NAPLES, Fla. — Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa’s Ft. Myers office has officially partnered with Southwest Florida law enforcement leaders, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Operation Light Shine and the Tim Tebow Foundation to enhance efforts in combating human trafficking.

During a joint press conference Sept. 21 in Naples, authorities announced the launch of the Southwest Florida Inter-Agency Child Exploitation and Person Trafficking (SWFL INTERCEPT) Task Force. This task force is a unique public–private partnership where involved nonprofit organizations provide much-needed and hard to find resources.

“With the success we have experienced in Jacksonville with the Northeast Florida INTERCEPT Task Force, it made sense to extend this unique partnership of federal, state and local law enforcement with nonprofit organizations to continue to draw upon the resources and expertise of each member,” said HSI Tampa Special Agent in Charge John Condon. “This partnership demonstrates the dedication of everyone involved in combating human trafficking and child exploitation, an epidemic of modern day slavery.”

Since the SWFL INTERCEPT Task Force partners began working together earlier this year, authorities have arrested 25 people on charges related to child exploitation, sex trafficking and prostitution. These investigations identified 37 victims — the youngest of whom was 2 years old.

“Our focus is obviously on tackling the scale of the issue and giving law enforcement what they need from the private sector,” said Luke Pell, Operation Light Shine chairman of the board. “But, as a victim focused organization, we remind ourselves in each board meeting that if we can just save one more child, all of this is worth it. We can never lose our focus on behalf of the victim. One is too many.”

Human traffickers target and prey on the most vulnerable people. They employ force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex acts from another. They sexually exploit children online, including enticement to distributing and sharing child sexual abuse material and sextortion. Offenders who traffic in child sexual abuse material share photo and video files across the internet and dark web, revictimizing these children each time the images are shared.

“Technological advances nowadays have placed a smartphone with instant and continuous access to the internet in the hands of children,” said HSI Ft. Myers Resident Agent in Charge John Yancey. “Considering predators have the same unfiltered instant and continuous access, then you can begin to understand why online child exploitation has become an epidemic and one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement.”

All these agencies recognize the urgent need to address the grave issue of child exploitation and human trafficking. Operation Light Shine has taken upon itself the responsibility to bridge the funding gap and bolster law enforcement efforts in their fight against this heinous crime. By securing additional resources and support, this organization plays a pivotal role in empowering law enforcement agencies to intensify their efforts and protect vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse. Operation Light Shine is supported by the Tim Tebow Foundation, which is part of the public-private partnership known as the SWFL INTERCEPT Task Force.

The Tim Tebow foundation partners with organizations in the United States and abroad, proactively and reactively fighting against human trafficking and by providing survivor support. The foundation works in conjunction with rescue organizations on the front lines of human trafficking in the literal rescue of those who are enslaved. Protecting the “MVPs” — the most vulnerable people, as Tebow calls them — takes a collaborative and coordinated approach of working together at all three levels of government and with private sector partners.

Law enforcement leaders believe the task force’s cooperative nature will make a profound impact in rescuing victims of human trafficking. In addition to HSI special agents, the SWFL INTERCEPT task force consists of dedicated members from the sheriff’s offices in Collier County, Lee County and Hendry County; police departments form Naples, Marco Island, Cape Coral and Ft. Myers; the State Attorney’s Office in the 20th Judicial Circuit; the Lee County Port Authority Police; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement; the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Justice’s South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

To report information about human trafficking, child sexual abuse or the trafficking in child sexual abuse material immediately to your local sheriff’s office or federal law enforcement, call 866-347-2423. Those who wish to remain anonymous can report information to First Coast Crime Stoppers at 866-845-TIPS (8477), file a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children through its tip line at 800-843-5678, or report it online at Report.Cybertip.org.