Lee trafficking cases a recent chapter in county’s history

Modern-day slavery cases reach Southwest Florida

Before there was a task force, there was a girl.

Thirteen years old and pregnant for the second time, she flickered onto the radar of hospitals, social service agencies and law enforcement.

Just two years ago, there were no deputies or police officers trained to cull information out of the reluctant and terrified girl from Guatemala. The people assigned to help her didn’t know the questions to ask.

No one knew to call it human trafficking.

Even so, she was here, a child in Lee County who authorities say by that time had already been enslaved and emancipated — a victim waiting for a crime to be recognized.

Her case is just one discovered where experts believe countless more may be hidden. They are mixed among a diverse population that flocks to fill the county’s abundance of service industry jobs.

In a silent, faceless work force, they are men toiling not under their own will but because of threats from another; women lured through lies to America, where they are forced to earn their living on their backs, and young girls like the one authorities say is Lee County’s most significant trafficking victim.

Sold by her parents into a sexual relationship in her native Guatemala, the teen and her child now are wards of the state.

Fernando Pascual, the North Fort Myers man accused of buying and brutalizing her, sits in the Lee County Jail. He, his sister and brother-in-law all face federal human trafficking charges.

Authorities say what happened to the girl is beyond a simple case of smuggling a child over the U.S. border and that it went even beyond the stomach-turning crimes of molestation and rape.

Promised a better life in America, then held in a Cape Coral home against her will, she was forced to perform sex acts and toil as a domestic laborer. She was a virtual slave.

Arrests have been made in that case, but in the months since it came to light, a potent combination of law enforcement and community members have mobilized to address the issue of human trafficking in Lee County.

According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, there are numerous active trafficking investigations under way.

Each day, deputies investigate leads that take them into farm fields, businesses and brothels, looking for victims they are sure are there.

“They’re there somewhere,” said Southwest Florida trafficking expert and victim advocate Anna Rodriguez.

“We just have to find them.”

Old problem, new location

There are many tips now, but they will multiply all winter, when a crush of cheap labor is needed in the area to accommodate the season, Rodriguez predicted.

Florida is an attractive destination for traffickers because of its diverse population and plentiful jobs, experts say. Forced laborers could do landscaping or work in stores and hotels, all under the eye of a trafficker duping them and their employers, she said.

The cases have surfaced before, primarily in Collier County, and until recently, that’s where resources to address trafficking were centered.

Chief Assistant U.S Attorney Doug Molloy said his Fort Myers office has been prosecuting human trafficking, also called modern-day slavery, since 1999.

“It’s always difficult to discover slavery because slaves don’t report themselves,” Molloy said. “This is a new, evolving movement.”

The definitions remain tricky. Victims are most often from other countries, but sometimes our own. They are women, men and children. The key, experts say, is whether they are transported and held or forced to work against their will.

The more people who learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking, the more cases will emerge, Molloy said.

That’s the philosophy behind a movement that has been gaining force since the spring in Lee County, where community members and law enforcement professionals are being told about trafficking and being trained to recognize its signs.

It started not with the Lee County sheriff or in Molloy’s office, but with the Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva, a group of women in a service club.

Beginnings

Nola Theiss, former mayor of Sanibel and Zonta member, said the local members of the organization first heard about trafficking from its national chapter in late 2004. After finding out Florida ranks high among states with trafficking victims, the women called two people: Rodriguez and incoming Lee Sheriff Mike Scott.

GRAPHIC: Slavery in the States

Photo by Chad Yoder

GRAPHIC: Slavery in the States

A self-described “pushy broad,” Theiss quickly convinced Scott, by his own account, that trafficking deserved close examination in Lee County. He committed several deputies to go through a human trafficking training class organized at Florida Gulf Coast University and facilitated by Rodriguez.

Scott also offered Sheriff’s Office meeting space for the first gatherings of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida.

Theiss serves as its chairwoman.

The group reaches out to trafficking victims and acts as a liaison between law enforcement agencies and social service providers working to address human trafficking. It is active not only in Lee County but in smaller, neighboring communities without the resources to form similar efforts, Theiss said.

The same training that began fueling the coalition also took root in the Sheriff’s Office, where the beginnings of a human trafficking unit were stirring.

“It was one of those strange occurrences of synergy,” she said. “Everyone saw the need at the same time.”

