“Standing behind a microphone wearing high heels and black-rimmed glasses, a woman named Octavis explained how she was just 13 when she began a life of prostitution.
She told a crowd Saturday at Lake Eola Park about her childhood as a habitual runaway who bounced back and forth between foster care and the streets. She was drugged and repeatedly raped near downtown Orlando, the victim of a boyfriend who manipulated her into sleeping with other men for cash or a place to rest. She went on to teach other girls how to do the same.
“I was groomed, manipulated and mentally incapacitated from functioning like a normal civilian,” said Octavis, who was identified only as a mother and Valencia College graduate.
Her survival story was part of a Human Trafficking Awareness Day gathering, which brought together hundreds of law officers, advocates and politicos including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to help people understand and identify the crime. Florida ranks third nationally for the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline with nearly 1,200 reports last year.
Trafficking victims include those who have been forced or coerced into commercial sex, agriculture work, housekeeping or involuntary servitude.
Tomas Lares, who chairs the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, said Central Florida is a “perfect storm” for the crime. The area’s many tourists and a heavy transient population makes it easy for traffickers to hide and the area’s growing population creates more demand, he said.
“People come here to Florida because of the sun and fun,” he said. “So a lot of times, unfortunately, when people are out of their routine they end up engaging in some of these illicit, illegal activities.”
In recent years human-trafficking tips and arrests have spiked because of more awareness, said Larry Zwieg, director of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation. For example, Orange County and Orlando authorities arrested 29 people on prostitution charges in a sting that began Thursday and ended early Saturday. Female law officers posed as escorts at hotels near Orlando International Airport. The joint-agency task force — which among its work handles prostitution and illegal adult entertainment investigations — reported 126 human-trafficking tips last, year double the amount in 2012 and worked 50 cases.
Also Saturday, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office announced charges have been filed against Marisol Rodriguez, 21, and her boyfriend Devin “Smooth” Dixon, 29, on human-trafficking charges in the beating of a 21-year-old woman held against her will in a Winter Haven home and forced to have sex for cash. Rodriguez was arrested Thursday but Dixon remains at large.
Zwieg said one problem law officers face are the victims, who are often vulnerable underage girls with drug issues. Their testimony is crucial, but sometimes difficult to attain.
“When it comes down to going to court the victim has to be there to testify,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep them in a position where they can do that or are willing to do that.”
Octavis explained how victims are verbally or physically abused, learn to “trust no one” and that pimps often offered security that government agencies could not. She eventually became a “recruiter” for pimps, a role in which she preyed on women who were “frail, youthful or unconcerned.”
She has since turned her life around by earning her GED diploma while working for the state Department of Children and Family and shares her experience to “help more victims become survivors.””
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