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Concerned Communities of America illuminates human trafficking crisis with Florida panel discussion

Human trafficking has become a threat to potential victims all throughout the Western Hemisphere

Young girl peers out toward freedom from behind a caged fence
Young girl peers out toward freedom from behind a caged fence | Shutterstock

February 23, 2023 9:00am

Updated: February 23, 2023 9:30am

Concerned Communities of America, an organization dedicated to fostering positive change in U.S. communities, led a panel discussion Tuesday night about the human trafficking crisis blossoming throughout the Western Hemisphere and the tragic impact it has on women, children, migrants and minorities.

The panel discussion, which took place at the New Testament Worship Center in Tampa, Florida was sparked in response to recent reports about the many different types of violations being committed against victims throughout the Western Hemisphere and particularly, the United States.

The event was part of the group’s ongoing program to initiate Conversations With Black America, a program designed to spark lively discussions about critical issues facing Black communities, aimed toward legislative and policy solutions.

Combatting human trafficking

Since ADN America’s inception in November 2021, it has shined a light on state sponsored human rights violations and those committed by criminal enterprises exploiting innocent victims.

In February 2022, ADN reported the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security rescued 70 missing children in a Texas based operation known as Lost Souls, and that in August, the FBI saved 121 children in a nationwide sting known as Operation Cross Country. In June, ICE arrested 32 individuals for conspiring to coerce children into sexual acts as part of Operation Blue Ghost in Wichita, Kansas.

The term “human trafficking” is commonly used to describe many different types of exploitation, but it specifically refers to crimes defined under Title 18, Chapter 77 of the U.S. Criminal Code including acts that compel or coerce a person’s labor, services or commercial sex acts.

The coercion can be subtle, overt, physical or even psychological according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

While human trafficking does not include “human smuggling,” the unlawful act of transporting individuals who want to be moved—usually for the purpose of illegally crossing transnational borders—many migrants who are smuggled into the U.S. have become targets of trafficking because of their desperation and vulnerability.

Last year, President Biden called upon authorities to fight the “criminal industry” of human smuggling after 50 migrants suffocated to death in the back of an abandoned tractor trailer in El Paso, Texas after being sneaked across the U.S. border.

"This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar people-smuggling industry that preys on migrants and causes far too many innocent deaths," Biden said in a statement from Madrid, where he was attending the NATO summit at the time.

The president promised that the U.S. would “continue to do everything possible to prevent smugglers and human traffickers from taking advantage of people trying to enter the United States." He added that, "exploiting vulnerable people for profit is shameful, as is the political grandstanding around the tragedy."

Trafficking crimes can be committed against migrants, guest workers, U.S. nationals and even children. The human trafficking industry generates an estimated $150 billion in profits, according to the International Labor Organization, as of 2014.

In 2012, the ILO estimated that as many as 21 million victims remain hostage in modern-day slavery type situations with 14.2 million being exploited for labor, 4.5 million sexually exploited and 2.2 million suffering from imposed forced labor.

Reports indicate that more than half of the world’s 215 million young workers operate in hazardous areas and are at times forced into sex and street solicitation. Some are forced into hard labor in leather tanning operations as well as mining and stone quarries.

The prosecution of human trafficking violations in the United States involve often collaboration between the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division and the department’s Civil Rights Division because forced labor triggers the Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude.

While human trafficking afflicted many, U.S. prosecutions against the perpetrators have been largely successful. The federal government has successfully pursued cases against human traffickers in agricultural fields, bars, brothels, escort services, strip clubs, sweatshops and even suburban mansions.

The government stepped up its efforts to increase both prosecution and public awareness in 2000 when it passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which resulted in a 360% increase in convictions between 2001-2007 compared to the previous 7-year period.

In 2007, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division created the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit within its Criminal Section to fast-track investigations and prosecutions to better identify criminal networks working quietly across the nation in different states and those committing transnational crimes across the borders of different countries.

From 2009 to 2011, the Justice Dept. brought an average of 24 forced labor cases each year, more than doubling the average of 11 annual cases from 2006-2008. But that number continues to accelerate in the wake of transnational criminal networks working together, such as the dangerous alliance between El Salvador’s MS-13 gang and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

With millions of migrants flocking through the Western Hemisphere toward the U.S. southwest border, more and more opportunities have arisen for criminal organizations and cartels to kidnap, coerce and enslave innocent victims.

Troubleshooting the problem

Tuesday night’s discussion was led by CCA Executive Director DaQuawn Bruce, a campaign professional who worked on the 2012 presidential campaign for President Barack Obama and has since collaborated with conservative grassroots movements to mobilize young people in hopes of improving communities, working with Congressional races and curbing gun violence throughout the United States. He has also worked with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.


