Law enforcement leaders from five Southwest Florida counties have announced a shared goal: Creating a task force that will combat human trafficking in the region.
Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties comprise the 20th Judicial Circuit, presided by State Attorney Amira Fox.
Fox compared creating the new team to the Narcotics Enforcement Task Force — known by its acronym NETFORCE — in late 2019 to coordinate a circuit-wide approach and resources to dismantle organized crime, narcotics, racketeering and criminal enterprises in the five counties.
“They really don’t stay in one place when it comes to human trafficking,” Fox said. “They are moving these victims around.”
During a Thursday groundbreaking ceremony in Naples, Fox said perpetrators are selling victims out of hotel rooms and apartment complexes, among others.
“They’re traveling to different jurisdictions, and what we have here is one big information-sharing entity that will now cross over through all those jurisdictions and chase those people, investigate them, arrest them and get them to the system.”
Fox said the comparison to NETFORCE comes because “traffickers oftentimes control their victims through the use of narcotics.”
“Everything fits together in the criminal justice system, so that’s why I think it’s really going to make a difference,” Fox said.
Fox explained that often victims don’t report the crimes due to the trauma they’ve experienced.
“They’re sometimes highly drug addicted,” Fox said of the victims. “And it takes sometimes years to come forward, if they haven’t died.”
Fox said added challenges come when victims have to face their perpetrators in a courtroom.
“The victim has to sit in a room with the defendant during a trial, point to that person and say, ‘That’s the person who did this to me,'” Fox said.
Fox said that leads to other complications in the process to justice.
“We as prosecutors and investigators have to make very difficult decisions sometimes,” Fox said. “It makes some of these cases very difficult to prosecute.”
Bryan Weight, chief operations officer at Operation Light Shine, said he wants to focus on helping local law enforcement nationwide combat human trafficking.
“I left the corporate space to know that what I’m doing every day is making a difference and that we’re making an impact,” Weight said.
Operation Light Shine, which operates out of Nashville, Tennessee, created the Inter-agency Child Exploitation And Persons Trafficking Task Force, known by its acronym INTERCEPT, effort in 2021.
Weight said they now have five task forces nationwide — Southwest Florida; Northwest Florida, in Jacksonville; Frederick, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee. He said funding is tied to the effort’s national expansion.
However, Weight clarified Southwest Florida is their “official” third location after Nashville and Jacksonville.
He noted they “haven’t quite launched” the Richmond, Virginia or Frederick, Maryland franchises yet.
“Our goal is to have one in every state, if not multiple in each state,” Weight said.
Weight said that since they first launched they haven’t heard directly from older victims.
“What we have heard is from older victims that have been an issue in this case, or even law enforcement agencies that have fought this for years,” Weight said.
Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said the effort to bring such a task force to fruition locally had been ongoing “for the better part of the year.”
Rambosk said the digital era and the challenges that link that to human trafficking were among the factors that led to the creation of the task force in Southwest Florida.
“A lot of this has to do with victimizing children, making videos or photographs, then distributing them around the world,” Rambosk said. “Our goal is to get back, to find the victim and save them.”
Rambosk said the local effort began with a “soft start,” which includes 25 arrests across the five-county region in recent months.
“Many [were] felony-level cases,” Rambosk said. “Some [were] horrific cases.”
Rambosk pointed out that the problem extends beyond borders.
“We see a lot more videos and pictures coming in from outside of actually the United States into the United States … into the state of Florida … into Collier County,” Rambosk said.
Rambosk explained the benefit of being part of a task force is they can investigate more cases together, bringing them to resolution and arresting the perpetrators. He expressed his commitment to human trafficking for the last 10 years.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office has had a child exploitation and human trafficking team for about 10 years, Rambosk said.
“Some of their duties will be to support this effort,” Rambosk explained. “We have a lieutenant assigned and a detective assigned.”
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno echoed Fox, emphasizing that narcotic offenders “also do other bad things.”
“There’s no jurisdictional boundaries, and our reach is everywhere in the country at this point,” Marceno said. “The ultimate goal is to protect our children.”
Marceno is asking parents to pay attention when giving their children a cellphone or computer.
“Know what they’re dealing … Who they’re speaking to,” Marceno said. “Sometimes people can say they’re a 13-year-old friend, and meanwhile, they’re talking to someone on the other end that’s 65 years old and a predator.”NAPLES DAILY NEWS