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National Politics

Group to fight sex trafficking at RNC

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:04 PM
TAMPA -

As Tampa readies for the estimated 50,000 people coming for the Republican National Convention, Marilyn Garcia has her mind on another, unreported number.

Big events like this draw big money, she says. Which is why she expects hundreds, even thousands, of women will be brought to the area strictly for sex.

"We just don't know," she says of the number. "What we do know is that an event of this size means we'll have a substantial number (of women) being trafficked. And that's just something not talked about."

So Garcia, co-pastor of Legacy Church in Tampa, is using the Republicans' high-profile visit to get the word out.

She's the founder of The Rachel Project, a faith-based initiative to help "recover and restore" trafficked and exploited victims. She's urging the faith-based community to join in promoting awareness of the problem, which the National Human Trafficking Resource Center calls a $32 billion criminal enterprise, second only to the illegal drug trade.

Human trafficking is defined as a form of "modern-day slavery" where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. They use force, fraud or coercion to gain control of others.

"We've been silent, especially in the area of sex. We haven't been teaching and educating our people," she says of religious leaders and groups. "We need to rise up and be a voice. This is happening all around us, and you can get involved to stop it."

Her nonprofit sponsors events, provides speakers, encourages lobbying efforts to change laws, and raises funds for educational materials and eventual "rescue" homes for victims. And this week, The Rachel Project will join forces with TraffickFree and other trafficking "abolitionist" advocates on an outreach project geared specifically for the week of the convention.

Volunteers are asked to take part in a training session on how to look for signs of human trafficking – Friday in Pinellas County or Saturday in Hillsborough – that also aims to place thousands of bars of soap in motels. Each bar's label will be printed with a hotline number for victims, to help them flee from a life that many cannot break away from out of fear.

The project, called SOAP Outreach, is part of a national campaign founded by a human-trafficking survivor. The Tampa effort has a goal of 300 volunteers and 50,000 bars of soap, costing $7,500. Both money and workers are still needed.

"You have to go where they're at, and do it in a way where it won't draw any suspicion," Garcia says. "Maybe it won't resonate this time. But at least they will know it just takes one phone call to get to people who will care for them."

Selling sex has gotten a lot easier, thanks to the Internet. Many strip clubs and sex-for-hire services put images of women on the Web; some offer live chats with prospective clients. It eliminates the fear of being caught soliciting in public, Garcia says.

"A lot of these transactions are made before the event even comes to town," she says. "The buyers know where to find these services. They place a call, order 20 women for a private party, and the deal is done. It's a lot harder to get caught in the act these days, because so much of the business is done out of the public eye."

It's not that law enforcement is unaware of the influx of business during major conventions. But in a case like the Republicans' visit, security is a priority, she says. And the sellers know they may be able to operate under the radar.

While Tampa Police spokesperson Andrea Davis says there wasn't a noticeable uptick in sex-for-hire arrests during the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa, an FBI spokesman fully expects an increase in trafficking with the upcoming convention.

"It's a trend we've seen over the years. It has nothing to do with the specific event, and everything to do with the number of people attending it," says Tampa FBI spokesman David Couvertier. "It's no secret these pimps seek large venues to bring in their 'products.' This is a rich environment for their type of activity."

He declined to say what specific plan was in place for the RNC visit, but noted, "We're aware of this and we'll be working on it."

Garcia didn't know about human trafficking – which also includes men and children forced into either labor or commercial sex – until she visited Thailand in 2006. That's when she saw something unimaginable: women tagged like cattle, with male customers selecting their victims by number.

"It was like they were picking out a meal at McDonald's or Burger King," she recalls.

Subsequent trips back to the country confirmed that what she saw was not an isolated incident. As she began researching the shadowy industry, she learned it was a worldwide enterprise, with an estimated 27 million people trapped in some form of slavery in over 160 countries.

