didn't take the offer, he might never get another chance to leave.
"We knew we had to risk it because we knew we would die anyway," says Pena.
The escape plan was simple: Pena and three of his companions were to get into a Coalition member's car and ride away. But when it came time for the workers to get into the car, Pena says one of the escapees was overwhelmed with fear and decided to stay behind.
"I was also scared when I got into the car. I remember saying to myself, 'What am I getting myself into?'" he says. "But I knew I had to get out of there."
After a few gut-wrenching minutes huddled in the back of the car, the men began to realize they were free.
The Coalition managed to collect enough evidence of corruption in the Ramos camp to spur a State Department investigation. In order to prosecute the Ramoses, Pena had to testify in court, which he did.
"I was terrified to confront them in court because I didn't know what they would do to my family. But I also knew that if I didn't testify, more people would suffer, and I didn't want anyone else to have to stand in my shoes."
The Ramos trial took place in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Fort Pierce. After Pena's testimony in November of 2002, a federal judge sentenced the Ramos brothers to 15 years in prison for holding workers against their will, using firearms during a violent felony, harboring undocumented workers and extortion.
Despite the victory, Pena says his fears are far from over. "I am scared about what will happen to my family here and in Mexico when the Ramos brothers get out of prison. I'm afraid they will try to hunt us down, and that their family will hunt my family down."
In exchange for his cooperation in the trial, Pena was allowed to work in the United States for at least another year.
THE CADENA-SOSA FAMILY
Throughout '96 and '97, well-dressed and smiling female members of the Sosa-Cadena family approached poor girls in Veracruz, Mexico, and offered them waitress jobs in the family's Florida restaurant, or as nannies caring for the family's young children.
The girls were promised $400 a week plus tips, but were expected to pay back their smuggling fees of $2,000 with their wages. It was an enticing offer nonetheless, considering the average income in Veracruz was only $40 a week.
What the girls and their families didn't know was that they were actually being recruited into a prostitution ring, which was started in 1996 by a mother, four brothers, a wife and two uncles of the Cadena-Sosa family.
Their brothels extended across Florida in Lake Worth, Okeechobee, Fort Pierce, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Avon Park, Boynton Beach, Ocoee, Zolfo Springs and Homestead, according to the FSU human trafficking report. The ring, which exploited up to 40 young women and girls in its existence, brought in revenues of over $2.5 million in two years, according to the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol. It is considered one of the worst cases of human trafficking in modern America.
Antonia Sosa and Carmen Cadena were responsible for recruiting many of the young women. But in some instances, the recruiters were the victim's family members. One victim says she was recruited by her cousin; another by her adult stepsister.
Sosa and Cadena told victims' parents that the girls would be treated as family. They also promised that the girls could return to Mexico if they were unhappy for any reason. Usually, they would close the deal by offering the family a small amount of money.
Once the families agreed, the girls had to pay $25 for a bus ticket to Matamoros, on the Texas border, place themselves in the custody of smugglers and cross into the United States via the Rio Grande River. The traffickers would immediately take the girl's measurements and purchase suggestive clothing or lingerie at a Houston Kmart.
What followed, according to the FSU interviews, was a "hellish initiation period" of rapes and brutal beatings used by the traffickers to break down the girl's psychological resistance to the work they were being forced into. Each young woman was raped by 10 men before they were driven to the brothels in Florida. Frequently, the Cadena-Sosa brothers participated in the rapes and beatings. A number of the girls who were virgins told their interviewers that the rapes were designed to "teach" them how to have sex.
After several days, the girls were transported to the mobile homes where they were forced to work. In order to keep a "fresh supply" of women, as well as to foster confusion among the victims, the girls were rotated from one brothel to the next every 15 days. The girls were forced to have sex with 25 to 30 men a day, 12 hours a day, six days a week. If they resisted, they were beaten and raped by their captors.
One woman says she protested after she was told to speed up her sex acts with the clients. As punishment, she was locked in a small closet for 15 days only let out to use the bathroom.
The girls were only allowed to keep $3 per sex act, even though the clients were paying $20 for sex. They were told the remainder of their money went toward their smuggling debt and to the rent. Often, after the girls endured a 12-hour day, they were forced to have sex with the guards.
Pregnancies were common. When a girl became pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion. In one instance, a girl's captors intentionally caused her to miscarry by kicking her in the stomach.
The girls did not know where they were and did not speak English. Traffickers threatened to kill their families in Mexico if they tried to escape. One woman says that although she and her sister were recruited together, they were always kept in separate brothels. The traffickers would threaten to harm the other if one tried to leave.
