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Human Trafficking Rises to No. 1, Most Increasing Crime in OC

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Orange County is a hotspot for human trafficking.

A total of 56 individuals were arrested Feb. 18 for suspicion of running a human trafficking operation in Orange County. 16 victims were recovered from the operations with two being minors. Police were expecting such activities of trafficking to increase during the week of the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

This was a multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional operation known as “Operation Red-Zone.” The arrests consisted of men ranging from ages 20 to 55 and throughout Orange County all the way to Los Angeles County. The traffickers were charged with human trafficking, pimping and pandering, solicitation for sex and narcotics. One charge also included a recovered unregistered handgun.

The agencies used various techniques to conduct these undercover operations, such as investigations into online sex solicitation websites and known “problematic” businesses.

The agencies involved in the operation included the Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna, Santa Ana and Westminster Police Departments. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), OC Sheriff’s Department and OC District Attorney’s Office also assisted in Operation Red-Zone.

The victims have been connected with Waymakers to help provide them with shelter, crisis intervention assistance, food, clothing and transportation. Waymakers is a nonprofit organization and resource that was created to help create safer communities through helping young offenders, family conflict, community conflict, victims of violence and give them shelter, counseling, crisis management, employment and other resources. 

The minors have been connected with the Orange County Social Services Agency.

Statistics from sting operations to arrest traffickers found that 80% of human trafficking victims ended up in Orange Count because a large portion of Orange County is wealthy.

“Pimps are operating economically: the fact that many people in Orange County are willing to pay for sex draws the traffickers to bring their victims here,” Deputy District Attorney Kelcie Wiemann of the Santa Ana Police Department Human Trafficking Unit said.

A representative of the Orange County Police Department, who requested to remain anonymous, told the New University in an interview that human trafficking has spiked in the county and the entire nation. “It is the second industry behind drugs,” the representative said.

Further intel from the source said that the internet and social media are large factors that have led to the increase of trafficking in OC. The victims mainly consist of underage females, as well as females between the ages of 18 and 25, at most the age of 30.

The anonymous source also reported that traffickers search for someone young to use as prostitutes. The police department tends to go about prostitution in Orange County differently since many of these victims are being trafficked and return the money from their street job to their traffickers, otherwise known as pimps.

“I would say an average of how much you can sell a girl here for would range between $800 to about $1000 a night,” Administrator Linh Tran of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force said in 2019. This meant that the victims would have around 8 to 10 different customers in one night.

Young people are recruited through social media, like Instagram, and the internet. The Orange County Police Department searches for ads that display  females that look underage, underage females around hotels, and through different streets known for prositituion like the Anaheim trap.

Victims can also be recruited through falsely advertised jobs, foster care systems, exploitation of  immigrants, and media accounts known as “Sugar Moms and Dads,” where a person is offering financial help in exchange for conversations and more.

In response to the 56 individuals arrested for a trafficking operation in OC, the representative of the Police Department said that it was around 4 days of work for them and several other agencies to make the arrests and recover victims. 

According to the representative, human trafficking is in fact the number one crime in Orange County and said that nation does not receive the kind of focus that other crimes do through the media, resulting in this growth.

A total of 357 victims were assisted by multiple agencies between 2019 and 2020 in OC.

“Instead of going to school dances and having my first boyfriend, I was half naked on your local street corner. I was exposed to domestic violence, drugs and put my health at risk. I was a sophomore with a B average. My life took a plunge for the worse when I met the Defendant,” an unidentified victim of human trafficking said to the OC Human Trafficking Task Force.

Most victims in Orange County are found working as domestic servants in private homes and as prostitutes in near hotels and motels, massage parlors, and residential brothels.

The New University also held an interview with Administrative Asssistant Brandi Velez for the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF) which focuses on “prosecuting victims, prosecuting offenders, preventing further perpetration and partnership combatting,” to gain more insight as to why human trafficking is so large in OC.

“Victims have always been there, just haven’t been recognized,” Velez said. Through 2019 to 2020, OCHTTF assisted 157 victims of trafficking. She mentioned how it’s hard to determine whether rates have spiked or not in recent years because despite COVID-19 and law enforcement involvement, trafficking is constantly happening.

In response to the New University asking Veldez if the Spectrum News 2018 report that Orange County was the hotspot for human trafficking was true and and how has it changed since, Veldez said “It’s where the money is.” She also mentioned that one of the factors of OC that also contributed to the growth in trafficking is Disneyland, where there is a constant flow of tourists and traffic of people, and the hotel industry. 

Although the OCHTTF has not yet released statistics for trafficking in 2021 to 2022, there is always a new flow of victims coming through. Another factor that contributes to this growth includes how many victims are also too scared to reach out for help through organizations because traffic rings are much larger and can completely be exploited by law enforcement.

“Our partnering with law enforcement employs the bigger picture model to successfully identify new victims and curb human trafficking crimes. Our lead police agencies include the Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine Police Departments,” Velez said.

Some ways the public can help identify victims of human trafficking are by educating themselves through reliable sources, such as the California Alliance Against Trafficking. 

“Anyone can have vulnerabilities, and anyone can be trafficked for the want of a simple life, and love and acceptance,” Velez said. 

If the public sees anyone who is a suspected or is a victim of trafficking call 911, or the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which receives calls 24/7 in multiple languages and respects anonymity, at 1-888-373-7888.

Hanna Bulaj is a City News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at hbulaj@uci.edu.