ADN America Executive Editor Gelet Martinez Fragela joined the panel along with Monica Satcher, the Director of Acts of Love Ministries—an organization that offers shelter and counseling to human trafficking victims—retired police officer Corporal Alan Wilkett of Warrior 321, and Onterio Green, Lead Pastor of the Courageous Church.

Prior to that panel, Bridging Freedom President Laura Hamilton appeared with Pastors Alfred Johnson of the Faith Action Ministry Alliance, and Pastor Jayson Williams of the River and Tampa Bay Church.

In a surprise appearance, Outreach and Safe house Director Veronica Nichols joined the panel discussion midway.

“This issue spans all across minority communities, not just the Black community, but also the Brown community, and Asian communities,” Bruce said to an audience of hundreds who attended online and in person at the New Testament Worship Center in Tampa, Florida.

“It’s [human trafficking] an issue that is plaguing our country as a whole, and it’s something we have a responsibility to address and talk about. This is definitely a deep subject, and a hard subject to talk about…”

Laura Hamilton started Bridging Freedom about 10 years ago.

Her organization, which houses 12 young girls on campus and services dozens others from ages 12-18 helps those who have been victims of trafficking or suffered abuse in foster care. Her Florida based campus has been structured as a sanctuary for victims who are given free therapy, treatment and classes on life skills as part of their journey toward recovery.

“It takes many people to come together as this movement is to make a difference,” she said. It’s very disturbing what these young girls… have experienced.”

When Bruce asked what leads to human trafficking and whether all the victims realize they’ve been subjected to such crimes, Hamilton said many of the girls who are being trafficked don’t know it.

“They know what they’ve been entrapped into doesn’t feel good, but they do not recognize that this person they’ve bonded with through abuse and mental brainwashing. They care a lot for this person so that this is how a lot of the girls get into this,” she explained.

Hamilton said the traffickers usually make an attempt to form a bond that psychologically entraps the victim.

“They start developing a relationship online, through a family member or someone down the street. That person does not have a good relationship in mind for that child, and knows that they need to bond with this child, get that child to fully trust and fully care for them… and love them and understand what that child’s vulnerability is, whether it’s physical need, a place to sleep, they’re hungry, they just need a relationship… and they really capitalize on that vulnerability and that [child] will do almost anything for that person once they’re cracked…”

Hamilton said this is a dangerous stage for the victim.

“Once that child feels that crack that first time, they’ll do it a second time and be more cracked. There are some girls who are just beaten, just physically forced, and they can’t get away, they are absolutely kidnapped. It’s not as common, but it does happen.”

Hamilton said they’ve seen a “flux” of different races, and that sometimes there are more White girls, and sometimes more Black females.

“It varies, but when you see that the population is only 20% African American in our communities, its disproportionate for the number of African American girls that we are serving,” she said.

Alfred Johnson, a Pastor of the Faith Ministry Alliance said that part of the problem is the lack of education for young females at home, and emphasized the need for parents and communities to prepare their children how to be aware of such danger.

“Many of the ladies are not going to know they’re being trafficked because they weren’t trained or conditioned at home within a healthy context to be able to identify when they’re being trafficked,” he said.

“In terms of policy… what’s going on in the home is what’s going to dictate whether the young lady or young boy is going to be sensitive to the act of trafficking and have antennas up. When that structure isn’t in the home, frankly, we can expect that victimization.”

“We also know a lot of those being trafficked are coming from the foster care system or they’re runaways… and there’s an overrepresentation of Blacks involved in the foster care system because of a family breakdown. I think if we don’t dig in and push for policies that restore the family there is no answer because its broken. We need a revival, and we need families restored.”

Education and awareness for children starts at home

Bruce responded to that assertion by raising questions about how to deal with families and parents that may be negligent about educating and protecting their children.

“On the topic of the family, in the context of where I come from, many people often talk about, you know, where are the parents, where are the guardians of these people? he asked.

“Many of these individuals do come from foster care or maybe a broken family context,” he explained, “but in your experience what type of policies can we discuss… that talks about this in the context in the family? Should families be penalized… prosecuted if they allow this kind of thing to happen?”

Pastor Johnson said that legislation may help but was not a bulletproof method of effectuating change. He pointed to the danger of the government decriminalizing laws as a means of reporting the crime rate has dropped, and added that the Tampa Bay area was one of the highest in the country for trafficking.

“This is right in our backyard, it’s a serious thing,” he said.

