Law enforcement officers made 474 arrests during a three-day sting operation in January conducted to combat human trafficking in Southern California. The arrests included 142 men charged with solicitation and 36 men suspected of being “pimps.” According to the New York Daily News, thirty different California police agencies took part in the operation. Reportedly, 27 adults and 28 children – victims of the traffickers – were also found and rescued as the sweep was conducted. Family service agencies across the state are now caring for the rescued children.

Police officers sought to identify and arrest human traffickers, but in this operation, the police also targeted the customers – the “johns” – to send the message that no cooperation with human traffickers will be tolerated by law enforcement authorities in California. At a press conference announcing the arrests, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the rescued victims “You are worthy of more. And we will work tirelessly with our partners … to provide you services and help you rebuild your life.”

WHY IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING A PROBLEM IN ORANGE COUNTY?

A report published last year by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force found that due to the region’s affluence, Orange County has emerged as a top destination for human traffickers looking to increase their profits by obtaining higher prices for their victims. The Task Force, an anti-trafficking effort that involves Orange County police departments, nonprofits, government agencies, and community organizations, found that most trafficking victims and traffickers in Orange County have arrived here from other locations.

Lita Mercado, the director of victim assistance at Community Service Programs in Santa Ana, told KPCC News, “Perpetrators are telling us that they can charge more money here in Orange County than in many other counties, so they are purposefully and specifically bringing women and girls here to meet the demand. And this insatiable demand here in Orange County includes the desire and willingness for underage girls.”

Mercado explains that when human trafficking victims are delivered to Orange County, they “don’t know anybody. All they know about Orange County is that there are people here willing to pay their trafficker to have sex with them, and when they’ve made all the money they can make their trafficker puts them right back in the car and sends them to the next county or next state.”

Human trafficking is “all over Orange County,” according to Lt. Craig Friesen of the Anaheim Police Department. “If cities are saying they don’t have a human trafficking problem, they are either oblivious or they are consciously ignoring it.” Friesen said, “Our victims are getting younger and younger every year, and there’s a lack of awareness or lack of training for law enforcement agencies throughout the county.”

HOW WIDESPREAD AND PROFITABLE IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?

Worldwide, human trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year industry. Every year, thousands of women and children, and sometimes men, fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and around the world. Virtually every nation is affected by human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit, or as a destination for victims. Traffickers in children take advantage of the extreme poverty of parents in undeveloped nations. Parents may sell children to traffickers to pay off debts or receive needed income, or they may be deceived regarding the prospects of a better life for their children. They may sell their children for labor, sex, or illegal adoptions.

Worldwide, sex trafficking affects about four and a half million people. Most victims are in coercive or abusive situations where escape is difficult and dangerous. Human traffickers can generate up to several thousand dollars a day “pimping” just one female victim. However, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in the year 2000, does not require the crime to include the actual transport of victims. Any minor involved in a commercial sex act in the United States while under the age of 18 is defined by the statute as a trafficking victim, even if no force, fraud, or coercion has been used.

A variety of factors fuel sex trafficking, including poverty, social norms that discriminate against women, and the commercial demand for sex. Globalization and the emergence of the internet have also facilitated sex trafficking. Online classified sites such as Craigslist have been under intense scrutiny by law enforcement officials. Authorities also believe that social media sites – even Facebook and Twitter – are being used to facilitate human trafficking. Authorities say that the internet has bolstered and enhanced the reach and the profits of human traffickers. With immediate access to a wide clientele, “pimps” can find more customers online than ever before.

HOW DO HUMAN TRAFFICKERS CONTROL THEIR VICTIMS?

The goal of a trafficker is to turn a human being into a slave. Traffickers have reportedly held victims captive, forced them to consume large amounts of alcohol or drugs, and withheld food and sleep. Victims of human trafficking face potential violence from customers, pimps, and even from corrupt local law enforcement officers. Because of their complicated legal status, isolation, and language barriers, an arrest or the fear of arrest can create genuine emotional trauma for the victims of human trafficking.

Anyone who is convicted of human trafficking in the state of California will be penalized quite harshly. In August 2016, for example, Jarrod Neil Cross, 29, and Saquila Collete Osborne, 33, were each found guilty by an Orange County jury of one felony count of human trafficking, one felony count of kidnapping to commit robbery, one felony count of first-degree robbery, and one felony count of assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury. Osborne was sentenced to seven years to life in state prison. Due to his previous felony convictions, Cross received a sentence of fourteen years and four months to life.

If you have legal questions or concerns regarding human trafficking in southern California, an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney can answer those questions and address those concerns. Anyone in Southern California who is charged with trafficking, pimping, prostitution, or soliciting will also need the help of an Orange County criminal defense attorney. Individuals and community organizations who are interested in fighting human trafficking directly should contact the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force regarding volunteer opportunities.