After nearly a year, the women were finally emancipated in a 1997 raid by the Border Patrol and FBI. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Rogerio Cadena pled guilty to federal slavery and prostitution charges. He was fined $1 million and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Six other family members got between two and six years in prison.
Though that case is seven years old, Maria José Fletcher, the director of the LUCHA program for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, says sex trafficking in Florida is still a major problem.
"We provide direct services to the victims of human trafficking, and we interview victims of sex trafficking often," she says. "Sex trafficking is still rampant here. It's just part of Florida's landscape, unfortunately."
Coalition director Germino says part of the problem comes from the misconception that trafficking victims are undocumented. In fact, most of the traffickers bring victims into the United States on student, business and entertainment visas, according to the Department of State. Germino also says weak labor policies only exacerbate the problem.
Florida's economy relies heavily on its $7 billion agriculture industry, yet farm workers are excluded from the federal minimum-wage law. As a result, many are denied the right to overtime pay, workers' compensation and benefits. Furthermore, farm workers were also excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to form a union.
In his article, New Yorker writer Bowe points out that nearly every major fast-food chain in the United States buys tomatoes from South Florida. Multibillion-dollar companies such as Lykes Brothers, Consolidated Citrus, Cargill, Tropicana and Minute Maid control Florida's fruit and vegetable harvest. Yet many of the companies, according to Bowe, deny responsibility for labor exploitation in Florida because they don't actually own the farms or harvest the food themselves.
Germino thinks corporations like Yum Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, are guilty by association. "They know which tomato is coming from where," she says. "If they wanted to, they could demand a just tomato. It's not difficult for suppliers to demand safe and humane work conditions for their laborers."
Jonathan Blum, Yum's vice president for public relations, told the New Yorker that his company doesn't want to get involved. "We don't believe it's our place to get involved in another company's labor dispute involving its employees."
NO SOLID NUMBERS
It's very hard to pin down exactly how much of a problem trafficking is today. Current State Department figures estimate that between 14,500 and 17,500 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States each year. But two years ago, State Department numbers were closer to 50,000.
The United Nations estimated in a 2004 Department of Peace Keeping Operations report that between 600,000 and 800,000 victims of human trafficking are smuggled over international borders each year. Yet the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), who gathers statistics from NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), says the range is between 700,000 and 2 million.
Ann Jordan, director for the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at Washington's International Human Rights Law Group, says gathering accurate statistics is nearly impossible, due to the underground nature of the slave trade.
"I can't help but wonder where the government is getting their numbers," says Jordan. "There are no reliable numbers to go by. UNESCO started a project with the sole purpose of gathering human trafficking numbers, and even these numbers have come into question."
As a result, some dispute whether it's even a problem at all.
Only 450 victims were identified in the United States in 2003, according to a May report released to Congress by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft a far cry from the estimated 17,500 supposedly living in the United States.
The difficulty, according to Steven Wagner, director of human trafficking for the federal department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, is due in part to the psychological trauma inflicted on the victims, which actually prevents them from getting help.
"Oftentimes, we find our victims physically chained down. But what we see even more are the psychological chains of human trafficking," says Wagner. "It's one of the rare situations where victims actually fear getting help."
Because of this, says Wagner, improvements need to be made in current human-trafficking policy.
"We just aren't finding as many victims as we need to be at this point in time," says Wagner.
HHS is launching the Rescue and Restore Campaign. Wagner says the campaign will create a city-to-city coalition designed to help police and grassroots organizations identify victims.
Because of its central location in Florida, Orlando has been selected as a key city in the fight against human trafficking, at the urging of Paul Perez, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. Wagner says the Orlando kickoff for the campaign is scheduled for early September.
Since 2000, the United States has provided more than $295 million to support antitrafficking programs in more than 120 countries. In 2004, the United States created a "special watch list" of 42 countries that deserve extra scrutiny. And on July 16, the Justice Department gave $4.5 million to nine organizations running shelters around the country where victims are seeking refuge.
On the same day, President George W. Bush visited the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel to announce initiatives for combating human trafficking.
Yet despite government efforts to put a stop to trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 is limited in its ability to provide services that meet both short- and long-term needs of victims, according to the FSU report.
For example, victims are protected by the TVPA so long as they agree to assist in trafficking investigations and prosecutions. However, if a trafficker is not located, or if law enforcement officials decide not to pursue a case, the victim could have difficulty getting the "law enforcement endorsements" necessary to qualify for help.
For now, says Wagner of the HHS, education and awareness come first. "Once police and community members understand what trafficking is, they'll be able to identify it much easier. When this happens, we'll start locating victims at a much greater rate."
Pena agrees. "The main reason I want to tell my story to the world is so that maybe one day we can stop it from happening to others."