Stolen for sex: Investigators working to stop human trafficking epidemic

South Florida leads nation in human trafficking cases

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI - South Florida is an international destination, but investigators said it's also home to one of the largest human trafficking epidemics in the nation.

Local 10 News went along with investigators working to curb the problem and spoke exclusively with women who said they were lured to South Florida and then commercially exploited for sex.

"I met this man, he told me how nice life could be," Sasha Harris told Local 10 investigator Amy Viteri. "A lot of promises and a lot of lies."

Investigators said the booming tourism and sex entertainment industries create a perfect storm for human trafficking.

When Local 10 rode along with Miami police Cmdr. Jose Alfonso, just down the block from popular downtown nightclubs, officers saw women selling sex on North Miami Avenue at Northeast 11th Street.

According to Alfonso, there is a fine line between prostitution and sex trafficking.

"The vast majority are going to deny that they're being commercially sexually exploited by anyone," he said.

Local 10 cameras were recording as young women got into a man's car.

Police followed and eventually stopped the car in downtown Miami on busy Biscayne Boulevard. At first, the women told police the man driving was just showing them around. Minutes later, they said the man picked them up for sex and showed sex paraphernalia in their bags.

Alfonso said many women are too afraid to ask for help.

Two women, who agreed to be interviewed, said manipulation is another powerful tool.

"This is the only thing right now because my life is already stripped away," one of the women said. "You done stripped my family away from me. I have nowhere to go now."

Another girl, who asked not to be identified, said she was given false promises of a better life.

"I thought I was supposed to come make my life better," she said. "That's what they told me."

That girl told Alfonso she met a man online who convinced her to come to Miami. Once there, she said he would beat her if she didn't earn $1,000 a day.

She said she managed to get away for a week before, but was afraid for her life and didn't know anyone in South Florida.

"If you want us to go back and look at this guy for exploiting you, we'll be willing to do that," Alfonso told the girl.

In order to charge someone with trafficking, investigators have to prove force, fraud or coercion -- unless the crime involves children.

In January 2015, Alfonso, working as part of the Miami Dade County state attorney’s office human trafficking task force, helped arrest Agustin Santana.

Santana was charged with selling sex with a 15-year-old girl whose parents reported her missing. He posted her picture in ads on Backpage.com in the Cutler Bay area, investigators said, earning $1,000 a day off her.

Police said these cases are just snapshots of a much bigger problem, one that can be hard to see.

"Sometimes girls are scared," Harris said, "So what you guys are doing, that's good."

The human trafficking task force said it has closed 268 human trafficking cases, many involving minors. Presently, there are 25 open cases involving underage victims.  

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Do you have a story that you want Amy to investigate? Email her at aviteri@local10.com.

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