Putting the spotlight on human trafficking

Isabella Ferré and Jazlyn Merida helped spearhead Saturday’s poster campaign through the Code Rise organization they founded earlier this year. Photos: Robert C. Jones Jr./University of Miami 

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Isabella Ferré and Jazlyn Merida helped spearhead Saturday’s poster campaign through the Code Rise organization they founded earlier this year. Photos: Robert C. Jones Jr./University of Miami 

Putting the spotlight on human trafficking

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine students hung 3,000 posters in Wynwood last weekend to raise awareness about human trafficking.

The posters went up without a hitch, a group of six University of Miami Miller School of Medicine students using wheat paste to apply the large black and white prints to the exterior wall of a building sometimes used to stage live music shows. 

“This will make them last longer,” one student said of the clear, sticky substance she smeared onto a poster with a paint roller. “You couldn’t even tear these off the wall if you wanted to.” 

It was Saturday, and she and dozens of other Miller School medical students had arrived in Miami’s Wynwood before the sun had even peered over the horizon. They mixed buckets full of the wheat paste, picked up stacks of posters by the armful, and then walked away from their staging area in all directions. 

By 7:30 a.m., they had hung hundreds of the posters side by side, covering brick walls, building facades, and shutters all across a seven-block area of the entertainment district known for its street art. 

“But we’ve got a lot more to put up,” said second-year medical student Jazlyn Merida. 

Three thousand, to be precise.

“If this is what it takes to raise awareness about human trafficking,” she said, “so be it.” 

 

In all, about 60 people—volunteers, City of Miami employees, friends and family—helped hang human-trafficking awareness posters on Saturday in Wynwood, taking a message to the street that the problem needs greater attention. 

The posters, of which there are 70 different versions, depict people of all ethnic groups and races wearing black T-shirts with a broken barcode on the front, as some traffickers have been known to brand their victims with barcodes as a way to show ownership. 

Underneath the barcode is the telephone number 305-349-7867, a new 24/7 hotline established by local law enforcement agencies that the public can use to report suspicious behavior.

Some of the people on the posters are human trafficking survivors. Some are medical students. Others are Miami-Dade residents. 

“But you would never know who was who just by looking at them,” said Miller School medical student Isabella Ferré, who along with Merida helped spearhead Saturday’s poster campaign through the Code Rise organization they founded earlier this year.

“And that’s our point,” said Merida. “You would think it’s somebody you’d never see on the street or somebody you wouldn’t know. But there’s really no stereotypical human trafficking victim. It could have been any of us in a different place, a different time, and that’s why it’s important to raise awareness.” 

With medical students from FIU and Nova Southeastern part of the initiative, Code Rise is aimed at educating doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals about the form of human slavery believed to be the third largest criminal enterprise in the world, generating global profits of $150 billion a year—nearly $100 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation. 

Training sessions that will teach healthcare providers what warning signs to look for in a patient who may be a victim of human trafficking are in the planning stages, and Code Rise has also partnered with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which is providing input on how doctors should report such cases. 

In November Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle joined the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Women’s Fund in unveiling a campaign against human trafficking ahead of Super Bowl LIV in Miami. Some groups claim events like the Super Bowl contribute to spikes in human trafficking. 

“From the very beginning, we wanted our organization to be empowering,” Ferré said of the Code Rise name, the logo of which features the “e” in the word “code” and the “r” in “rise” offset by different colors, signifying that hospital emergency rooms, or ERs, are where human trafficking victims sometimes come for medical treatment. 

“There’s a good chance we will see someone at some point in our careers who is being trafficked,” said UM medical student Alessandra Della Porta. “It’s important for us to know that we can do something about it.” 

She noted that the Florida Legislature recently passed a human trafficking bill that requires physicians to take one continuing-education credit in issues related to human trafficking. In addition, health care providers are required to post signs regarding human trafficking in conspicuous places accessible to employees by Jan. 1, 2021. 

“We know that many doctors can’t recognize trafficking victims and have had little training in what to do when they encounter a victim,” said Ferré. “But at the same time, it’s not just doctors. The public isn’t aware as they should be, either.” 

And that’s why Ferré and Merida launched the poster campaign Saturday in Wynwood.

Collaborating with the arts center Mana Contemporary Miami, Ferré had initially requested to hang posters on one wall in Wynwood during Art Basel. 

“Their response was, ‘Why not take over blocks of Wynwood,’ “ she recalled.

So with the art center’s approval and instructions on where in its affiliated Wynwood six-acre campus they could hang posters, the students did just that.

“It’s an alarming problem,” said UM medical student Jessica Le. “We thought, ‘Enough is enough, we need to do something about it.’ We didn’t want to just keep it within the medical field. We knew we had to raise awareness for everyone, especially in Miami with the Super Bowl coming up and Florida being one of the top three states for human trafficking.” 

Brett Colbert, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the Miller School, hopes the Code Rise will serve as a model for students at medical and law schools across the nation. 

“If we in the medical community team with people in the legal field, we can make a difference, even if it’s just saving one life,” he said. “We have that obligation, that responsibility.” 

Somy Ali has been obligated to the cause since 2007, when she founded the nonprofit No More Tears, which assists victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. Raped when she was 14 and sexually abused as a child, Ali said many victims of human slavery are undocumented. 

“They’ve been brought to the U.S. under the guise of working as babysitters or nannies,” said Ali, who joined three members of her organization on Saturday to help hang posters along Northwest 5th Avenue and Northwest 24th Street. “They come from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. They were abused or gang raped by violent gangs. 

“Pedophiles are buying kids on the dark web. Drug-addicted parents are selling their kids to get their next fix.” Ali added. “Human trafficking is surpassing the drug industry because it’s a product you can keep using again and again. We need to realize human trafficking has no boundaries.”

Video: Code Rise from Rodrigo Varela