Human trafficking as real as can be in Tallahassee

Lorena Vollrath-Bueno, assistant state attorney, speaks during press conference after a significant human trafficking bust known as Stolen Innocence. Photo courtesy:

From drug and labor coercion to sex work, Tallahassee has been suffering from a spike in human trafficking and the effects it has on the community.

And for some college students, like myself, it’s hit closer to home than ever before.

“I was leaving work pretty late and I was oddly approached by this young woman,” said Samantha Brown, a Florida A&M university senior. “I knew something was off, so I insisted I keep walking to my car. And once I got in the car, I spotted this man was not too far behind her watching the whole time, waiting kind of. The entire thing felt wrong and I thought to myself, ‘Was I almost trafficked?’”

This is not just the story of one female in the city, but perhaps hundreds. In my case, it first happened this summer at the Governor Square Mall. I noticed two men lingering around, following me from store to store. They’d swap off and take turns until I was ready to make my departure. When it came time to leave the mall, it was clear I was their target as I could see one man following closely behind me through Macy’s and I noticed the other man at the exit door.

My body rushed with nervousness and fright. I even think for a second, I froze in place, contemplating how I could possibly get myself out of this situation safely. It became a standstill, I refused to leave the store, fearful of what might happen if I went outside alone. The men stood in place at the exit door, staring at me until I finally asked security to walk me out.

At that moment they retreated back into the mall, making it all too obvious that it was me that they wanted. It was the first time it was ever so clear that I was being targeted and, fortunately, I lived to tell the tale.

However, not every victim can say the same. With an outrageous increase in human trafficking reports, many residents are questioning what exactly does human trafficking look like and how can they prevent it from happening to them or a loved one.

It seems no one is safe as it was recently reported by the Tallahassee Police Department that nearly 200 people were arrested on sex trafficking charges, considered to be a large bust with about 20 of the suspects facing federal charges.

Lorena Vollrath-Bueno, felony chief for the State Attorney’s Office, said that an estimate of about 50,000 people are trafficked each year; with the average victim ranging from 12-14 when they first enter human trafficking.

“This was not the first time I’ve been in such close proximity to human trafficking,” FAMU’s Brown added. “You’d think it was a one-size fits all sort of thing like in the movies but it’s not. Trafficking methods have gotten a lot more advanced, anyone can fall for it or become a victim if they aren’t prepared. I mean, the young woman who approached me was about my age, maybe 24, if you would’ve seen her you would not think she was a trafficker but she was.”

Nowadays, human traffickers are versatile. They have many faces, backgrounds, job titles, genders, ages and more. Not to be cliché, but they don’t just kidnap you and throw you in the back of a van like we are so used to seeing on TV.

In fact, traffickers may even disguise themselves as your friend, partner or even family member. This is why it’s so important for people to know the signs to look out for, the tactics used, and ways to get out of unsafe situations successfully.

Human trafficking has a direct impact on the individual being trafficked as well as the community it is happening in. Trafficking greatly affects the development of a person whether it be psychological, emotional, or physical. Trafficking also plays a big role in the spread of diseases, drug and opioid usage, and leaves painful scars behind as some victims are ostracized and become unable to interact in their community or reach out for help.

In Tallahassee, women are looking for more measures to be taken to prevent human trafficking. We are also looking for new ways to educate young women and children on the many different ways traffickers may approach them.

Sharing stories and experiences is one way we can get the word out to others to pay close attention to their surroundings, to always travel with a friend and stay up to date on tactics used to entrap women into being trafficked.

“Women stick together on these kinds of issues for our safety,” Brown said. “We need a city that sticks by us too.”