Was roundup about hookers — or something more sinister? Lawyers prepare to battle

After police rounded up scores of massage parlor customers, defense lawyers scoffed that the case was little more than a series of low-level prostitution busts.

But a small army of federal, state and local agencies says the operations — which have led to charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and hundreds more — were more than that.

Authorities say they’re working together to infiltrate sex-trafficking rings operating from South Florida to New York. From Homeland Security Investigations, to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Jupiter Police Department, investigators want to shut down multimillion-dollar trafficking networks, which they call a scourge in Florida and in other large states across the nation.

“Human-trafficking organizations are varied and vast,” said Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami. “We work with our state and local partners. Anything of a threat, force or coercion is the gold standard for a trafficking charge.”

Because it’s common for owners to have a network of businesses in multiple states, “law enforcement is trying to get at the broader criminal network and go after the network and not a whack-a-mole,” Myles said.

South Florida prosecutors’ offices are rallying to assist victims.

“We take human-trafficking cases very seriously and have been working with the community, our law enforcement partners and the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition to tackle the issue, bring offenders to justice and help the victims escape,” said Broward State Attorney Michael Satz. His office hired a human-trafficking coordinator, beginning in April, to help prosecutors who specialize in these cases and “expand our outreach efforts in the community.”

One issue is to ensure that victims are ushered to safe places to live after they are rescued or escape their traffickers. Satz said his office is working “with other stakeholders in the community to set up a residential center” for victims to stay.

Following the money

Federal and local authorities are using financial data to help them fight human trafficking, according to Homeland Security Investigations officials who appeared at an anti-money laundering conference this past week in Miami.

Christopher Armstrong, a Washington-based section chief of the HSI human trafficking unit, said the agency initiated 849 cases in fiscal year 2018 that resulted in 1,588 arrests, 833 indictments, 538 convictions and the assistance of 308 victims.

Armstrong said the agency maintains a two-pronged approach: identifying and breaking up cross-border human-trafficking organizations while helping to identify and find help for victims to give them stable lives.

Civilian advocates think the federal government should be even more aggressive than it is now by rounding up any and all money generated by trafficker organizations and channeling the cash to trafficking victims.

“Why not take the profits they made and put them into a fund to help the people who have suffered?” asked former Florida Sen. Maria Sachs. “That’s why we need federal help.”

Sachs is a former Miami-Dade state prosecutor who served on Florida’s statewide task force on human trafficking and who now heads the nonprofit Coalition Against Human Trafficking. She said the traffickers’ cash, real estate, cars and any other assets should be pursued just as aggressively by the feds as they’ve pursued assets of drug-cartel operators.

Indeed, civil forfeiture lawsuits have been filed against two alleged massage parlor operators in Martin County.

The suits list several residences, expensive cars, over $400,000 in cash and various cellphones, watches and jewelry — all allegedly bought with proceeds from their illegal businesses.

Sun Sentinel staff writer Marc Freeman contributed to this report.

lhuriash@sunsentinel.com, 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash