PHOTOS: Warming relations: CCSO passes out coffee, human trafficking info to farmworkers

Nothing beats a hot cup-of-Joe on cold breezy morning.

That unexpected surprise greeted farmworkers Monday, while waiting outside of La Fiesta Supermarket in Immokalee to catch a bus to fields.

“It’s a friendly way of getting them to warm up to us a little bit,” said Collier County Sheriff’s Lt. Rene Gonzales.

In honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Day, members of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Bureau, Minority and Ethnic Affairs Bureau, and Immokalee District 8 set up shop outside the market at 5 a.m. to pass out hot coffee and information to prevent human trafficking.

The annual observance is intended to raise public awareness about human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery.

And on one of the coldest mornings Immokalee has had, with temperatures in the high 20s, the gesture was welcomed by those standing out in the cold.

“Well, I think it’s great that they’ve come and given us such a gift, because right now many people are without breakfast, without work and without money,” said Antonio Santos Cruz, 54, after getting the info package and a cup of coffee.

By the time the event came to a close at 6:30 a.m. roughly 400 people had swung by the Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Section trailer, to pick up packets with information on spotting human trafficking, book bags, shirts, cup holders and contact information fliers.

Gonzales said it’s the small things that can make a difference, when it comes to reaching out to a sector of the community that is usually invisible.

“I want to foster a working relationship with the community, especially with the Hispanic community,” said Gonzales. “I know a lot of times they see things. A lot of them are victims and they don’t report anything because they are afraid of their (legal) status.”

The Sheriff’s Office recently distributed posters around Immokalee as part of a new initiative aimed at reaching potential trafficking victims, which include migrant and seasonal farmworkers, said Marisol Schloendorn, a victim advocate with Collier’s Human Trafficking Bureau.

The posters, which are in Spanish, outline actual situations a person may experience, such as forced labor to pay off a trafficking debt.

It was a message near and dear to farmworker Praccedes Salas, who attended the event before heading to the fields.

“I was a victim,” said Salas, 45, a native of the Mexican state of Chiapas. “They (the Human Trafficking Unit) gave me a hand and rescued me from all of that.”

He has now taken it upon himself to spread the word through Immokalee’s farmworker community that if someone sees a crime, such as a boss not paying people or if someone is caught up in human slavery, they can call the Collier Sheriff’s Office without fear.

Connect with Elysa Batista at www.naplesnews.com/staff/elysa_batista

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