Orlando ranks third in the nation for calls for help for human trafficking and members of Florida Abolitionist joined local leaders Thursday in giving a voice to the marginalized victims of abuse.

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say you didn’t know,” said Tomas Lares, executive director of Florida Abolitionist, a nonprofit he founded in 2009 to rebuild victims’ lives.

There were 556 cases of human trafficking reported in Central Florida last year and 275 people were saved from slavery and abuse by the nonprofit, according to Lares.

A report by the National Human Trafficking Hotline compared the number of human trafficking calls across the 100 most populous cities in the United States. And while there may be other cities with more calls, the report means a larger percentage of Orlando’s population is being trafficked than in most cities.

Central Florida’s tourism and convention industry offer a lucrative market for human traffickers who recruit, transport, abduct and deceive young men and women into sexual exploitaton.

Local leaders stood together at Orlando City Hall’s Rotunda to fight for stricter laws and better enforcement against human trafficking. They included Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, State Rep. Amy Mercado and Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

Orlando Commissioner Tony Ortiz pointed out that the 60,000 men and women in slavery are enough to fill Camping World Stadium.

“It’s an atrocity that’s happening in our own backyard,” said Ortiz, who said he saw the practice first-hand as a law enforcement officer.

Ortiz said that years ago, the young men and women who were forced into prostitution were known as perpetrators but now society recognizes they are victims of human traffickers who force them into exploitation.

Lares unveiled a colorful mural of a woman flanked by doves by artist Alejandro Ruiz that will be placed in a downtown location, which has yet to be named. The high-profile mural will not depict the chains of slavery but the vision of life, hope, and freedom of survivors of the slave trade, Lares said.

Attendees of the event were encouraged to post selfies to boost recognition on social media about human trafficking.

“We’re pushing the power of promotion,” said Aaron Maners, COO of Florida Abolitionist, which has made 650 rescues of victims during the past year. The nonprofit helps victims relocate, educates businesses about how to spot human traffickers and lobbies for tougher legislation and enforcement.

About The Author

The youngest of seven children, Terry O. Roen followed two older brothers into journalism. Her career started as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, where she wrote stories on city and county government, schools, courts and religion. She has also reported for the Associated Press, where she covered the Casey Anthony and Trayvon Martin trials along with the Pulse massacre. Married to her husband, Hal, they have two children and live in Winter Park. A lifelong tourist in her own state, she writes about Central Florida’s growing tourism industry for Florida Politics and Orlando Rising.

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