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Officials, volunteers on high alert for elevated trafficking risk at Super Bowl

Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 11:54 AM MST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Fans are pumped up for the big match-up between the Kansas City Chiefs and the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Super Bowl this weekend.

Despite coronavirus, the historic nature of this game is likely to draw large crowds to the area and experts say that means an increased risk of human trafficking.

At the last Super Bowl in Miami, authorities rescued 20 victims and made dozens of arrests in connection to trafficking operations.

Now law enforcement and volunteers are trying to reach victims by activating creative tactics.

“On my worst night, I was actually kidnapped and I was sold to 20 men that night and left for dead,” said Theresa Flores.

Theresa Flores is a survivor of child sex trafficking. She was exploited for two years as a teen in the Detroit area. She says she went to school by day but was sold for sex by night.

“I got targeted by a group, a gang, essentially, that was in my high school and ended up getting drugged and raped and then they took photos, and I had to earn back those photos. I was blackmailed,” said Flores.

Along her healing journey, she launched the S.O.A.P. Project – which stands for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution.

“Nobody wants to do this. A lot of times we call this child prostitution or teen prostitutes, and there’s no such thing. They’re victims of human trafficking,” said Flores, who is the executive director and founder of the S.O.A.P. Project.

Ahead of the Super Bowl, Flores and hundreds of volunteers distributed thousands of soap bars and makeup wipes with the national human trafficking hotline number in Tampa Bay area hotels and motels. Flores says when a city hosts a large event, the demand for commercial sex quadruples.

Flores and volunteers are also placing missing kids posters around the community in hopes of someone identifying one of these victims who may be getting trafficked this weekend.

“We’re happy if just one person gets saved,” said Flores.

Local, state and federal law enforcement began actively preparing for this Super Bowl a year ago. Assistant US Attorney Lisa Thelwell says the community is involved, too. Leading up to this event, even transit workers were trained to spot red flags.

“We want to equip the entire community with the ability to recognize and make a report of potential human trafficking,” said Thelwell, who also serves as the human trafficking coordinator for the Department’s middle district of Florida.

Thelwell says law enforcement officials in Florida did not have to reinvent the wheel in gearing up for security for this event, as the Sunshine State will have hosted the Super Bowl two years in a row.

“Many of us, including myself, were able to travel down to Miami last Super Bowl and be in headquarters with the Miami-Dade police department, see how they were running their human trafficking operations and learn from them in order to prepare,” explained Thelwell.

Thelwell says that because many visitors will be traveling to the area, traffickers from inside the community and from far and wide may see this weekend as an opportunity to make a lucrative profit.

“There’s a lot of energy and a lot of excitement in the city, so fans will be traveling despite whatever precautions may be in place and so as law enforcement we are prepared to address the increase in potential demand for services of commercial sex,” said Thelwell.

For anyone who spots something suspicious, there’s a free Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force app, where tips can be submitted anonymously.

“Law enforcement can follow that up and we can rescue as many victims as possible,” said Thelwell.

“Having eyes and ears where this activity is taking place is of utmost importance,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody says the state has made tremendous efforts to train truckers, Uber drivers, and hospitality workers to identify the warning signs of trafficking.

“Law enforcement can’t be in all places at all times and we know that there are specific professions that are in a place to help us spot victims,” explained Moody.

Victims may be timid or quiet, avoiding eye contact, have marks or bruises, or be in situations that seem odd.

Victims can include young girls, boys or even adults. There are many additional warning signs shared by the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The National Human Trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

“If you are a human trafficker and seeking to profit off another’s pain and misery you will be pursued and you will be put behind bars,” said Moody.

For those in Tampa Bay who may see something suspicious this weekend, you can also text H-T-T-F to 847-411 to share a tip with law enforcement.

Photojournalist/Editor Tyler Smith and Producer Karen Daborowski contributed to this report.

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