When WWE’s WrestleMania came to Tampa, Florida, last week, the event brought the biggest crowd for a single event the city has seen since COVID-19 lockdowns began.
But in a pattern that police say is common around large events, the crowd lured by the spectacle also brought a network of human traffickers. Law enforcement, however, was waiting.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office announced the results of “Operation Takedown” Thursday, an undercover anti-human trafficking operation. The operation took place throughout Hillsborough County, ahead of the WrestleMania event that took place in Tampa on Sunday. In total, Sheriff Chad Chronister said, the operation arrested 79 men for human trafficking and exploitation-related charges.
Chronister said that number was higher than the 75 arrests around the Super Bowl.
Police used online “chat, hotel, and streetwalker” tactics from March 30 to April 9. Natalia Verdina, HCSO spokesperson, told Coffee or Die Magazine that “streetwalker” arrests are “those made along roadways, or public areas, where individuals are seeking to buy or sell sex.” She also said that DeliverFund, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking human trafficking, helped with locating suspects and victims during the operation.
Among those arrested was a known trafficker from Houston, Texas, who police say brought a 17-year-old girl to Tampa for sex trafficking, as well as local men picked up during undercover stings. The latter included 39-year-old Earnest Benjamin, a local pastor who, Chronister said, solicited an undercover police officer while his young children were in the car with him. Others arrested included a high school girls basketball coach and at least one registered sex offender arrested, police say, when he sought to meet what he thought was a 14-year-old girl for sex.
According to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times, WrestleMania 37 brought a larger crowd to Tampa than the NFL Super Bowl did in February. Authorities say large entertainment events attract traffickers because they lure men with disposable income.
Shane Erickson, a DeliverFund senior targeting analyst who assisted the HCSO with intelligence during the operation, told Coffee or Die Magazine, “Large-scale events can be attractive opportunities for human traffickers to advertise and sell their victims because of the potential increased customer base with the additional people those events attract. The internet has made the advertising of victims cheap and easy for traffickers especially with additional press surrounding high-profile or large-scale events.”
DeliverFund, he said, helped by identifying out-of-state human traffickers as they arrived in Hillsborough County for WrestleMania.
Polaris, a nonprofit that claims to have the largest human trafficking database in North America, said that in 2019, the US National Human Trafficking Hotline received information on 22,000 trafficking victims, almost 12,000 trafficking incidents, and more than 4,300 human traffickers.