More than just abstract cases were driving the effort, though.

First indications

In March, sheriff’s deputies called to investigate a report of prostitution stumbled on something more.

The trailer they were called to behind a business along Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs was being monitored by video cameras. Buzzers opened the door.

Inside, wooden walls carved out five bedrooms. Drapes were in the doorways. Condoms were on the nightstands.

Two women inside told the deputies they worked as prostitutes, according to sheriff’s reports. One said she had not been allowed to leave since she arrived the day before.

Doors to the common area and bedrooms had locks on their exteriors so people inside could not leave, according to reports.

Investigators suspected trafficking.

According to a sworn statement given by one of the prostitutes, a man named Mexico had locked her in the house and told her she had to stay. Through a translator, the 31-year-old told investigators she had been brought to the trailer by a woman in order to sleep with men. Each client paid $20.

“These people were supposed to give them $20,” a transcript of the translated interview reads. “That’s per john. They’re supposed to give the guy $20. Uh, they only told her at the end of the week, (what) she would get on Sunday — she would only get $350.”

“So you would get paid $350 a week?” a detective asked. “Uh-huh,” she replied.

Authorities charged the couple who owned the business in front of the trailer with operating a house of prostitution, but the accusations didn’t stick. The women told deputies they did not know the man and woman.

The seed had been planted, though.

By the time the Sheriff’s Office’s second suspected trafficking case came along just a month later, they were ready.

Detectives already were being trained to see that what sometimes seemed like prostitution could really be trafficking. A full-time unit of three deputies was formed to exclusively monitor human trafficking activity.

Brothels are currently at the center of the county’s efforts to stop the crime.

Sex traded for $21

On Aug. 14, a Fort Myers house was raided in a case Molloy said had “overtones” of human trafficking.

Two prostitutes there said they were servicing migrant workers and laborers for $21. Half the cash went to them, half to the house and $1 went toward a condom the men were obligated to buy and wear, they told investigators, according to an affidavit in the case.

The women said they were there of their own free will.

Cases like that bolster beliefs of those who think the local fight against human trafficking is being overblown.

Some 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 might not really be victims.

One prime example is the case of a Fort Myers couple jailed for human trafficking, said Supervising Assistant Federal Public Defender Martin DerOvanesian, who is dubbed inside the federal court system as the anti-Molloy.

Maria Goretti Sica Ajanel, 23, and her husband, Hilario Ajanel Sica, 23, each were sentenced in August to 10 months in federal prison for smuggling her sisters here. The case began after a confidential informant told an FBI agent that she had been smuggled into the country from Guatemala and forced to work in sweatshop-style conditions in the couple’s home where they prepared meals for migrant workers in Lee County.

Jumping on a purported slave-trafficking case, investigators later learned the “victim” actually was a rival in the Latino food business and wanted to knock out a competitor, defense lawyers said. With more than six months behind bars already, they should be released for deportation hearings in a few months.

“They reached the point where even they (prosecutors) were embarrassed to proceed with that (prosecution),” DerOvanesian said. “There are a lot of things that if you look at this this way, it’s human trafficking.”

DerOvanesian said he’s not sure human trafficking is a swelling problem in Southwest Florida or that actual human trafficking victims exist here.

Others, like Rodriguez, have no doubts.

They’ve seen trafficking victims firsthand, they say.

Rodriguez said it is common for those who have been exploited not to admit what is happening to them or even for them not to realize they are victims of a crime.

They often come from impoverished countries, hoping for a job as a waitress or a maid that will allow them to send money home, experts in human trafficking say.

When they cross the border with the aid of a coyote, a person they pay to get them to America, the women find they must work off the money they owe from their journey as prostitutes.

They service migrant workers and laborers. Many such men have families they are supporting, Rodriguez said, but others are single, creating a market for the brothels.

The women are kept isolated and moved around regularly to keep them from forming ties to people who would help them, Rodriguez said.

The brothels move too, she said. Their locations are spread by workers through word of mouth or through notes scribbled down in Spanish on a piece of paper, Rodriguez said.

Translated, they read “fresh meat,” she said.

The women are kept silent either by force or by threats and intimidation, Rodriguez said.

“These are very smart people,” she said of the traffickers. “(Victims) are really kept under a close eye.”