Hamilton then stressed the need for educating children, and said that despite some schools being mandated to do so, some parents had contested discussion on the topic.

“Our schools are mandated now to provide curriculum [on human trafficking]… but it’s not really where it needs to be in the system… and if you’ve got one trafficker out there and they’ve got a hundred fishing lines out there, and they’re working all those lines to develop relationships with the girls, and [children] don’t understand that, they’re going to keep falling victim.

“We can start clubs within the schools. Children are going to listen to teens a lot faster than if I go into the school system and give them a pamphlet and tell them about the dangers. We’ve got to inspire youth to watch out for each other… if your friend is now doing these things, you’ve got to step up and help them realize this is a danger, this is a red flag.”

When Bruce asked what the signs are of children being abused or trafficked, the panel invited audience member Veronica Nichols, who works as a safe house and outreach director to help women impregnated as trafficking victims, to join them on stage.

“Some of the signs would be if there are changes in their behavior,” she said. That could be for someone who is normally outgoing, and all of a sudden they stop talking, and also, if they have attendance issues as well…

“If they get unexplained gifts and you don’t know that would be a telltale sign as well… these predators, they’re grooming them, they’re finding out what these kids like… they’re giving them gifts as well… and if they’re shy and suddenly they’re outgoing then that would be an indicator as well.”

She added that some statistics say the overwhelming majority of studies say that most sexual abuse is by a person who the victim is familiar with.

“Sometimes family members are grooming them… so they don’t self-identify as being trafficked. They think they’re willingly doing these things [and that] someone is just asking them for a favor.”

Hamilton interceded and added that, “if they begin to speak about adult things they didn’t speak about before, words they use [they didn’t use before]…” [these changes could be a sign of trafficking].

She then added that “developing that core relationship is a must. Parents have to know what they’re children are doing online. It’s hard to keep up, but you have to make that a priority.”

Debt bondage and forced labor in the Hispanic and Asian communities

In the second part of the discussion, a new panel tackled how human smuggling can tragically lead to the result of human trafficking.

ADN Executive Editor and Cuban political refugee Gelet Martinez Fragela said her first encounter with human trafficking was when you she was covering a story in South Florida in her twenties.

“I was covering a story about a marijuana house in South Florida where there was illegal growing, and I realized the family there was taking care and guarding this house with marijuana was actually a family of migrants who had been brought to the U.S. by their own relatives,” Fragela told the audience. “In a form of ‘debt bondage’ they had to repay them by working at this place.

Fragela said some statistics assert that 60% of forced labor cases affect Hispanics and that if cases involving family members and close friends are not uncommon.

“It’s not only with illegal immigrants,” Fragela said. “We also have an issue in our communities with legal migrants. The H2-A visa [for temporary agricultural workers] that the U.S. government is giving to farm workers…

“It’s no secret that the Mexican work force largely sustains the agricultural industry here. But in many cases those farm workers who come here with a temporary visa are reporting to the national human trafficking hotline that they are victims of labor trafficking.”

Fragela recalled a campaign she worked on about human trafficking and said it was important to respect the victims as the experts on the issue.

“Even if we learn the signs, if we don’t know the story, and we’re not close to those people, sometimes we can be prejudiced, sometimes we can be biased and really not identify the issue correctly. So, I think it’s the responsibility of the media not to over sensationalize the story, not to re-exploit survivors, and treat them with respect, raise their voices and hear their stories and really bring awareness into their communities.”

Forty percent of sex trafficking victims were identified as Hispanic females, the largest single group, according to a 2022 survey report published by the Urban Institute.

In another form of forced labor for professionals, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar called upon the U.S. to investigate forced labor human trafficking facilitated by Cuba’s communist regime in the leasing of its medical doctors for low wages to Mexico.

The military dictatorship is notoriously known for forcing its medical professionals into forced labor throughout the world, often earning only 10% of the amount they are contracted out for. Those who try to escape their indentured servitude often face exile, criminal punishment and in some cases, imprisonment.

Monica Satcher, Director of Acts of Love Ministries, an organization that offers shelter and counseling to human trafficking victims, said that such debt bondage cases are common with the forced labor if imported Asian female trained to work in sexualized massage parlors in the U.S.

“I was recently on a trip to Thailand… and you see that everywhere in Thailand,” Bruce said of the parlors. “But how prevalent is that here for trafficking in the U.S.?”

“Well, in 2017, Polaris did a report and at the time there were over 9,000 massage business [operating as] brothels where people would go to pay for sex acts—and at that time there were 8,222 Starbucks,” Satcher explained.

