They live in shacks without electricity, running water, sometimes no food. They want a new life. A better one.
And they hear they can have it in America.
So these people - men, women and sometimes children - trust in one of their own; a person in their culture, who speaks the same language, worships the same god, someone with connections. He's a sort of guide who promises he will make their dreams come true.
These people leave with their guide and cross the border, but, suddenly, America isn't what they thought it would be. They are victims of human trafficking. And they were unknowingly tricked into it by someone of their own race.
This is common, human trafficking experts say. Traffickers mostly prey on people of their own culture because the victims are often here illegally, don't speak English and don't know their rights.
"The person who enslaves you is someone you trust. Your own countryman.
Sometimes it's friends or relatives," said Doug Molloy, chief U.S.
assistant attorney in Fort Myers, who has worked six or seven human trafficking cases in the past five to six years. "These are people of privilege who look down on the people they enslave. They consider them as less than people."
Human trafficking can occur with any race. It's also a problem with the homeless population and runaway children.
But authorities often find that the ethnic groups with the highest population numbers in a specific region are reflected in the trafficking cases they investigate. For example, Collier and Lee counties have a growing population of Guatemalans, and authorities are seeing more smuggling and trafficking cases coming from the Central American country.
In North Florida, a lot of European women are being brought in, and in Miami, Russian women are being used as slaves.
"Human trafficking is a nice way of saying slavery," said Lt. Bill Rule, head of Collier County's anti-trafficking unit. "It does exist. People just don't know about it."
For example, some Haitian families in the United States house restaveks, (rest-ah-vics), which is a French word that means "to stay with."
It's a form of child domestic slavery, said Stephanie Delma, who works for Dwa Fanm, a Haitian women's rights group in New York.
In Haiti, a poor family sometimes gives its child to a middle-class family with the hope the child will have a better life. Normally, the child works without pay, but the middle-class family promises to feed the child and provide him or her an education. Sometimes though, the child is treated as a slave and isn't allowed to attend school or leave the house. The child turns into a domestic servant.
Delma, whose group concentrates on the New York area, said restavek children can be as young as 6 and that 85 percent of them are female.
- 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)
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Jan. 31, 2006: PDF | JPG
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Naples Daily News for Jan. 30, 2006: PDF | JPG
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Jan. 30, 2006: PDF | JPG
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Naples Daily News for Jan. 29, 2006: PDF | JPG
- FRONT PAGE: View the front page of the Bonita Daily News for Jan. 29, 2006: PDF | JPG
- ON THE WEB: Read more stories in the four-day series on human trafficking in Southwest Florida
She said her group is encountering problems with elderly restaveks, those who come from Haiti intending to spend the last years of their life in a safer place. They're turned into slaves and are sometimes too weak, and too scared, to seek help.
Southwest Florida Haitian activist Nesly Loute said that restavek children are common in Haiti and even acceptable there because of the widespread poverty. Most Haitians live off as little as $1 a day and more than 80 percent of the population is unemployed.
Rule said that on Florida's east coast, a Haitian girl was held captive for three years as a domestic servant. Domestic servants are difficult to find because they're less likely to leave the house.
Unlike sex trafficking victims.
Those can be spotted in businesses such as strip clubs, restaurants and nail salons, where victims are being funneled by members of their own families.
Traffickers know the economic desperation the victims come from; know how to tap into the American dream to persuade victims to leave the familiar boundaries of their countries for a place where they don't know the language, customs or law.
"They see all of our movies. They wear our jeans," said Terry Coonan, executive director of Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, referring to immigrants who could be vulnerable to trafficking in other countries.
"You see a place like Naples and it's exactly what the American dream looks like to people who grew up in a poor shanty town in South America."
Traffickers in past Florida cases have used female relatives dressed nicely and decked in jewelry to encourage families in their native countries to allow their daughters to leave with the promise of work as waitresses, nannies or maids. The girls didn't know they would be trapped as prostitutes or domestic slaves once they arrived in the United States.
In a late-1990s sex trafficking case, four brothers, one of their wives, their mother and two uncles in the Cadena-Sosa family recruited victims in small towns in Veracruz, Mexico, where the extended family had roots, a 2003 FSU trafficking report said.
The report, put out by Coonan and the Center for Advancement of Human Rights, gives this account:
The mother and wife of one of the Cadena-Sosa brothers visited young girls and their parents in Mexico and told them the family needed waitresses to work in their Florida restaurant or nannies for the brothers' children in the United States. They told them the girls could earn $400 a week.
The Cadena-Sosa family ran brothels in South Carolina and several spots in Florida - including Fort Myers - earning an estimated $2.5 million in two years.
Dozens of Mexican girls as young as 14 were trafficked to the United States by the family.
The brothels were set up near migrant camps in trailers with stations separated by sheets. They catered to clients who were illegal and who the traffickers thought wouldn't likely call the police.
Girls were shuttled between the brothels about every two weeks and never knew exactly where they were. Held at gunpoint, they were watched at all times and forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day. Federal officials raided six of the brothels in 1997 and seven people pleaded guilty to charges connected to the slavery ring.
Leonardo Garcia, executive director of the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn't aware of the problem locally until he was approached months ago by the Collier County Sheriff's Office.
He knew of smuggling, but not of trafficking.
The Sheriff's Office talked to the Hispanic Chamber about the increasing problem, especially in the Hispanic community, and then asked for help.
Garcia said Chamber members are working closely with trafficking experts in Lee and Collier counties to educate the community about the slavery issue.
"It's hard to find. People don't know it's a crime," Garcia said. "The more educated we get, the more cases we will hear about."