There is a pervasive evil that has infiltrated our communities. It is an evil so vile that it deprives our society’s most vulnerable of their freedom, independence, and dreams.
This evil is human trafficking. It targets helpless individuals during their most desperate moments by breaking their spirit and instilling fear and shame. It is also a scourge that preys on our youth, robbing them of their childhood innocence and stripping them of their dignity. Tragically, the public is often unaware of its existence allowing it to thrive globally and creep into our nation’s backyard.
Human trafficking is the second-largest illicit industry and is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, earning exploiters upwards of $150 billion. Over 20 million victims are coerced into unthinkable situations that range from prostitution to drug addiction to forced labor.
With all eyes this weekend on Miami for Super Bowl LIV, this crime occurring “in the shadows” is all too real. Sporting events of this magnitude often come with an uptick in trafficking activity and a subsequent increase in arrests. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 169 perpetrators were arrested as part of an FBI Operation into sex trafficking ahead of the 2019 Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
Florida has so much to offer. Beautiful beaches and bustling nightlife make our state a mecca for visitors from every corner of the globe. Unfortunately, alongside the glitz and glamour comes an ugly underworld of human trafficking.
The Sunshine State ranks number 3 in calls to the national hotline. South Florida is the third-busiest region for human trafficking, as recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ reports the average age of most first time victims of human trafficking range between 12 and 14. And because of location and multiple major interstate highways, international seaports and airports, Miami and Tampa are leading in trafficking incidences.
But now, for the first time ever, the Super Bowl has partnered with state and local agencies to launch a public awareness campaign to shed light on a crime that has lurked in the dark for decades. And the only way for darkness to cease to exist is to be exposed to light. Thus, awareness must be at the forefront of eradicating human trafficking once and for all. And with increasing awareness, each day more and more victims of trafficking are breaking free from the bonds of this treacherous evil.
Take Christa Hicks for example. Raised by a drug-addicted mother, Christa, herself, was a victim of rape at the young age of 13 and found herself living on the streets during her teen years. Desperate for someone to provide solace, she fell prey to a man that would exploit her and hold her against her will for several years. She endured sexual exploitation, numerous rapes and became addicted to drugs. After being arrested and incarcerated, she participated in a life-changing program called Faith Farm.
Today, Hicks has risen out of the grips of poverty, sex trafficking, and drug addiction, to aid victims just like her. She is a certified clinical trauma professional and the Executive Director of Anti-Trafficking at One More Child, a nonprofit division of the Lakeland-based Florida Baptist Children’s Homes. Hicks and so many recovering victims epitomize strength, resilience, healing, and hope.
Florida has chosen to face this demon head-on. From supporting survivors with essential services to additional training of law enforcement and medical personnel, the state continues to push forward in its battle against trafficking in support of Christa and countless others who share her story.
Additionally, our state has engaged in valuable private sector partnerships, such as the Truckers Association, The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and UBER in order to focus on dealing with this issue in a multi-faceted manner.
The Sunshine State is also working with the Department of Health to ensure staff has the training and resources to identify and screen victims in order to get them the help they need. And furthermore, a child trafficking prevention education curriculum has been adopted in grades K-12 on prevention and awareness in a developmentally appropriate manner. All these efforts are examples of Florida’s leadership on this issue.
On Sunday, when the smoke clears, the Lombardi trophy has been awarded, the message will reverberate— Florida is closed for business as it relates to human trafficking and we will not rest until we eradicate this evil from our communities because human beings are not for sale.
Jeanette Nuñez is the first Hispanic woman Lieutenant Governor of the State of Florida, and a former Representative of the Florida House. She serves on the Statewide Human Trafficking Council and is a member of the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force for Super Bowl LIV