When people are in trouble, many turn to church.
It’s an outlet, a savior, a way to gain strength. They talk to pastors, clergymen, other church members.
And hopefully, officials say, they’ll talk to the law.
People such as Lt. Bill Rule and Sgt. J.D. Loethen are targeting churches as a way to find human trafficking victims and their perpetrators.
Rule, the head of Collier County’s anti-trafficking unit, and Loethen, who oversees the unit for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, spend countless hours visiting churches to explain what human trafficking is and how it can be stopped.
Both hope the victims will confide in someone at the church and then, eventually, to someone like Rule or Loethen.
“The religious community has a big part to play in this,” Rule said of human trafficking education. “One of the first groups they reach out to are the religious leaders.“
Law enforcement has found that some traffickers allow their victims to attend church once a week. For many, it’s the only time they’re allowed out of the house.
But with church comes rules. Some traffickers use church as a tool to get things they want. If they don’t abide by the rules, they’re not allowed to worship in church. It’s another form of control, Rule said.
“It’s like, ‘I’ll let you do this little bit.’ Or, ‘Behave, and you’ll be able to go to church every Sunday,’” he said.
Loethen said the Lee County unit relies heavily on the Roman Catholic churches in that county. His unit focuses on Hispanics and victims from Central or South America. People from that area, Loethen said, and are very religious.
Though human trafficking includes every race, in Collier County it’s the Hispanic population that’s most at risk. Hispanics tend to be devoted to Christianity, which is why Rule hopes the victims are worshipping in public.
Pastor Martin Espinoza has been in the United States for 25 years. All of that time he has served as a pastor in Collier County.
In all of that time he had never heard of human trafficking.
He was familiar with what it involved: slavery, beating, in some cases nonconsensual sex. But he never knew what it was called. Until recently.
Local trafficking experts spoke last year to the congregation of 120 at Inglesia Penetcostal Peniel in North Naples, where Espinoza serves as a pastor. He said what he heard surprised him.
“People are being sold for money. People are being abused. It opened up eyes for the (congregation),” Espinoza said. “We’re going to try and help the community. We want to try to stop that.“
“We have gone out and spoken to most all churches in the Bonita area as to how to educate their clergy,” Loethen said. “They have a large impact from both the identification of victims to providing support and special needs that the victims might require.“
- 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
Espinoza said his job is to preach the Gospel, but if someone approaches him because he or she is a victim of trafficking or because someone suspects there is a victim in his church, he would go to the local authorities.
People living outside America will do just about anything to get to the United States, he said. Many come illegally and they suffer during the trip and, sometimes, after. Oftentimes they borrow money to get to America and if the money isn’t paid back in full their family members in their homeland would be the ones to suffer.
“They try to get money right away to the family so they’ll stay safe," Espinoza said. “They are able to support their family from here, that’s why they do it. But they work and worry. When they want to cover, they take a lot of risk on the trip. They want a better life."
The World Relief organization has five sites across the United States devoted to human trafficking. And all target churches as a way to spread the word of how to eye a victim.
World Relief sent 200 letters to churches in the Tampa Bay area letting them know about human trafficking and that they might be worshipping with a victim.
Nancy Gray, affiliate director for World Relief based in New Port Richey in western Florida, said most victims arrive and leave church quickly.
Sometimes the traffickers sit with them. The victims don’t socialize and, if they have an interpreter, that person insists on responding all of the time.
“The only time the woman has any privacy is in the bathroom stall,” Gray said. “We’re talking children as young as 9 years old.“
Victims are used as sex slaves or domestic slaves. The domestic slaves are more difficult to find because they’re kept indoors most of the time. The sex slaves are sometimes treated at hospitals for bruises, cuts or pregnancies. If the victims are willing to come forward about their situations, they can be saved, Gray said.
The problem is, some victims don’t realize that the way they’re treated isn’t normal. The situation in America may be better than what it was like in their homeland so they won’t talk for fear they’ll get sent back home.
“A lot of them fear for their lives,” she said.
The human trafficking office in the Tampa Bay area gets at least one call a week from someone who knows of a possible human trafficking victim.
She said some of those calls are from Collier and Lee counties.
Gray wouldn’t release the number of human trafficking victims World Relief has helped save because of privacy issues.
Whatever that number is, she said she hopes to increase it day by day as she continues to get the word out to as many churches as possible.
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. The Lord will take care of the trafficker, but if we’re not going to rescue someone who is being held a prisoner, then we’re doing something wrong,” Gray said. “Set the captives free. That’s the messages to the churches. Set the captives free."