*The names of Raúl and Ignació, as well as other victims interviewed for this story, have been changed. According to agencies that are helping them, revealing the identities of victims would place them in physical danger. It's an apt, if ironic, condition for a story about people whose suffering, in the words of Clearwater Police Deputy Chief Dewey Williams, "flies under the radar."
When Pastor Rafael Amengual met Raúl and Ignació* at a Hispanic church in Plant City on the Sunday morning of March 19 this year, one of the first things he noticed was the condition of their hands: burned, cut and bleeding. Their faces glowed red as if they'd been exposed to extreme heat.
Their mental condition was even more desperate. They were deeply depressed, psychologically damaged, says Amengual, a Christian counselor from New Port Richey.
The two men, both Mexicans in their early 20s, had been held captive and made to work up to 20 hours a day in Chinese restaurants throughout Florida. They had crossed into the U.S. illegally a month before, and met two Chinese men at the Florida-Georgia border who offered them work and wages. Instead of good jobs, however, Raul and Ignacio suffered a month of agony: preparing food for long hours without pay; handling hot pans of burning oil without protection for their hands; traveling at night to undisclosed locations where they would only work more; being locked in their rooms; and worst of all, hearing the screams of fellow captives. Others were being held in the house, some of them teenage girls who were being raped by their captors.
"They told me they cannot stop hearing the way [one] girl cried," recalls Amengual. "That was the most terrible situation. When they heard how they raped that girl, crying and crying and crying and screaming. Even the girl said, 'Please kill me.'"
Raúl and Ignació were told if they tried to escape or said anything to anyone that they would be killed. Or the police would be called and they would be thrown in jail, or that immigration would be called and they would be deported because they didn't have papers.
The Mexicans started demanding money. In response, the Chinese drove Raúl and Ignació to the outskirts of Plant City and dumped them on the side of the road like unwanted puppies. They didn't know where they were, and they spoke no English. In dirty clothes, with damaged hands and broken spirits, they walked until they found refuge in a Baptist church. The pastor there phoned Amengual because he knew of his work helping immigrants with their papers and of his recent involvement with World Relief, a national faith-based immigrant aid organization.
What happened to Raúl and Ignació is not uncommon. It's called human trafficking, a crime U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in his first policy address in office labeled "one of the most pernicious evils in the world today ... [which] exists right here, on our shores."
Indeed, it's happening right here in Tampa Bay. And little is being done to stop it.
Defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce a commercial sex act or forced labor, human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry, with revenues estimated from $9 billion to $32 billion annually. It is estimated that up to 17,500 people are trafficked within the United States each year, according to widely used figures from the U.S. State Department.
Florida was ranked as one of the top three states for trafficking in a 2003 report by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. When George W. Bush spoke out against human trafficking as "one of the worst offenses against human dignity," he chose to do so before an audience of law enforcement agents and social service providers in Tampa -- at the Marriott Waterside four months before the 2004 presidential elections. That day he announced the government would spend almost $30 million to fight trafficking and help victims at home and abroad.
But in Tampa Bay, law enforcement has not yet found a consistent approach to dealing with or even identifying the crime of human trafficking. Some police departments deny it happens in their jurisdiction. Training initiatives are available, but so far only the Clearwater Police Department has taken substantive steps to combat the problem.
The lack of action is troubling, but not surprising. Human trafficking is in many ways a hidden crime, and without awareness of the crime and communication between law enforcement, social service agencies and churches, it goes unnoticed. The housewife next door who never leaves her house; the woman who does your nails; the dishwasher in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant -- any of these could be a victim of human trafficking, yet unable or unwilling to approach the police.
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
Peter's new book is awaited with joy by lovers of poetry and his cool take…
Eeeeeeehhhh aaaahhhh, this is Sam Carollo, I am a legitimate business man, I resent the…
It is wonderful to see the KaBOOM! playground as a part of this transformation. I…