Human trafficking is a blight that must be eradicated

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The presidential proclamation serves, in part, to remind us that 150 years after our nation abolished the practice of legally enslaving others, the cruel practice exists today in the form of forced labor and sex trafficking.

This modern-day form of slavery continues in our own back yard in South Florida. In an effort to combat this problem, in 2007, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Florida’s Southern District created a specialized section to handle these cases. Since then, our office has achieved remarkable success working with federal and state agencies to increase the number and impact of human-trafficking prosecutions: More than 50 cases and 89 offenders have faced federal charges since the unit was created.

The South Florida Human Trafficking and Minor Vice task forces have also done great work to raise public awareness and rescue victims. Still, the most vulnerable among us continue to be robbed of their dignity and opportunity for a better life. This is clearly demonstrated by some of our recent prosecutions involving victims who have been forced into prostitution and workers who have seen their hopes for a better life destroyed.

Among the offenders are Christopher Andrew Terry and Jennifer Rivera who, after sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in New York, drove the victim to Miami and coerced her to prostitute herself. The teenager was rescued by law enforcement. Terry and Rivera were convicted and sentenced to 292 months and 235 months in prison, respectively.

Another offender, Rashad Clark, picked up a 14-year-old female in West Palm Beach and took her to a motel, where he had sex with the minor, then began prostituting her. The 14-year-old, a runaway, was rescued from a motel room in West Palm Beach. Clark pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 136 months in prison.

Tedric Jameil Chin, who prostituted two young girls, 13 and 17, in Broward County was also prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. At times, Chin hid under the bed while the girls engaged in sexual activity with customers. Chin was convicted and is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 13.

Children are not the only victims of human trafficking in South Florida. Just a few months ago, Mackenley Desir and Genet Rembert were convicted for prostituting two women, using threats and violence.

One of the victims described how Desir and Rembert locked her in a room, drugged her, sold her body and beat her. Desir was sentenced to life in prison, and Rembert was sentenced to 15 years.

Last month, the leader of a prostitution ring that operated in Australia, Dubai and Miami was charged. The case will soon be set for trial.

We also have many workers in South Florida who are vulnerable to exploitation. Sophia Manuel and Alfonso Baldonado, Jr., two owners of Quality Staffing Services Corp., a labor contracting service, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 78 months and 51 months in prison, respectively, for conspiring to hold 39 Filipino nationals in forced labor to work in country clubs and hotels in the West Palm Beach area.

The defendants lied to the victims, who incurred exorbitant debts to pay recruitment fees. The defendants compelled the victims’ labor in South Florida by threatening to have them arrested and deported, knowing that the workers faced serious economic harm and possible incarceration for nonpayment of debts in the Philippines.

The exploitation of vulnerable victims must stop. Human trafficking is unacceptable in any civilized society. While I am proud of the progress we’ve made in recent years, there is more work to be done. But we cannot do it alone. We need South Floridians’ continued help. To report suspected human trafficking call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Together, we can build on the progress we’ve made and eradicate this blight of human suffering and involuntary servitude.

Wifredo A. Ferrer is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

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