BROOKSVILLE, FLORIDA — On Thursday, law enforcement officers from Citrus, Pasco, Sumter and Hernando counties joined Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez and the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) for a roundtable discussion on the importance of tracking down human traffickers and holding them accountable for their crimes.
“Governor DeSantis and I are committed to doing everything we can to end human trafficking in Florida,” said Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez. “Today, we heard from our law enforcement partners about their efforts to hold these perpetrators accountable. I am proud that our administration has exposed these vicious crimes and criminals for what they are.”
INCREASED SMUGGLING AND TRAFFICKING
In December, state troopers pulled over a Kia Sedona with an out-of-state license tag just north of Gainesville. According to Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast, the ten people crammed into the vehicle were likely headed to Florida for a life of constant work and potential physical and mental abuse.
“That’s modern-day slavery occurring right here in the United States of America,” Sheriff Prendergast told officers.
The problem is growing as more illegal aliens enter Florida looking for work and shelter. Counties that are primarily rural and nowhere near the coast or state lines are experiencing an uptick in cases. “It is a huge issue,” said Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
Last year in May, seven migrants were found near Brooksville. In April, twenty people, forced to ride in the back of a Ford F-350, were rescued near Tampa. In recent months, 15 human smuggling arrests were made in the Tampa Bay area.
“Florida is a destination state for a lot of these people coming here looking for work, looking to resettle,” FHP Sergeant Steve Gaskins said. “We see a lot of this on our highways in the Tampa Bay area for sure.”
Human trafficking often involves drug trafficking as well. Recent investigations by state prosecutors reveal that illegal aliens are increasingly transporting drugs, including deadly fentanyl, into the state. Sheriff Al Nienhuis says law enforcement needs to be more aggressive in early detection.
“When dealing with human trafficking, especially in this context, there are two types of people involved. First are heartless criminals who care about nothing but furthering their criminal enterprises,” said Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. “Second are those who are taken advantage of by those same criminals, often used to further all aspects of their criminal organizations.”
TOP LAW ENFORCEMENT PRIORITY
In 2022, at the direction of Governor DeSantis, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and FHP’s Criminal Interdiction Unit (CIU) joined forces to create a human trafficking and drug smuggling strike force. The goal of the strike force is to catch criminals along major roadways in Florida. To date, the strike force made 206 arrests on felony charges related to human trafficking, human smuggling and drug smuggling.
“Stamping out human trafficking and drug trafficking in Florida is a top priority of FDLE and our law enforcement partners throughout the state,” said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass. “Let me put would-be traffickers on notice: if you commit these crimes in our state, we will seek you out and bring you down.”
TRUCKERS TO THE RESCUE
The Highway Heroes initiative – a collaboration between Attorney General Ashley Moody, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and FHP – aims to train Florida’s 500,000 licensed commercial drivers on how to identify and report suspected human trafficking.
According to Moody, Florida’s commercial drivers are uniquely positioned to make a difference and close loopholes that traffickers use to transport victims. Since the launch of the initiative in 2020, more than 6,500 licensed commercial drivers, transportation employees and FHP members have been trained by Truckers Against Trafficking.
The Online Safety Toolkit is available in English and Spanish.
To learn more about how to spot and report human trafficking, visit YouCanStopHT.com.