Florida launched Human Trafficking Strike Team to crack down on border-related crime

“Human trafficking is a challenge for every state,” AG Ashley Moody said, “because, under this president, we have absolutely no enforcement at the southwest border.

Published: June 16, 2024 8:35pm

(The Center Square) -

A new multi-agency human trafficking strike team has been created in Florida to target border-related crime. As the result of a recent months-long operation, 10 victims were rescued, and several alleged perpetrators were arrested.

Attorney General Ashley Moody announced the creation of the new strike team with law enforcement leaders on Thursday.

“Human trafficking is a challenge for every state,” AG Moody said, “because, under this president, we have absolutely no enforcement at the southwest border. People are … giving monies to transnational criminal organizations to bring them straight into this country; then they find themselves at the mercy of the same organization.

“Because we have our own government pushing as many people as they can into the interior,” enforcing the law “falls on the shoulders of these folks standing behind me to make sure that we are rescuing those that are being taken advantage of,” she said.

The investigation began in October 2023 in Manatee County after the sheriff’s office acted on a search warrant and turned over information to Homeland Security Investigations and the strike team, FDLE Special Agent in Charge Mark Brutnell said.

Investigators identified businesses that were commercial fronts for sex trafficking operations in Manatee and Hillsborough counties, where alleged ringleader Lina Payne recruited women from Columbia and allegedly held them hostage in Florida. She then allegedly forced them to have sex to pay off their debt to bring them into the country under threat of violence.

“What we found was a fully functional, highly organized international human trafficking operation” based in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, Brutnell said. Payne was allegedly making frequent international trips to Latin American countries where the victims were living and were later trafficked through the border into Florida, he said.

The victims had no accessible modes of transportation, their identification documents were taken from them, their food was delivered to them, they were forced to live inside massage parlors, barber shops and other businesses, where they could not leave, he said.

Payne’s alleged accomplices, her boyfriend, Sebastian Jurado, and her son, Andres Payne, were involved in recruiting women from Venezuela and Colombia who agreed to pay between $40,000 and $50,000 to be smuggled across the southwest border into the U.S., according to the investigation. Lina Payne allegedly promised them legitimate work, but once they arrived, they were held hostage.

At one point during the investigation, it appeared Lina Payne was attempting to flee the country and was arrested at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Not soon after, her boyfriend and son were arrested in Tampa. Another alleged trafficker remains at large. Each defendant faces multiple felony charges and is being prosecuted by AG Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution.

Through the course of the investigation, the strike team rescued 10 victims. They also believe they identified more than 117 victims of Payne’s trafficking operation over years.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said the victims “were brought here to Florida and had no idea what hell they were being brought into. We’re talking about human lives. If someone was drowning, we’d go out and save them. These are people who are lost out at sea, in hell, living in captivity. We are going to rescue them.”

While he said he was glad they caught the traffickers, he said, “there are a lot of evil people who pay to have forced sex, rape, with these women.”

One way to break the cycle of sex trafficking was to enhance criminal penalties “against people who are buying and forcing sex on and raping women.” Another is to create a civil penalty to enable victims “to easily sue” their abusers, he said. “If we take away the livelihoods of the people buying and forcing sex on victims, take their houses, cars, … it will set a tone. Just like everything else we do in Florida, we will protect people.”

AG Moody said, “Biden’s border crisis is emboldening transnational criminal organizations, and as a result, we are seeing horrific human trafficking cases right here in Florida. The disturbing facts of this case highlight the need for our new statewide Strike Team, and demonstrate how this expert team of investigators, prosecutors, analysts, and victims’ advocates can help coordinate efforts to take down trafficking operations and rescue victims.”

The new strike team is providing intelligence, guidance and support to law enforcement agencies statewide and is also coordinating emergency victim support services. The team works directly with Florida’s new statewide human trafficking tip line, 855-FLA-SAFE.

It’s currently assisting local law enforcement efforts with more than 20 human trafficking cases and making contact with nearly 40 victims—including the 10 victims from this investigation, Moody said.

Also joining Moody in making the announcement were Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Chris Rule, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Major Todd Shears and Homeland Security Investigations Tampa Special Agent in Charge John Condon.

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