Young girls are the targets of an illegal trade: stolen off the streets, their lives shattered, for sex. And in some cases, it's happening in the very places you eat and drink.
Every 30 seconds, another person becomes the victim of sex trafficking. The average victim is just 12 years old. According to the State Department: up to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, and half are children.
A new study reveals that the sex trade could be happening right in your own neighborhood. They're serving up more than drinks for sale at some Mexican restaurants, bars and nightclubs in Florida and across the country.
Polaris, a victims advocacy group, says thousands of girls and women are on the menu against their will, forced into sex as much as 50 times a day.
“If they're promising you something that sounds too good to be true, sister, it probably is,” says Niki Cross, Founder of STAAR Ministry. Cross herself is a sex trafficking survivor.
In her book, “Like Daddy Used To Say…,” Cross shares her nightmare; raped repeatedly at just 15 years old. Victims are often lured by promises of love, jobs, or a better life, but quickly become trapped in a world of violence.
“To be told I was wonderful, I sang beautifully, that I could be a star, which none of it was true. I ended up being locked up in an attic for almost a year,” she says.
Polaris discovered some 1,300 victims in cantinas and clubs in 20 states, including in West Palm Beach.
The Bay area itself is considered a hotspot for trafficking, a hub between Cuba and Miami to Tampa.
“Sad, it's terrible,” says father Franklin Andejar. It’s a fear that Andejar, who owns Mexico Lindo in Pinellas Park, has for his daughter.
“I've got a daughter, 11 years old, and I wouldn't want something like that happening to her,” says Andejar.
Cross insists a conversation with your kids could save their life.
“I would rather my daughter or my son be mad than being completely silent, because they're in the grave,” says Cross.
Cross says when at a restaurant or bar keep a close eye on what's going on around you. In Houston, a tip revealed that a mirror in the women's bathroom doubled as a door hiding a sex trafficking ring on the other side.
“(Law enforcement) would much rather you call and be wrong, than have that one that falls through the cracks,” says Cross.
Polaris suggests more training for law enforcement to spot victims, and more funding for safe houses and programs to help survivors.
(© 2016 WTSP)