Nearly 150 Sex Workers Arrested in So-Called Trafficking Raids Before the Super Bowl

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle says police recovered 20 victims of human trafficking before Super Bowl LIV.
State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle says police recovered 20 victims of human trafficking before Super Bowl LIV. Photo via Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office
The night of Wednesday, January 22, an undercover officer for the Miami Police Department was cruising the streets of the Flagami neighborhood looking to bust sex workers. He didn't need to search long: Just before 11, he noticed a woman standing on the corner of SW Sixth Street and SW 49th Avenue and pulled his unmarked car next to her.

According to a police report, the woman leaned through the front passenger-side window and asked if she could "take him somewhere." He said yes, and she got into the car. There, the officer says, the woman said that she would "make love" to him for $100 and that if he bought her a pack of cigarettes, she would make the officer "feel good and ejaculate hard." Seconds later, a team of cops swarmed the car and arrested the woman. She was 30 years old and homeless and later pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of engaging in prostitution.

What is unclear, however, is why that routine bust of the sex worker was on a Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office list of 183 trafficking-related arrests that occurred in the leadup to Super Bowl LIV in Miami this past February 2. In fact, it's unclear how nearly all of those arrests related to sex trafficking. According to data the office released to New Times, Miami-area cops arrested 147 people for engaging in simple prostitution in the 12 days before the Super Bowl. Cops also arrested eight buyers and 29 accomplices.

In a news conference yesterday, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office announced that officers had recovered 20 victims of human trafficking, including four underage girls, before Super Bowl LIV began. Additionally, prosecutors said three people had been charged with federal sex-trafficking crimes and two were charged with trafficking at the state level. Those are certainly commendable facts. But data shows the operation also swept up scores of seemingly nontrafficked sex workers simply looking to make ends meet — and, once again, raises questions about whether the supposed boom in sex trafficking that occurs around the Super Bowl every year is, in fact, a myth.

Year after year, right-leaning anti-trafficking groups claim the Super Bowl, America's largest sporting event, is the nation's biggest draw for sex traffickers, who allegedly transport kidnapped women from city to city to please tourists in town for the yearly championship game. Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, appears to be the loudest voice pushing this theory — she appeared at Florida International University last month to once again claim the Super Bowl is a hotbed for sexual slavery.

The problem, of course, is there appears to be ample evidence to the contrary. Data does not actually show that the Super Bowl leads to any more human trafficking or sexual enslavement arrests in host cities. Reuters flatly reported two days before Super Bowl LIV that, "hype aside," there is no evidence the supposed Super Bowl trafficking surge is real.

"We are simply saying — it is not an opinion — that there is no evidence for an increase in trafficking at the Super Bowl," Borislav Gerasimov of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, an alliance of dozens of anti-trafficking groups, told that news agency.
McCain and local police and prosecutors claim the data simply shows that trafficking victims do not speak up or cooperate with law enforcement for fear of retaliation. But advocates for safe and decriminalized sex work instead argue that cops and prosecutors use the trafficking myth to bust sex workers so police can look useful. (Advocates for sex workers levied similar criticism against the Florida cops who busted Patriots owner Robert Kraft for buying sex at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida. Officers initially claimed it was a "trafficking bust," but police did not file any trafficking charges and seemingly watched victims be repeatedly sexually exploited on undercover security cameras for weeks without intervening. (Though police claim they had been speaking to "two to six" possible victims, none agreed to cooperate with law enforcement.)

There's no doubt trafficking is real and horrifying, but sex workers — and even many anti-trafficking organizations — say perpetuating the Super Bowl myth likely does more harm than good. As Mic writer Noah Berlatsky pointed out earlier this year, the anti-trafficking Polaris Project says that "sex trafficking happens during the Super Bowl with the same frequency as it does every single day, in every single city in America." A 2019 review of literature in the Anti-Trafficking Review showed that "available empirical evidence does not suggest that major sporting events cause trafficking for sexual exploitation." Despite that finding, prostitution raids are common before every Super Bowl nowadays: 249 people were arrested in Houston prior to Super Bowl LI, 110 were taken into custody in Minneapolis the following year, and 169 were collared before Super Bowl LIII last year in Atlanta.

Few of those cases, however, had anything to do with sex trafficking. Most of the defendants were simply johns and prostitutes.

Those facts did not stop Rundle, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, and a host of cops from holding numerous events and posting scores of news releases stating how rigorously they would hunt traffickers in the leadup to Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

"Law enforcement teams comprised of local, state, and federal officers conducted simultaneous undercover operations from January 21st thru February 3rd," states a PowerPoint presentation the State Attorney's Office released yesterday. "These undercover operations ran at various locations throughout Miami-Dade County. All teams worked together, with one goal: RECOVERY OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING VICTIMS."

In the leadup to the Super Bowl, Rundle told the Miami Herald she planned to take a "victim-centered" approach to capturing sex traffickers. But it's unclear how some of the police tactics described in arrest reports were designed to find perpetrators.

On January 21, for example, the Miami Beach Police Department conducted a "human trafficking operation" at a Collins Avenue hotel just before 11 p.m. Cops said they responded to an online escort ad and walked to room 122. Outside the room, a cop said, one 22-year-old woman asked him if he "wanted to fuck" for a price of $100. She then told him her 26-year-old friend would be sleeping in the bed next to them but would also be available "to fuck" if he so chose. The cop and woman walked inside, and the woman allegedly lifted sheets off of her partner to expose her bare legs and said her partner would also have sex for another $100. The officer agreed to the terms with both women, and then other cops rushed in to handcuff them. But neither of the women, who had traveled from Philadelphia, appeared to have been trafficked — one was charged with misdemeanor prostitution, and the other was charged with a misdemeanor for buying the room in order to engage in sex work.

The State Attorney's Office says it's nearly impossible to identify trafficking victims unless those sex workers self-identify as such. In the case of those arrested in the Miami Super Bowl sweep, prosecutors say, any trafficking victims caught up in the raids and facing charges can qualify for a special, one-day pretrial diversion program to have their cases dropped. But the arrests will remain on their records.

"Police are the ones that make arrests," Rundle spokesperson Lissette Valdes-Valle told New Times yesterday. "So when they come across a sex worker, they have been trained to ask and try to determine if she/he is a victim of human trafficking. If they cannot determine and the worker does not self-identify as a victim of human trafficking but rather as a consensual sex worker, then police can arrest them, as prostitution is against the law. Knowing there may be reasons that someone does not self-identify, we came up with a way to connect with these workers and offer them information and services through diversion."

The State Attorney's Office says the one-day seminar will be hosted by Brook Bello, a trafficking victim and minister who founded More Too Life, an anti-trafficking nonprofit based in Sarasota. Rundle's office says eligible defendants will be offered the program over the next three weeks.

But some of those arrested might not need anti-trafficking education as much as they need a roof over their heads. In another case reviewed by New Times, a Miami Police Department officer responded to an ad February 1 on the website Listcrawler for a woman named "Luna" who had been offering sexual services online. The two met just before midnight at an undisclosed location in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. Police say the woman asked for $100 for "a quick visit," accepted the money, and was promptly arrested and charged with misdemeanor prostitution. She is 25, homeless, and still facing her charges in court.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.