At home, the numbers were shocking. Several sources estimate that some 20,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States from other countries every year. And Tampa, with a reputation for high- and low-end strip clubs and an active adult industry, is among the cities in the nation with the most trafficked women, Garcia says.

That's not how she wants RNC visitors to remember Tampa.

Most human-trafficking survivors stay silent about their past, fearful of being hunted down by their exploiters or getting caught up in that life again. But Telisia Espinosa, 36, a member of Christian Family Church in Ybor City, shares her harrowing experience as a prostitute by speaking at churches, conferences and other events.

She was just 19, working as a dancer in a Miami strip club, when a handsome, well-dressed man walked in and began watching her intensely.

"That's all it was in the beginning. Just talking together every time he came in," she says. The more comfortable she got with him, the easier it was. Then one day he asked if she liked to travel. Of course, she told him. And are you scared of going to jail? Not at all, she replied.

Asked now why that question didn't set off a warning light, Espinosa says it never crossed her mind. "I just wanted him to keep paying attention to me. I would have said anything to please him. Growing up, she never knew her father. The man, about seven years her senior, filled that gaping hole in her life.

"He made me feel safe and protected," Espinosa says. "I was just so naïve."

Soon after, he asked if she was willing to leave with him. She didn't ask where they were going; she just packed her bags and got in his car. He drove to Cleveland, told her to change her clothes, and brought her where prostitutes worked. See that motel? He pointed across the street. That's where you'll be working.

"I was afraid something bad would happen if I didn't do what he said," Espinosa says. "When I gave him the money I made the next morning, he told me how proud he was of me. No one had ever said that to me before."

For nearly five years, she traveled the country with the man. She says her daily quota was $1,000, which means she had sex up to 20 times a night.

This was before the popularity of cybersex hookups, so most of her business came from random customers on the street. She confirms the reports traffickers are drawn to big events.

"He took me to the Indianapolis 500," she says. "It brought in a lot of out-of-town men, and we worked from a strip club across the street. They're away from their homes and families, and think they can get away it. And they usually do."

What most of those customers don't see, Espinosa says, isthe degradation, drug abuse, alcoholism and self-esteem issues that trafficked victims suffer. She was beaten up several times, had knives pulled on her and had to jump out of cars to escape violent customers. She lost count of the times she was arrested and slept in jails. Yet all along, she was sure her man loved her.

"But I was just business to him, nothing more," she says.

In her early days as a prostitute, she was standing on a corner in Grand Rapids, Mich., when a couple approached her. She tensed up, wary and suspicious.

"Can we pray with you?" they asked. Espinosa relaxed a bit. It can't hurt, she thought. "Yes, please do."

"I like to think their prayers eventually got me out of that life. It took a few years, but their prayers were answered," she says softly. "I wish I could thank them."

She eventually found the courage to leave, taking a bus from Las Vegas to Florida to stay with family members. Vocational rehabilitation got her in the legitimate workforce, and "clinging to God" got her spiritual life on track.

"I like to think their prayers eventually got me out of that life. It took a few years, but their prayers were answered," she says softly. "I wish I could thank them."

Her best therapy, she says, is speaking out about her past. She says it makes her stronger every time.

"If we're ever going to stop the ugliness with human trafficking, we cannot keep quiet anymore," she says. "We have to put this out in the public and we've got to talk about it."

RNC SOAP OUTREACH

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Friday’s training is at Calvary Baptist Church, 110 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater; Saturday’s will be at the Italian Club, 1731 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City.

WHAT: Training for volunteers on how to look for signs of human trafficking. Also, soap bars will be labeled and packaged, then delivered to local motels. Lunch provided at both locations.

NEEDED: Cash donations, volunteers for a phone bank

INFORMATION: Email soaptampa@hotmail.com or call (813) 464-5178; to learn more about human trafficking, go to www.therachelproject.com 


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613 TBO.com, search keyword: Trafficking, to see a WFLA-TV interview with the two women and to learn how to get involved in fighting human trafficking.

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