Weeks before the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay’s Human Trafficking Task Force conducted multiple undercover operations aimed at nabbing sex traffickers and rescuing their victims.
FBI agents working with Tampa Police, St. Petersburg Police and Homeland Security officers set up in rooms and staked out local hotels. There they spent hours combing hundreds of sex ads looking for indications that the women and teens were being sold for sex.
“The focus is entirely looking for indicators of human trafficking and trying to recover those victims,” Tampa Police Detective Tony Aguiar said.
Florida ranks third in the country when it comes to women and children being sold for sex. It’s a crime that takes place here in Tampa Bay year-round but spikes during big sporting events like the Super Bowl.
Tampa Assistant Police Chief Lee Bercaw says traffickers traveled to Tampa and advertised their victims online then sold them.
“It brings in tourists, and that, in turn, is going to bring in traffickers and bring in victims,” Bercaw said.
Once officers set up “dates” with the women advertised, an agent stationed outside the building watches who drops the women off. The women walk into the hotel room expecting a customer but find an undercover officer instead. Each woman is brought to a police district office where a victims’ advocate talks to them to determine if they are a trafficking victim or engaged in prostitution.
“It is still challenging for us, the investigators, because sometimes we don’t know who we are talking to,” Bercaw said.
Just one hour into this operation, officers rescued a 20-year-old who they say had been badly beaten in the past and arrested her suspected trafficker. Detectives found a loaded handgun in his vehicle.
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.