Byline: JESSIE-LYNNE KERR
What authorities know is that human trafficking - typically involving selling girls and women into sexual slavery - is an emerging problem in Northeast Florida.
What they don't know is the extent of the problem.
"We believe that many of the victims themselves are probably illegals who are suspicious of law enforcement," U.S. Attorney Paul Perez said this week.
Because of that, many are afraid to report they are victims "for fear they will get themselves ensnared with the law because they are in this country illegally," Perez said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is among local, state and federal agencies that will have representatives at a session next week to train how to recognize and pursue the problem in the Jacksonville area.
Also, the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking is planning to open a Jacksonville office.
The U.S. State Department estimates that as many as 2 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking.
From 15,000 to 18,000 cases are happening in the United States, the State Department estimates, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says about half of the victims are children.
A report by Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights said Florida, New York and California are the three states with the most human trafficking victims.
Although many of the cases involve sexual slavery, such as that of a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl who said she was repeatedly assaulted over the course of a week before escaping from a house in Jacksonville, Perez said the labor-intensive nature of Florida gives rise to the trafficking of workers, too.
The recent conviction of a Palatka labor camp owner who kept migrant workers in debt by selling them crack cocaine could be considered such a situation, Perez said, "because the victims were being held in peonage and servitude."
Joy Birmingham, a victim advocate who is heading the local office of the Florida Coalition, said Jacksonville's port and its location at the confluence of two interstate highways makes the area a major point of entry for traffickers.
"We will be focusing more on domestic trafficking," Birmingham said.
She said that includes victims of underage prostitution - runaway or homeless youths who find themselves lured into commercial sexual exploitation. …