MIAMI – Miami's sex and tourism industry are part of the reason why federal investigators have said it attracts human trafficking to South Florida. But one of the main challenges, they said, is the fact that criminals don't operate within state lines.
"We have all the ingredients for a disastrous form of trafficking," said Carmen Pino, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security.
He showed Local 10 News investigative reporter Amy Viteri evidence photos of cash and playing cards used as tokens for sex and condoms concealed inside air freshener cans from human trafficking busts in South Florida.
Federal data ranks Miami in the top three cities for trafficking. That statistic came as no surprise to Dr. Katariina Rosenblatt, an author and advocate for sex exploitation survivors. That's because she is one.
"For me, it was a nightmare," she said, "It wasn't a fantasy. I was kidnapped and drugged and left for dead."
Rosenblatt said she was just 14 years old when a supposed friend lured her into a sex trafficking ring. That all happened in Miami-Dade County, but federal investigators said it goes well beyond this area.
"We're talking about global organized crime," Pino said. "This is something that transcends borders, it transcends states."
Pino pointed to a federal bust in 2013 of a human trafficking ring that spanned Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas as a good example of the problem.
But he said the problem is also a local one. In December, Miami-Dade police arrested two women on human trafficking charges, and were looking for a third male suspect they said approached a woman at the Rodeway Inn in northwest Miami-Dade and offered work doing his friends' hair.
Once inside the room, police said the man threatened to kill the woman and forced her to take the drug MDMA or "Molly," even after she said she was pregnant. The group then put an ad online and made the woman have sex with several men as they collected cash.
"Yes, our own children are vulnerable," Pino said. "Our own people are vulnerable."
Trafficking cases often depend on the testimony of survivors. But investigators said many are too traumatized to speak out, so they find another way to take them off the street.
"Whatever charge we can bring against them to stop them and disrupt and dismantle that organization, we're going to do it," Pino said.
Those convictions, Rosenblatt said, are an important step forward for survivors.
"They don't have to carry this burden of the past with them everywhere they go," she said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said their enforcement numbers have risen dramatically in the past few years. In 2014, they had 828 convictions, compared to just 381 in 2012.