Those who are trafficked into the country often don’t speak English, experts say. Often they are told they will be deported if they try to reach out for help, or even be killed, not by their traffickers, but by the police.

So when Cape Coral police first looked into a report that a 13-year-old girl had given birth, the teen didn’t ask police for help.

Forced silence

According to a police report of the case, which was investigated by that department as a sexual assault, she waited a year before giving a statement.

Angelo Bitsis, spokesman for the Cape Coral Police Department, said nothing initially indicated human trafficking had taken place. The girl referred to Fernando Pascual as her husband, he said.

According to the affidavit, filed by FBI agent Jim Roncinske, the teen later told authorities she had met Pascual, who was her stepfather’s chauffeur in Guatemala, when he was 19.

She was 10.

A year later, Pascual paid her family 2,000 quetzal, or roughly $263. A series of rapes followed, first in Guatemala, then later in Cape Coral, where the two lived after trying to cross the border four times before one last, successful crossing, according to the affidavit.

She had already given birth once by that time, according to the document, to a stillborn child after Pascual struck her during her pregnancy.

In Cape Coral, they lived with his sister. He ran a landscaping business; the girl was forced to rise at 4 a.m. to cook and clean, according to the affidavit.

She wasn’t allowed to leave.

“(She said) that every Sunday she was left alone in the home while Pascual and his family went to the flea market,” the affidavit reads. “(She said) that she was placed in a bedroom and that the bedroom door was locked before the family left. (She said) there was a board over the window so she could not get out through the window. (She said) she was not allowed to use nor did she have access to any telephone.

“(She said) that Fernando Pascual told her that if she attempted to leave, he would call the police and the police would kill her.”

Her duties didn’t end with the kitchen. She had to sleep with Pascual daily.

The girl told investigators Fernando Pascual also allowed his brother, Mario Pascual, to rape her in exchange for forgiveness on a debt.

Eventually, she became pregnant for a second time.

Beaten by Fernando Pascual during that pregnancy as well, she sought help from a neighbor, who rushed her to the hospital, according to the affidavit. There she gave birth to a boy.

Pascual signed the birth certificate.

First case

It would be more than a year until she would speak to Cape Coral investigators, but it wasn’t them who recognized her story as human trafficking, according to those familiar with the case.

Rodriguez said that break happened at the first meeting of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida, held in April. A social service provider who had contact with the girl approached Rodriguez after the meeting.

“She said, ‘I think I have something that sounds like what you are saying,’” Rodriguez said.

A month later, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office made its first trafficking arrest.

The deputies who handled the case make up the Sheriff’s Office’s trafficking unit, which continues to grow. Headed by Sgt. J.D. Loethen, the deputies have been steadily working on trafficking cases.

Scott said it may be hard for the public to see why human trafficking suddenly seems to be a focus of attention. Some, he said, might not understand why his office is devoting resources to a relatively new problem, the scope of which everyone involved admits remains unknown.

At one point gangs were new, he said. Drugs like crack cocaine weren’t seen as something that was a problem in Lee County, he added.

“There are people out there right now who believe trafficking is a bunch of crap,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think human trafficking is a whim or a fad. I believe it is real.”

Building cases takes time. Loethen said the team is working 12- and 13-hour days trying to rescue victims and educate people about the problem of trafficking.

Even so, the harrowing cases they investigate do not always result in an arrest for Lee County.

Approached by the FBI this summer, the Sheriff’s Office trafficking team began working on the case of a 22-year-old Guatemalan woman, a victim of what Loethen termed “a smuggling gone bad.”

Her final destination was Lee County. Her family arranged for her to come here, but once she reached Florida, the people holding her wanted more money and tried to exploit the family, he said.

The price of the extortion: $3,000.

The Sheriff’s Office began talking to a coyote in Guatemala, Loethen said. Deputies prepared to pay the ransom and return the woman to her family. Before the exchange could happen, another agency ended up making the arrest.

Loethen said his team wouldn’t have wanted it another way.

The woman had been raped and brutalized, he said. One more day would have meant a Lee County arrest, he said, but it also would have been hours more in harm’s way.

“It’s not about who goes to the media with the front-page story,” he said.

The team is about the victims, he said — the ones who are already safe and the ones who have yet to be found.

Staff writer Kristen Zambo contributed to this report.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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