More than 100 people were arrested during an undercover human-trafficking sting dubbed “Operation Trade Secrets II” in Tampa, Florida, authorities announced earlier this week.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) said in a Nov. 18 statement that of the 104 people arrested, 75 were men purchasing sex, and 28 were women who engaged in the trade. The sting, the second of its kind, took place between June and November.
The operation was designed to focus more on the buyers, commonly referred to as “Johns,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said in the statement.
“Like any business, the human trafficking industry boils down to this: supply and demand. I strongly believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, we must continue to focus on reducing the demand,” he said. “People who profit from trafficking women and children, along with those who pay to engage in this awful trade, must always be held accountable.”
From January to June, Florida authorities were completing “Operation Trade Secrets I,” which culminated in 85 arrests. The sheriff’s office said the name of the sting “reflects the Sheriff’s continued efforts to combat human trafficking in Tampa Bay.”
Detectives with the HCSO Special Investigations Division focused their probe on websites and forums that were “known for soliciting sex in addition to strip clubs, massage parlors, and motels throughout Hillsborough County.” The operation was carried out by placing female detectives on the streets who posed as prostitutes, in addition to male detectives posing as Johns.
Some of the cases were highlighted by Chronister on Nov. 20, including two that were carried out in coordination with Homeland Security Investigations.
In one case on June 21, Jason Fitzgerald, 36, and Luis Colon, 29, each met, in separate instances, with an undercover detective. The men believed that the detective was selling his daughter for sex, and arranged a time to meet. The men were offered a choice to pick between two teenage girls—both went for the younger option.
“Fitzgerald and Colon showed up at a trailer park in North Tampa. They began negotiating a price for sex with the child, and when they were told they could take their pick, having sex with a 14-year-old girl or a 13-year-old girl inside one of the trailers, they jumped at the chance to be with the even younger girl,” Chronister said.
“Predators like this do not belong on the streets of Hillsborough County,” he added.
Fitzgerald and Colon both were arrested and charged with human trafficking for commercial sexual activity, traveling to meet a minor to solicit certain illegal acts, and unlawful use of a two-way communications device.
“The sheer magnitude of the problem of child exploitation is unimaginable, but when law enforcement is provided the resources they need, they can save thousands of children,” Laura Ahearn, an attorney in private practice who has represented sexual abuse victims for almost 20 years, told The Epoch Times previously.
According to the sheriff’s office, each of the women taken into custody was interviewed by detectives to check if they were themselves victims of trafficking.
Another case highlighted by the sheriff was the arrest of 29-year-old Steven Cook, a Latin King gang member. Cook, on July 30, brought two women to a hotel and arranged for them to have sex with other men. He was charged with human trafficking and deriving proceeds of prostitution, among other charges.
“Preventing child exploitation requires we take a comprehensive approach which includes strengthening laws to protect our most vulnerable; educational programs for children, parents, community members, and professionals working with children; bystander intervention training; victim support services; tools and resources for law enforcement and prosecution,” Ahearn said.