Central Florida a Focus of Battle Against Human Trafficking

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ORLANDO, Florida – A judicial district in Central Florida is second in the number of child sexual-exploitation and slavery cases in the United States.

“The problem in Central Florida is serious,” Michael Masto, Deputy Special Agent in Charge of the investigation of child slavery and trafficking cases at the Tampa office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Efe.

The agent has launched 540 investigations to date in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Last year 39,000 children were reported missing in Florida, an average of 100 minors a day, according to Joyce Dawley, Orlando regional director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Federal, state and local agencies are carrying out raids and investigations to hunt down individuals involved in the distribution, reception and possession of child pornography, as well as in the enslavement and exploitation of minors.

One of the most recent cases was the arrest on May 23 in Osceola County of 18-year-old Jonathan Padilla during an undercover operation that began with a search on the Internet and ended at a motel in Kissimmee, where the suspect had taken a girl of 14, reported missing in Tampa, to make her a prostitute.

“No crime is more terrible than trafficking children to force them into prostitution,” Masto said.

With 70 cases tried during fiscal year 2010, the Middle District of Florida, which includes Tampa, Orlando, Ocala, Jacksonville and Fort Myers, is among the worst in the nation for youngsters.

“That district is second in the number of cases (of child pornography, predators and trafficking minors for prostitution) of all the districts in the country,” U.S. Attorney Robert E. O’Neill told Efe.

“Charges in these cases range from conspiracy to transporting minors across state lines for purposes of prostitution and include the production, distribution, reception and possession of pornography,” he said.

And sexual exploitation isn’t the only danger. Youngsters also risk being abducted to perform slave labor, according to Giselle Rodriguez of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

“A great deal of emphasis is given to sexual exploitation, but slave labor is also a serious problem for minors in Florida,” Rodriguez said.

A recent example is the case of Sophia Manuel and Alfonso Maldonado Jr., owners of Quality Staffing Services Corporation, who last December were sentenced to jail for keeping 39 Filipinos, some as young as 14, working in clubs and hotels in southwest Florida, according to the Justice Department.

ICE carried out 625 investigations into the exploitation of minors during fiscal year 2010, resulting in 300 arrests, 151 indictments and 144 convictions, spokesperson Danielle Bennett told Efe. In one of those cases, 36-year-old Mexican national Amador Cortes-Meza, head of a people-trafficking organization between the United States and Mexico, has just been sentenced to 40 years behind bars for the abuse and the sexual enslavement of minors in Georgia, she said.

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