On October 24, 2022, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, in Tampa, FL recovered eight victims from a human trafficking operation in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The victims are between the ages of 18 and 24. Two individuals, Amet Macqueira De La Cal, 35, and Rosalie Leonard Garcia, 29, were arrested. Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Office of Statewide Prosecution announced these two individuals were charged with forty-seven total counts of coercing the victims into commercial sex acts. These charges included multiple counts of human trafficking, human smuggling, false imprisonment, forcing another to become a prostitute, deriving support from prostitution and transporting for prostitution.
The investigation began when the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office of Human Trafficking Section received a tip about a woman who was allegedly smuggled into the United States from Cuba. The tip reported that the woman was allegedly forced to perform commercial sex acts in order to pay off a $60,000 “travel debt” incurred through the transport into the US. The National Human Trafficking Hotline received another tip alleging that Amet Macqueria De La Cal and Rosalie Leonard Garcia brought these women to the US from Cuba and seized their documents and cell phones. The tip also mentioned the two locations where the women were held. With this information, the detectives also learned these women were featured in advertisements on online sites to sell sex.
After receiving these tips, the detectives began conducting surveillance on the two locations. Detectives were able to locate Maqueira De La Cal and Garcia and connect them with two apartments in Florida where the officers saw multiple women getting into a car registered to Maqueira De La Cal. Detectives reported that the women were taken to a gentleman’s club and then to a gambling establishment. During additional surveillance, detectives followed a car driven by Rosalie Leonard Garcia. Detectives continued to follow Garcia and noticed that she dropped off seven women at a shopping center. At the shopping center, one of the detectives recognized one of the women from the online ads and separated her from the group. The woman corroborated the detective’s information and confirmed that she, along with the other women, were all victims of human trafficking.
Based on this information, detectives filed a search warrant on the two apartments. There, police are alleged to have found the eighth woman, cash, condoms, a stolen firearm, and various forms of identification that belonged to the victims. Detectives believe that the firearm was used to threaten and intimidate the victims into commercial sex acts.
The Florida Attorney General, Ashley Moody, stated, “This is one of the worst trafficking cases that I have seen. In this case, I am extraordinarily proud of the brave, courageous women who lived through hell for months, not knowing if they would be able to get out of that situation.” Leonard Garcia and Maqueira De La Cal are currently held without bail.
The eight women were recovered and received medical care at Selah Freedom, an anti-human trafficking non-profit organization based in Florida. Selah Freedom will help the victims find permanent housing and provide other resources, such as trauma therapy onsite once a week. Angelea Valenti, the Assessment Coordinator at Selah Freedom, stated, “We provide them with ten outfits, a brand new outfit, all of their toiletries. They’re given these gift bags that local organizations will give them words of encouragement. They get to really just pause, rest, and reflect when they come into the assessment home. That’s where they’ll start getting life skills groups like communication, codependency, self-esteem.”
It is important to acknowledge the possible victim-offender overlap that may be present in this case. Traffickers can easily manipulate and coerce women into being their “bottom girl” also known as their second in command. This woman may also be victim of sex trafficking and manipulated into managing the trafficking operation and committing criminal offenses. Failure to comply can lead to further abuse from her trafficker. Although it is not clear here whether Rosalie Leonard Garcia was a victim herself, it is crucial to recognize how often the sex trafficking victim-offender overlap occurs. This is especially important for prosecutors when they are exercising discretion.
The CSE Institute applauds the efforts of the Florida Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in ending this sex trafficking operation. We urge all police departments to take tips on sex trafficking seriously to ensure that victims are safe. Most importantly, the CSE Institute commends the bravery of the victim who talked to the detective, along with all the other seven victims. After all, it is irrefutable that survivor voices will be the force of change in the sex trafficking narrative.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.