VISTA — Hundreds gathered at the gazebo on Main Street for the fifth annual Anti-Human Trafficking Awareness Day and 1-mile walk on Jan. 8. The event raised awareness about local human trafficking that often victimizes girls 12 to 15 years old.
“It happens in every city in San Diego North County,” Mayor Judy Ritter said. “People I don’t think are aware of that, it hits close to home.”
“We need to know what’s going on in our backyard,” Olivia Theilemann, Vista resident and a senior at Rancho Buena Vista High School, said. “Vista is thought of as a family community, but human trafficking is our issue we need to address.”
Officers from the North San Diego County Sheriff Human Trafficking Task Force and Assistant District Attorney Gretchen Means shared the challenges of helping victims and prosecuting pimps and slaveholders.
While victims are often runaways, children are also recruited from inside high schools. “They are from good families,” Means said. “Your boys and girls.”
Pimps often falsely promise girls a better life. Once a girl’s trust is gained they are kidnapped, threatened and beaten to perform prostitution. “You have no idea what you can be coerced to do,” Corporal James Smith, of the Sheriff Human Trafficking Task Force, said.
Even after girls are found it is difficult for law enforcement officers to build trust and get victims to talk. Often a victim is too scared to talk or escape from her kidnapper. “Cases take a long time to work,” Deputy George Crysler, of the Sheriff Human Trafficking Task Force, said. “Talking with victims is difficult. They have been brainwashed.”
There is also the problem of public misunderstanding of the problem. Prostitutes who are 18 years old were usually kidnapped and forced into prostitution when they were age 15 or younger.
Task Force officers keep an eye on hotels, inns, transit centers, MySpace pages and Facebook posts to find victims and lure out pimps. “We watch constantly,” Crysler said.
They adamantly encourage parents to be involved and know their children’s friends so victimization does not occur.
Local organizations including Amnesty International, Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, The Zen Center, UURISE teen rescue, California Against Slavery, Hope House and Soroptimists are working to raise awareness, rescue victims and pass tougher human trafficking laws.
For help, the National Human Trafficking Hotline is (888) 373-7888.