Human trafficking has been a growing problem all over the world, and it has made its way to Hillsborough County.
On Monday, Oct. 18, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stated in a press conference that they arrested 125 people after a 20-day undercover operation.
“Operation Round-Up,” the name of the sting, had undercover detectives focusing on criminals that are involved in human trafficking, prostitution, as well as those that try to solicit sex from others.
Trafficking victims are being forced into these positions while prostitution is someone doing it of their own free will.
Among those arrested is 44-year-old Samuel Phillips Jr. and 38-year-old Joel Velaso, a pastor and teacher respectively. Both men offered money to undercover cops in exchange for sex. Information has not been released as to what ruse was used to lure these men.
“That’s crazy… People try to send their kids to school or church to keep them safe.. and instead they are doing that,” said Dylan Wallace, junior film major.
Aside from those two men, Philip Velikettel and Muntasir Shafiq were also arrested. Velikettel, 48, was arrested for trying to meet up with who he thought to be a 14-year-old girl. Shafiq, 38, was led to believe he was meeting a 14-year-old boy after sending strings of messages.
The operation led to five victims being rescued, among them a 17-year-old girl. They have all been directed to Selah Freedom, a nonprofit anti-human trafficking organization. Selah Freedom was founded in 2010 and works alongside law enforcement to help change the statistics of human trafficking and to “be a voice for the voiceless,” according to their website.
The last time this happened in Hillsborough county was earlier in 2021 in late March and early April. According to an article by ABC Action News, 79 people were arrested during that operation. A pastor and a girls high school basketball coach were apprehended as well.
Unfortunately, human trafficking is not an uncommon thing in Florida. Florida is the third highest state with cases and trafficking rates, according to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“I feel a little uneasy knowing that that’s happening,” said Taylor Nagel, freshman secondary education major. “It can happen to anyone, like I run around the city, that could be me.”
During the press conference, Sheriff Chad Chronister stated that he has created a human trafficking taskforce consisting of 12 people to focus on catching these criminals and rescuing victims.
“When I came to Tampa, I found out it’s a hotspot for human trafficking,” said John Dorian, marine biology major. “I think it’s good that they’re making progress in catching people that are involved in this.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline website, tips to stay safe include trusting your gut and judgment, having some form of communication with you, knowing the phone number of someone you trust in case you are in trouble, and letting someone else know if you feel like you are in danger.
If you, or anyone you know, are victims of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
Photo Courtesy of Beaver County Times.