2012-08-23 / Front Page
Human trafficking at home in Ventura County
While some of the watchmen are willing participants in the dangerous criminal operation, others are paying off their debt to the drug cartels that brought them to the United States illegally.
They are among the millions of people around the world who are transported and enslaved in the growing $32-billion industry known as human trafficking.
The crime occurs throughout the county, said Sgt. Eric Buschow of the Thousand Oaks Police Department, but it’s difficult to uncover.
“The problem with human traffi cking is that it’s something that goes unnoticed and unreported,” the sergeant said. “No one’s going to raise their hand and say, ‘I was brought here to pursue my dreams but these are the circumstances.’”
Some victims are afraid to speak up because they don’t trust police, said David Wales, the agent in charge at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Camarillo. ICE is one of the main federal agencies that combat human trafficking.
“In many of the countries where they come from (citizens) don’t have a good relationship with law enforcement because they’re corrupt or don’t care,” Wales said. “We’re trying to overcome that.”
Hiding in the shadows
Human trafficking involves recruiting, transporting, harboring or receiving a person through force, abduction, deceit or other means for the purpose of exploiting them, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
There are an estimated 27 million “enslaved” people worldwide, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department, which monitors anti-human-trafficking efforts by governments around the world.
Thousands are trafficked to the U.S. from abroad every year. Many leave their homes for the promise of well-paying jobs. Instead, they are brought to massage parlors, brothels, sweatshops, agricultural fields and residential homes, where they are forced to work or engage in prostitution for little or no pay under the threat of violence or to pay off a debt.
In the case of the drug cartels, human cargo is secretly brought into the country—along with marijuana—on panga boats arriving on the county’s shore, Bushcow said. Many are Mexican nationals forced to work for years in exchange for the favor of being brought to the United States, he said.
A key to rescuing these forced laborers is bringing them out of the shadows.
“A lot of these victims are hidden in plain sight. They’re not chained up in a dungeon somewhere,” Wales said. While some work the drug trade, the most commonly identified and visible form of human trafficking is forced prostitution. According to the United Nations’ Global
Report on Traffi cking in Persons, four in five cases of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation.
Officers have made arrests for prostitution at massage parlors in T.O., but the employees were in the country legally and there was no indication of human trafficking, Buschow said.
In California, the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego are on the FBI’s 13-city list of highest child sex trafficking areas.
As a result, more is being done to help victims of human sex trafficking in California.
In November, the issue will make a rare appearance on the statewide ballot.
If approved by voters, Proposition 35, known as the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, would increase criminal penalties for human trafficking. Those found guilty could face prison sentences of 15 years to life in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
Courts may impose an additional fine of $1 million upon conviction.
The fines collected would be used for victim services and law enforcement. The proposition would require police officers to receive human trafficking training and a person convicted of trafficking to register as a sex offender.
Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night in Van Nuys, has helped more than 10,000 young people who had been forced into prostitution. The nonprofit was founded in 1979.
The organization operates a 24-hour hotline and provides victims with taxi and air transportation to its home, which accommodates up to 24 residents at a time. It currently houses 15 people.
“Prostitution is alive and well everywhere,” Lee said.
Lee said that many children forced into prostitution in the U.S. were abused from an early age.
“Some of the children are raised in crack houses, and most were sexually molested before they could walk,” she said.
Once a child arrives at the shelter they are given food and clothing. A staff member calls the child’s legal guardian to let them know the child has arrived at the home.
Residents attend an on-site school, participate in evening activities such as yoga, and arts and crafts, and go on weekly trips to places such as amusement parks, restaurants and the movies.
Children also meet with case workers who ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Staffers then help them to reach their goals.
Officers patrolling the county’s shoreline have found boats with up to 15 people transporting two tons of marijuana, Buschow said. Those who are convicted of a crime are incarcerated locally or in state prison before being deported, he said.
Those who are not caught early wreak havoc on the land, he said.
In September and October, when the plants are harvested, narcotics and air units from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office sweep the area in helicopters, arrest the workers and confiscate the drugs under their care.
A record was set last year when officers seized more than 158,000 marijuana plants.
“There are miles and miles of mountains and rugged country, and that’s where they set up the groves and divert water from creeks,” Buschow said. “They plant marijuana and use unregulated pesticides, poison animals and destroy the environment.”
Armed guards who protect the isolated marijuana groves also pose a threat to hikers and hunters in the area, he said.
“We’re fortunate that no one from the public has been hurt, but there’s always the potential (for it),” the sergeant said.
Both Buschow and Wales said many of the cases of trafficking and forced labor and prostitution uncovered by their agencies were brought to light through tips from the public.
“There are so many more eyes and ears out there than I have agents,” Wales said.
To report incidents of human trafficking or exploitation, call ICE’s tip line at (866) 347-2423.
To learn more about Proposition 35, visit www.caseact.org/ case.
For more information about Children of the Night, go to www.childrenofthenight.org.