Out of the Shadows

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MAGGIE JACOBS WAS BEATEN, drugged and raped for nearly five days before the 18-year-old’s captors forced her to work as a prostitute at Vegas Showgirls strip club in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“There is a certain way that pimps know how to beat people,” which Jacobs graphically described to Freedom. “I could see the devil in them. They looked at me the way you look at a cockroach you are about to kill. They saw me as insignificant. I fought them. I fought them hard. But the harder I fought, the worse the repercussions were.”

Jacobs and three young women held with her were victims of human trafficking, a crime that feeds not only the sex trade but also the labor force, providing workers that support some of the country’s largest tourist-trade corporations.

“Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes we investigate,” said Susan McCormick, special agent in charge at Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office in Tampa. “It is modern-day slavery, and this problem is vast.”

The April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria reminded the world of the realities of trafficking when the leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram boldly proclaimed, “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market.” The plan was to broker the girls to militants for $12 each. It took an international outcry to expose the crime and lead Nigerian military officials to track the militants.

As typical as it is for most Americans to think of trafficking as something that happens “over there,” if they think about it at all, it is firmly a U.S. problem as well. A 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service found that as many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, and up to 100,000 children who are U.S. citizens become victims inside the country.

The investigation by Freedom into human trafficking in America—crime that touches every region and state—focused on Florida, where the problem is acute because of several factors. The state has many ports of entry, vast coastlines, and huge tourism and agricultural industries needing low-wage workers. The U.S. Department of Justice views Florida as a trafficking hot spot, funding five human trafficking task forces. Only California and Texas have more.

Many victims are foreigners, but a significant number, like Jacobs, are American citizens. “A lot of people think human trafficking involves only foreign people,” said Giselle Rodriguez, a victims’ advocate with the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “But we’re seeing a lot of American children and adults who are being exploited.”

While many are lured to the state with promises of white sandy beaches, jobs at luxury hotels, visits to Disney World and easy access to Caribbean destinations, many potential victims do not have to be lured. They already live in Florida.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that Florida has more than 740,000 illegal immigrants, surpassed only by California and Texas. Florida ranks second to North Carolina in the number of visas for agricultural workers requested since 2012, an analysis by Freedom found, and is second only to Texas in requests for nonagricultural workers since 2000.

Those population groups are prime targets for traffickers.