A month-long undercover human trafficking sting in Florida by Hillsborough County’s detectives has resulted in 71 arrests, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) announced on Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
The operation, known as "Operation Interception,” was created to "combat human trafficking leading up to the Super Bowl coming to Tampa in February 2021,” HCSO Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters during a press briefing on Jan. 11.
"With less than a month until the big game, our covert operations continue, seeking those who choose to sexually exploit others here in our community,” Chronister said. “Our goal, as the operation name explains, is to ‘intercept’ individuals involved in sexual exploitation before they are able to take advantage of vulnerable individuals, and ultimately, to deter others.”
From Dec. 7, 2020, through Jan. 9, 2021, undercover detectives posted advertisements online offering to meet up for sex. Female detectives also posed as sex workers.
All 71 suspects are male, and are aged between 20 and 62, the sheriff said. Those arrested include active-duty military members, a firefighter, a Christian schoolteacher, a banker, construction workers, local business owners, and two registered sex offenders.
All suspects were charged with soliciting another to commit prostitution or entering/remaining in a place for prostitution. Some received additional charges, including drug possession.
"All of these men have one thing in common: They did not care if the women they were going to have sex with were being exploited, forced to sell their bodies against their will," Chronister said.
The arrests came as local law enforcement officials vowed to increase efforts to prevent an increase in human trafficking before Tampa’s Super Bowl next month.
"With less than a month away from the big game, our covert operations continue and will continue seeking those who choose to sexually exploit others in our community," Chronister said. "The Super Bowl should not be a venue where these types of crimes occur on the sidelines, whether it’s before the game, during the game, or after the game.
“We know from past experiences with major sporting events that there will be some who travel for the exclusive purpose of taking advantage of women and children,” he added. “I want to make it very clear, if you are planning to engage in the sexual exploitation of others, I’m urging you to think twice. We will find you, and you will be arrested.”
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has made fighting human trafficking a top priority of his administration. He signed an executive order in January 2020 focused on eliminating human trafficking and online child exploitation in the United States, which requires resources to be directed in ways that would result in the prosecution of offenders, assist victims, and expand prevention education programs.
The president also has signed nine pieces of legislation into law to help take on human trafficking.
His administration has also taken multiple crucial steps to tackle the issue. In a proclamation issued in January 2020, the president noted that the multi-agency Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team initiative had more than doubled its convictions of human traffickers in its targeted districts.