“So, just to give you an idea, how many times do you see a Starbucks? There’s one and a quarter massage parlors for every free standing Starbucks you see and so it is very prevalent. They are very good at hiding it… but they’re brought over here, and they’re conditioned. I’ve learned with the Asian [community], they’re not drug addicts… they have just been conditioned that this is normal, but they’re miserable, they’re hurting.

“We’ve had a lot of women talk to us about their pain, night terrors, things like that, but they don’t appear as drug addicts… as an American would be who was trafficked here.”

Satcher said that in her experience, many Asian women brought to the U.S. are brought over by family and are sent to “ reconditioning camps,” some of which she’s heard are run out of New York.

“They’ll be completely different when they come back,” she said of the conditioning camps.

“We think of the movies with kidnappings, but one of my dear friends was trafficked by her neighbor and she had a very involved mom. She picked her up at the bus stop at 3:30, she was only allowed to go so far in her yard, but there was a man who moved in the neighborhood and he trafficked all the children.”

Satcher said for three years the girl, who was only eight years old when the abuse began was conditioned to fabricate lies and sneak in and out of windows to see the trafficker.

Satcher said if someone is a victim they should call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Human Trafficking Hotline and also the police.

“I suggest calling the center and the police because you may not have an officer who’s trained and could just sweep it under the rug,” she said. “Just do it all,” she said. “They’ll figure it out.”

The four stages of human trafficking

Corporal Alan Wilkett of Warrior 321 said there are four stages to human trafficking—recruiting, grooming, trafficking where the money is made—where the buying and selling of a human being takes place whether it’s labor or sex—and then the immersion, in which someone is in the trafficking lifestyle long enough they become part of the very criminal enterprise that victimized them.

“In our world of working this on the street, they would be known as the bottom. So you have a stable and you have a bottom, but the bottom is actually the top. They do a lot of the scheduling, the grooming and recruiting, and you have immersion, you have those four stages, that’s cyclical… you have to know what stage you’re in.”

Wilkett said law enforcement have specific target points they search for and detect when trying to assess if someone is an actual trafficking victim.

The things we look for are control, so we can talk about document control, controlling someone’s time, movement, we talk about branding… tattoos that show ownership [on the victim by the trafficker], but now we’re seeing ‘soft branding’ through the form of a necklace or bracelet so they don’t have to mark the body.”

Wilkett said that while traffickers will sometimes let their victims use social media as part of their operations, they are required to also use the controller’s hashtag so they can monitor everything they are saying.

“What we look for is… when someone can’t speak for themselves, move for themselves, think for themselves or present for themselves then you probably have a trafficking case,” he said.

The media’s coverage of human trafficking

Bruce asked Fragela what the media can do to elevate this important issue, and she said that many of the cultural traits of human trafficking such as branding are unknown to the public.

“We don’t realize how often its happening in our own backyards,” Fragela explained. “I also think the issue has become very political and has been weaponized. In 2016, when I worked on a [human trafficking] campaign, the issue was human trafficking on both sides of the border, between Mexico, Central America and the U.S., but now a lot of people, especially those who call for open borders downplay the issue of immigration, and you don’t see it widely represented and accurately represented in the news because of political ideology.

“I do think as journalists and those of us in the media, we all respect human dignity and care about what victims are going through, and what survivors are going through, and it doesn’t matter what our political stand is in terms of migration, in terms of any kind of ideology. We need to increase the visibility of these stories because I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Bruce then asked Fragela whether the lack of coverage perpetuates the problem.

“Well, I do think when we are not aware of what’s happening around us, we lose possibilities of really addressing the issue,” she said. “I also think when we misportray the issue we are losing track of how to solve it and really put pressure on government officials and our politicians to take clear steps.

Fragela said many victims have been forced into cycles of criminality and said there needs to be an honest conversation about whether there should be a “pathway” for amnesty for those victims who have been coerced into criminality.

She then pointed to the  Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which resulted in a 360% increase in convictions between 2001-2007 compared to the previous 7-year period, saying that proved “certain policies and certain changes in the law do bring change in our communities and I think civil society and journalists need to work closely with law enforcement.”

Pastor Johnson education on this issue is critical as a means to enhancing prevention.

“We believe that educating children at this level is what will prevent a lot of the outcomes we’ll be speaking about today,” he said.

"Human trafficking is among the most heinous crimes the FBI encounters," Director Christopher Wray said in a statement last year. "Unfortunately, such crimes — against both adults and children — are far more common than most people realize."

If you or someone you know is the victim of human trafficking call your local police department or contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.