Interview victims in domestic, battery or prostitution cases several times. They may have been coached to fabricate a story.
Trust no one.
Those who traffic in people often offer to assist local police - who may have few Spanish-speaking officers - in translating.
These are tips that could save a life.
Collier and Lee county authorities offer their advice to those new to the complex crime of human trafficking. As it has infiltrated Southwest Florida, agencies and advocates from both counties have fanned out in force to preach what they’ve learned.
“If I made a mistake, by all means learn by it,” said Lt. Bill Rule, head of the Collier Sheriff’s Office trafficking unit during a training session where he highlighted shades of trafficking he missed as a deputy.
“I do that so people will realize there are cases out there and what to look for,” he said in explaining his approach to teaching others.
When Cape Coral police met a scared 13-year-old Guatemalan girl in 2003 who already had given birth to her second child, she didn’t tell them about the man she later said bought and raped her and kept her hidden in Southwest Florida.
She called him her husband.
The department investigated the case as a sexual battery. Authorities now say it was human trafficking.
Two years ago, neither the Cape Coral Police Department nor the Lee County Sheriff’s Office had been trained to recognize the crime. But in 2005, just months after several Lee Sheriff’s Office deputies attended a seminar on recognizing the signs of trafficking, they found their first case in the girl.
Working closely with the FBI and Collier-based trafficking expert Anna Rodriguez, the Lee Sheriff’s Office established the unit and plans a future one-hour training to brief the hundreds of other deputies in the agency.
“We realized the need to train ourselves,” said Lee Sheriff’s Office Sgt. J.D. Loethen, who heads up the agency’s three-person trafficking unit.
Rodriguez, who founded and heads the Golden Gate-based Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, formerly worked as victims’ advocate for the Collier Sheriff’s Office. She was instrumental in gaining victims’ trust in early trafficking cases and is often called to assist in victim interviews throughout Florida.
During a four-day trip in October, she and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office unit, along with other local authorities, flew to Guatemala, where the teen girl’s case sparked interest in starting educational and outreach efforts there.
Rodriguez said the group met with the president of Congress and 15 of its members, who sought feedback on Guatemala’s proposed human trafficking law. Government officials asked for help on law enforcement training there, she said.
She hopes to extend training to countries like Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The Collier Sheriff’s Office trafficking unit made a journey in July, a five-day trip to the Dominican Republic.
The team, which since has become vocal in the anti-trafficking movement, has in past months traveled around the state to teach others to spot the crime.
- 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
Because of the Collier Sheriff’s Office role in some of the earliest trafficking cases in Florida, Rule has developed training for law enforcers on how to identify cases and interview victims.
In the past year, the unit has trained 645 law enforcement and government officials in 20 training sessions, Rule said.
His agency was among 18 in the country to net money from the U.S. Department of Justice anti-trafficking grant program in December 2004, winning $424,927 to train other law enforcers, nonprofit groups and community members in the region to spot trafficking.
Lt. Jon Maines, who decides the training schedule for Naples police, said April training with the Collier Sheriff’s Office was the first on the topic for the city’s 70-plus member force.
He said the agency hasn’t had a case yet.
“We just have to keep our eyes and ears open,” he said.
Some agencies in Southwest Florida are looking to others for aid should a trafficking case emerge.
Shelly Flynn, spokeswoman for the Fort Myers Police Department, said its officers have not undergone training to spot trafficking victims. If a case emerged that appeared to have signs of that crime, investigators would contact Loethen’s unit at the Sheriff’s Office, she said.
Marco Island Police Chief Roger Reinke said investigators would call the Collier Sheriff’s Office if they come across a case. They’ve had internal trafficking training but haven’t been taught by an outside agency, he said.
“It’s not our top priority. We have not seen any evidence of human trafficking on Marco Island,” he said.
Federal prosecutors and victims’ advocates say Marco hotels and restaurants - many of which employ international workers - could be a breeding ground for forced labor. They keep a close eye on the tourism industry there.
Reinke said he talks to workers and has never found any evidence of trafficking.
Others want to rely on their own.
The Cape Coral Police Department, which first came into contact with the Guatemalan girl, made plans to brief 186 of its officers on trafficking issues by the end of 2005, agency spokesman Angelo Bitsis said.
Investigators in 2003 saw no signs of trafficking in the girl’s case, Bitsis said. The girl refused to talk to investigators for a year after she gave birth to a child fathered by her accused captor, he said. She was repeatedly brought to police before she told her story in 2004.
An investigation that led to trafficking charges, however, began only after a social service provider who had contact with the girl approached Rodriguez at a meeting of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida.
Community groups and social service providers are often the first to make contact with victims, say authorities, who are working to train them on how to spot victims.
Mike Leigh’s ears perked when he heard the reasons why a Hispanic man in his 40s was missing the 6:45 p.m. roll call at St. Matthew’s House in July. Leigh, program director at the East Naples homeless shelter and soup kitchen, said the man missed Bible studies and other programs too.
The man told Leigh he was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a Bonita Springs bridal shop and delivering dresses. His pay: $200 a week. “I tried to explain to him this was not a real good deal but he was very happy,” said Leigh, who learned more about human trafficking through the Collier County Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Leigh didn’t know enough about trafficking at the time to ask more questions. He now does. The man left the shelter before Leigh could find out more or contact authorities.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services recommends asking some of these questions if you suspect you’ve come across a trafficking victim:
• Can you leave your job if you want to?
• Can you come and go as you please?
• Have you or your family been threatened?
• Do you have to ask permission to eat/sleep/go to the bathroom?
The Collier Sheriff’s Office recently distributed fliers to the shelter so residents are aware they may be vulnerable to trafficking. Authorities also look to community groups for expertise in rooting out victims.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a 3,000-member farmworkers rights group, became the ground force in fighting trafficking in Florida’s tomato and citrus industries.
Staff members developed an arsenal of techniques to uncover trafficking in Florida’s tomato and citrus industries years before the term made its way into law enforcers’ vocabulary. In some cases, group members went undercover.
Laura Germino, the group’s anti-slavery campaign coordinator, estimates the Coalition has investigated and assisted in federal officials in seven slavery cases since 1997, including pending cases.
The Coalition has hosted training for FBI supervisors in Orlando, FBI field agents in Miami and at the FBI training academy in Virginia and two for U.S. Department of Justice officials.
During the past three years, the group has also trained law enforcers, federal and state prosecutors and social service providers throughout the country in sessions ranging from a half-day to two days.
“A community organization like ours is going to know a lot about a certain world - in our case, migrant farmworkers. The FBI, on the other hand, have to be generalists, and therefore, can learn a lot from ... community organizations who are knowledgeable in a specific area,” said Germino, a founding Coalition staff member who leads training.
“Such collaboration works as long as people can overcome bureaucratic barriers and stereotypes on both sides."
The initiative to start the Lee County coalition against trafficking began with a women’s service organization, the Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva. The group is now heavily involved in local anti-trafficking efforts.
Its members, too, have been trained in how to spot signs on trafficking, said Nola Theiss, who is both a Zonta member and co-chairwoman of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida.
Zonta members now speak to similar organizations in Lee County about how to identify signs of trafficking, which Theiss describes as a hidden crime.
Just because the public doesn’t immediately recognize trafficking in their area doesn’t mean it isn’t there, she stressed.
“I know there are drugs in this community, but because I have nothing to do with drugs I don’t see them,” she said.