It was 2003, and Angelina Spencer was doing field research on prostitution when she was a graduate student at George Washington University. Her research took her to the Blue Marlin Club in Costa Rica, interviewing prostitutes as to why they started doing that kind of work. But something else happened there that changed her attitude and gave her an entirely different focus. She noticed orphans on the streets, high on glue. As her driver drove through a tough area that looked like a war zone, Spencer spotted a little girl hiding in the shadows and stopped to speak with her. Emilia, just 10 years old, was a street orphan. She had dirty hair and tattered clothing. And she was a prostitute. When Spencer speaks about Emilia, it’s still an emotional experience for her. She wanted to rescue Emilia, to bring her to America, to help her survive. But her driver pointed out that it was impossible to do that. He said that the pimps were powerful and would get back at Spencer, and children like Emilia were everywhere. She couldn’t do anything about Emilia except leave her there.
Recently Spencer returned from a trip to Russia, another country that has too much human trafficking. “Many girls are getting trafficked in and out of Moscow,” Spencer said, “and it’s also happening in Costa Rica. Force, fraud and coercion–that is human trafficking. It’s the third largest criminal activity in the world.” Spencer explained the different types of human trafficking:
2. Domestic help
4. Harvesting and selling human organs
5. Child soldiers
“It occurs anywhere and everywhere; it occurs in Collier County—in high schools, Port Royal, Immokalee, everywhere,” reported Spencer. “The top two cities in Florida for human trafficking are Miami and Tampa, even though Florida has good, strong laws about human trafficking.”
Spencer talked about pimping, manipulation and exploitation. Pimps look for the weakest links. They frequently search social media sites, visit foster homes, schools, malls, sporting events. The “Romeo Pimp” makes false promises, saying, “I’m your boyfriend. I’ll do anything for you, and you need to do anything for me.” Pimps can get the girls addicted to alcohol and drugs, then make them the victims, make them prostitute for more drugs or alcohol. They threaten them, they use mind games, and they abuse them. It’s common for pimps to “brand” their girls with tattoos on their necks or arms. The Stockholm Syndrome is real, explained Spencer. The victims will do anything to protect their traffickers because they have learned to identify with them.
In labor exploitation, people are made to work in agriculture, construction, the service industries, in manufacturing in sweatshops. The pimps get them hooked on alcohol, Spencer reported, then charge them high prices for it. The victims never can get ahead of their charges.
Spencer talked about a recent discovery of a shelter employee taking 14- to 16-year-old girls to Miami at night and prostituting them. Others take girls from Miami to Tampa at night and have them back by morning.
Spencer now works with law enforcement as well as focusing on advocacy and education. She reported that Collier County has excellent human trafficking resources. “Our law enforcement works very hard to combat human trafficking,” Spencer said. “We all work together. Rescuing human trafficking victims is a process. They need help to get out of it.”
Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, who attended the luncheon, is helping, according to Spencer. “Hiller is trying to raise awareness in our community. Collier County is one of the only communities with Law Enforcement Anti-Human Trafficking Units. Florida ranks third in the U.S. with laws to combat human trafficking, but we also rank third in the U.S. for human trafficking crimes. “Why is that?” Spencer asked.
“It’s a lucrative trade,” said Spencer. “Some pimps make more than $200,000 a year, while their victims often sleep in crowded conditions on filthy mattresses, and might be given $20 or less a day.”
One of the NPC members asked, “What can we, as citizens, do to help?” “Help raise public awareness,” Spencer answered. “Pay attention. If something doesn’t look right, report it. If we don’t expect it, we don’t realize it when we see it. Become better informed. Observe social behavior. Ask questions. Be curious. Be aware—if you see something, have the courage to make a call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888. Leave this luncheon today and talk about what you have learned about human trafficking; start a conversation.”