The Coast News Group
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A closer look at human trafficking in San Diego County

REGION — The numbers are staggering. There are between 8,830 and 11,773 victims of survivors of human trafficking in San Diego County. The majority of sex-trafficking victims, 79.3 percent, are born in the United States; 11.4 percent are from Mexico. The average age of entry into sex trafficking in the county is 16.1 years. Fifty-five percent of victims are either homeless or have been homeless.

Sex trafficking facilitators earn on average $670,625 per year. Over the past several years San Diego has consistently ranked in the top 10 cities in the nation for human trafficking. The economic impact of human trafficking is enormous (it cost the county $810 million in 2013), but the psychological impact on the lives of people who have been victims of this horrific crime is immeasurable.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, is the most common form of human trafficking, and contrary to what people might believe, the victims are not always girls and young women.

Deputy San Diego County District Attorney Carolyn Matzger explained: “If we knew that just females were being targeted, we’d focus only on them. But anyone can be a victim.” Boys and young men are often trafficked, but because of the stigma associated with sexual activity between males, they are even more reluctant and ashamed than females to come forward. And over the past few years, law enforcement and social service agencies have discovered that members of the LGBTQ community are also targets.

“The trans community gets abused many times over,” Matzger said. “They’re often misunderstood to begin with and being discriminated against, and they may have had an unpleasant experience with the police sometime in the past. So, if someone has tried to exploit them for sexual purposes, they probably will not turn to law enforcement for protection.”

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Matzger said people would be very surprised to learn that besides knowing potential victims, they probably know predators as well. “There are people who are always looking for ways to exploit others,” she said. “If they can exploit you…they will. Because that’s what predators do.”

She said that predators use social media to their advantage and that more than 70 percent of sex trafficking occurs online. “They might start by telling a young girl on Facebook how pretty she is,” she said. “They’ll flatter her over and over again. Then they’ll tell her that they understand her more than anyone else does, her friends, even her parents. They get her to trust them.”

Human traffickers use three types of coercion: economic (74 percent) in which 50 percent or more of the earnings are taken by the facilitator; psychological (57 percent), defined as social and emotional isolation, induced emotional exhaustion, and degradation, including humiliation, denial of the victim’s power and name-calling; and chemical (42 percent), referring to the victim being in an altered state of consciousness either through drugs being provided or forced.

In January 2015, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, launched a cooperative effort called the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force. The collaboration among the various agencies has resulted in many traffickers being arrested. A successful three-day operation in January of this year called Operation Reclaim and Rebuild resulted in 29 sex buyers being arrested and charged with agreeing to engage in prostitution.

In this case, law enforcement agencies utilized the internet to ensnare the buyers. Fake ads were created and posted online offering sex for money. When men showed up at a hotel expecting sex they were arrested instead.

Public awareness of the seriousness of the crime of human trafficking is one of the keys to stamping it out, so in January 2017 (human trafficking awareness month), the District Attorney’s office launched a campaign in partnership with the anti-human trafficking organization Abolitionist Mom and the San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency called Disrupt Sex Trafficking.

The campaign is a series of ads that focus on how children are recruited and ways to interrupt that exploitation. Posters are being distributed to schools and are displayed at bus stops. Genice Jacobs, founder of Abolitionist Mom and creator of the campaign, which was initially launched in Northern California, explained in a press release released by the DA’s office: “… teens and children are trafficked while attending school. Prevention, education and intervention programs are necessary to stop more children from becoming exploited.”

It’s important to understand who’s most at risk for recruitment. Research has identified 10 factors that put someone at risk. Those are:

  1. Runaway behavior, “in and out of home,” or “disappearing”
  2. Involvement with older man/boyfriend
  3. Involvement with drugs or alcohol
  4. Lack of parental involvement
  5. Being a female recruited by a female
  6. Having a family member who arranges or approves
  7. Financial problems
  8. Personal involvement with pimp/gang member
  9. Having mental/emotional health needs
  10. Having a family member involved in sex trafficking

Anyone who recognizes one or more of these risk factors in a family member, friend or acquaintance, and who believes that the person may be a potential victim of trafficking, is encouraged to report it to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center toll-free hotline number 1-888-373-7888 or text to BeFree (233733)

But besides reporting suspected trafficking, there are other ways the public can help to interrupt and even prevent the crimes from occurring in the first place. Concerned citizens can donate money to agencies and organizations that work with victims and survivors, or they may choose to “adopt” an organization through their church, mentor a child, advocate for children in foster care and help the children ageing out of the foster system. As Matzger explained: “It’s important for people to realize that anyone, from any family, can be a victim but everyone can do something.”

 Want to help? These organizations can use your monetary donations to prevent trafficking through education and to help survivors of human trafficking as they reintegrate back into society.

North County LGBTQ Resource Center

Alabaster Jar Project

Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition

Center for Community Solutions

Hope Project