Unlike a homicide investigation where detectives may have a body and just need to solve the whodunit, the process of unearthing human trafficking rings often is more complex and insidious.
First, detectives need to find the victims. And sometimes, they need to track down someone to talk with them - a person fluent in an obscure language, and another capable of making potential victims comfortable enough to speak about often shocking and inhumane treatment.
But one of the real challenges to uncovering and preventing such trafficking is Americans ourselves.
Most aren’t aware of the extent of human trafficking or that it’s really a problem, said Doug Molloy, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Southwest Florida.
“It’s so foreign a concept,” he said. “Most Americans do not believe slavery exists in our society and do not believe it is a problem."
Victims also are reluctant to come forward, due in no small part to a fear of police and deportation, experts say.
“This is a rare type of crime where the victim will not self-report," said Steven Wagner, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Trafficking in Persons program.
They may be afraid of retribution against their families by their captors, or of being stranded alone in a foreign land, Molloy said.
They may fear that their captors will hurt them if they tell someone of their plight, or be scared to speak honestly with community members and police who may suspect the crime.
Another threat made to victims - those here illegally - is if they tell, police will throw them in jail, Wagner said. Then they face deportation.
Lee County sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Loethen, a member of Lee’s human trafficking task force, said victims they encounter frequently are afraid of police. A young woman who works in a brothel may be reluctant or frightened to tell a male officer her story. So the team uses Hispanic female employees to talk with them.
The female interpreters, trained to recognize victims of trafficking, know what law enforcement officers look for in an interview, Loethen said. And they also realize how a victim of human trafficking may try to skirt the issue, he added.
Nola Theiss, co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida, said trafficking victims often are threatened and coached. They may even lie to law enforcement or others who question them about trafficking.
“With sex slaves there is a ‘softening period,’” Molloy said. “They are beaten and raped by their slavers. What they have gone through is horrific. It’s all to give them a sense of hopelessness. After that softening period, you don’t have to use force. All you have to be told is, ‘If you complain, who’s gonna miss you? If you disappear, who will know?’ You don’t have to have barbed wire to keep people in."
That’s due to intimidation, Theiss said.
“She might say ‘no’ because she’s been told to say that, or because the person who is holding her captive is standing right there,” she said.
Even out of the presence of captors, or when talking to victim advocates and police, they won’t say they are victims.
- PODCAST: Hear Naples Daily News reporter Janine Zeitlin and photographer David Ahntholz discuss their experience in Guatemala covering human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear a woman discuss her experience as a victim of human trafficking
- AUDIO: Hear José Antonio discuss his experiences with trafficking in the United States
- PHOTO GALLERY: Human trafficking
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Feb. 1, 2006: PDF | JPG
- RELATED: Barriers numerous in detecting slavery victims (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Leading authorities (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Message to the region's churches: 'Set captives free' (02-01-06)
- RELATED: Casting light in the darkness (02-01-06)
- ON THE WEB: Read more stories in the four-day series on human trafficking in Southwest Florida
“The victims are being told: ‘There is nobody here who cares about you. You are not going to be helped,’” Molloy said. “They feel there’s nothing they can do.“
Human trafficking expert Anna Rodriguez, based in Collier County, said it can take months before victims are ready to speak up against the person exploiting them. Traffickers keep a close eye on their victims, she said, and limit their exposure to those who may help them escape.
The covert nature of trafficking in illegal immigrants poses some especially frustrating problems for investigators. Traffickers who run brothels frequently move the women, never giving them enough time to learn which city they are in or to form bonds with anyone who might help.
Workers on farms or performing other types of manual labor receive false identification and can be threatened to prevent them from speaking out.
Trafficking victims confined as domestic laborers can prove difficult to detect. A woman kept against her will by a man may lie and call him her husband, as did a teenage victim of trafficking discovered by the Lee Sheriff’s Office last year, investigators say. According to records in that case, when authorities first learned of her situation two years ago, she declined to give them information about the man she later would say raped, impregnated and beat her.
To some victims, the concept of freedom - and of ever achieving it themselves - is so foreign that they don’t know they have the right to liberty in America, according to a report by the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
“For people forced into servitude, sex work and other forms of exploitation, life outside the control of an owner may appear impossible or unrealistic,” the report said. “A lifetime spent as a slave may foster a world view in which the victim sees exploitation as part of his or her unfortunate but inevitable station in life. The exploited person may even identify the trafficker as a caretaker.“
But another barrier to detecting and prosecuting human trafficking crimes are false cries of abuse, Supervising Assistant Federal Public Defender Martin DerOvanesian said.
Some cases may initially appear to fit the bill of a human trafficking offense, but witnesses and even alleged victims may not be as forthright as needed - and not really be victims.
DerOvanesian said he’s not even sure that human trafficking is a swelling problem in Southwest Florida, or that actual human trafficking victims exist here.
“If the Justice Department had an abominable snowman department with an abominable snowman task force, they would find abominable snowmen in North Naples,” DerOvanesian said.