Telisia Espinosa was 21 when she was taken from Miami to Cleveland by her pimp. Over the next four and a half years, she was trafficked through 21 cities in 18 states.
Now 41 and living in Tampa, Espinosa has spoken at events hosted by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office as part of an ongoing local campaign to reduce human trafficking.
The effort was aided by a 2016 county ordinance that required "sexually-oriented businesses" to post human trafficking public awareness signs or face county fines. Traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for sexual acts against their will.
The Sheriff’s Office said last week that only 11 sexually-oriented businesses remain in Pasco County of the 17 operating before the ordinance passed.
The businesses have closed for a variety of reasons.
Risque Lingerie in Bayonet Point and Suncoast Lingerie in Hudson closed voluntarily, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Brass Flamingo strip club in Port Richey burned down, then closed. A handful of similar businesses in Pasco also ceased to operate.
A state law already existed requiring signs in highway rest stops, truck stops and weigh stations, offering phone numbers and resources to people who may be victims of human trafficking. Signs also were required in strip clubs and other adult entertainment establishments.
The county ordinance took it a step further, requiring additional signs in club dressing rooms and in each individual restroom stall. The signs, hung in strip clubs, video stores, erotic massage parlors and more, are in English, Spanish and Mandarin.
If deputies find a business without signs, the violation will cost business owners $250 per missing sign, per day.
In January 2017, Pasco deputies and code enforcement officers cracked down on adult-entertainment clubs in Pasco, conducting more than 50 inspections of 12 active sexually-oriented businesses.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said that in 2018, the county will continue to make sure business owners are operating within the law.
People often think "human trafficking would never happen in Pasco," Nocco said, but it does.
"It’s in places that you would never expect," he said. "It could be the place right next door to where you buy your pet food. It could be the place where your kids are playing sports, or a house in your own community."
Year after year, Florida has ranked third nationally in the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to its website. In the first half of 2017, Florida 329 reported human trafficking cases, according to the hotline.
Human trafficking statistics are difficult to keep, officials said, especially with the internet involved.
An "untold" number of women are being sold on websites "in just a few clicks," according Shahra Anderson, regional director in the office of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.
Anderson spoke at a Jan. 5 press conference held by Pasco County’s 11-member Commission on Human Trafficking.
"When I was being trafficked, you had tons of girls on the street," she said. "Now, it’s harder to see and harder to put a number on it."
Nationally, January is Human Trafficking Awareness month. In Pasco, Jan. 11 is Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
When the opportunity arises, Espinosa warns women to watch out for men who prey on them in businesses that are sexually-oriented.
Espinosa was dancing in a Miami strip club to make a living when she met the man who eventually became her pimp.
"I was on stage when he walked in and … our eyes locked," Espinosa said. "He never told me he was a pimp, I didn’t know what a pimp was."
People should know that there is life after trafficking, Espinosa said, and that there is "hope and healing on the other side."
"There are people that have their well-being in mind and at heart," she said. "There are people that are willing to help them get out of that life."
The International Labour Organization estimates there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking and that trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at [email protected] Follow @tylisajohnson.