ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida’s interstates are seeing a rise in human trafficking and smuggling, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
“I think we’re seeing it a lot more because we’re looking for it a lot more,” said one FHP trooper who works undercover as part of the agency’s Criminal Interdiction Unit.
He said he intercepted a case of human smuggling in Orlando after an educated hunch told him and his partners to pull over a van off Colonial Drive.
“We had a van from Texas bringing about 12 undocumented individuals into the county. They ranged from 12 years old up to adults,” he said. “They were being brought into Florida by an individual getting paid by whomever he works for to bring them into Florida.”
He did not know the reason they were being brought into the state.
He said more cases are flowing into the region via the same interstate highways that fuel Central Florida’s tourist economy.
News 6 obtained a list of cases from FHP headquarters in Tallahassee showing how many suspected cases of human trafficking and smuggling troopers have experienced over the last five years.
It showed they have intercepted 126 incidents around the state, half of them along I-75 – the longest stretch of interstate east of the Mississippi River.
Columbia County saw the most pullovers for suspected trafficking and smuggling, followed by Alachua County and Sumter County.
Sumter County saw seven incidents within the last four months alone.
Many drivers with Texas license plates were pulled over for having windows with a tint that exceeded Florida standards.
Inside, troopers said they discovered immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras – all of them suspected of being smuggled to South Florida, possibly for work.
“It’s definitely growing with more population, more construction and more jobs,” said the undercover trooper.
“There’s a (worker) shortage like never before, so we believe it’s going to get worse,” said Tomas Lares, founder of the group United Abolitionists, a group that works to combat human trafficking in Central Florida.
He said he fears that worker shortage could result in more people being brought into Florida to work as slave labor.
“Now the work is not maybe what they thought it was, the pay is not what they thought it was, they actually have to pay for rent and transportation and food and water. So, they even end up being in debt, which is debt bondage,” he said.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is getting involved to help get results.
Part of the agency’s plan to combat human trafficking includes funding to create human trafficking task forces, which will work alongside local law enforcement agencies.
It also provides funding for training and awareness.