Busts Show Improved Response To Sex Trafficking

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The arrest of 21 people following a two-year investigation into a Central Florida sex-trafficking and drug ring shows an improved response to forced prostitution, say the state’s top prosecutors.

The wide-ranging investigation brought about the rescue of eight trafficking victims, including a juvenile, and yielded “large amounts of cannabis, cash, cocaine and heroin, as well as several stolen weapons,” according to Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.

Speaking in Orlando, Bondi, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation Director Joseph Cocchiarella praised the complex, multi-agency investigation, which included the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Florida Highway Patrol and local law-enforcement agencies.

They also said the traffickers had forced their victims to perform paid sex acts through a combination of violence and drug addiction.

“There’s a marriage between drugs, dealing drugs, human trafficking and addicting these women to heroin, to cocaine, to various drugs to get them to perform multiple, multiple sex acts every day,” Bondi said.

Cocchiarella said the victims had endured a series of beatings and were “strung out on heroin, cocaine and pharmaceuticals.” Asked if they had been held against their will, Cocchiarella replied that they were dependent on drugs throughout the day, “and if you have to have it or you go into a heroin sickness, that is just as bad as being held in a cage. There’s no difference.”

Nick Cox, head of the Office of Statewide Prosecution, compared the victims’ state to that of hostages suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome” — in which victims develop positive feelings for their captors.

“People don’t understand the grip” traffickers have on their victims through threats and drugs, Cox said. “They’re not leaving (because of) fear. They’re not leaving because they’re high.”

Bondi said that as the investigation proceeds, she expects to see the criminal charges changed several times, likely dropping charges against victims and “adding more defendants to the list.”

The approach of the law-enforcement officers who collaborated on the arrests shows that the state has come a long way in responding to human trafficking, said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, whose jurisdiction sees some of the highest levels of trafficking in the nation.

“It means they understand the dynamics of this crime,” she said. “It took us three and a half years to get here, but I think we have a really good model for the rest of the country.”

As a result of what’s called “the trauma bond” between a trafficking victim and a pimp, Fernandez Rundle said, sex-trafficking cases tend to be difficult and complex. Due to their involvement in illegal drugs and prostitution, the victims may not be easily identified as victims, at least at first.

Fernandez Rundle said in her own jurisdiction, she often starts out by charging victims who have committed crimes such as drug possession or prostitution — and holds them at least long enough to stabilize them in a safe environment. The victims often face beatings from their pimps for having lost a night’s income after being arrested, she said — and thus are unlikely to cooperate with police.

The News Service of Florida’s Margie Mendel contributed to this report.

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