Over 500 people were arrested last week as part of an operation to combat human trafficking in Los Angeles County, officials said Wednesday.
At the close of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Sheriff Alex Villanueva of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced the results of the sixth annual Operation Reclaim and Rebuild enforcement operation.
The operation was conducted by the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and 70 participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and task forces from across California.
The weeklong, statewide effort aimed at combatting human trafficking took place between Jan. 6 and Feb.1, resulting in over 500 suspects arrested and 87 victims rescued, including 11 minors.
A press conference was held Tuesday at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. Villanueva was joined by executives and representatives from dozens of law enforcement, social services and anti-trafficking organizations, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), California Highway Patrol (CHP), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) and Santa Clarita-based Zoe International.
Operation Reclaim and Rebuild focused on rescuing victims of sexual slavery and human trafficking, providing victims with much-needed services, identifying and arresting their captors, seeking successful prosecutions and disrupting the demand for vulnerable victims by targeting their customers.
“Human trafficking amounts to nothing less than modern day slavery and has no place in our society,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “It’s up to us to take on criminals who profit from forced labor and sexual exploitation of vulnerable Californians. Operation Reclaim and Rebuild is a testament to what can be accomplished to support survivors and combat trafficking in our state.”
Operation Reclaim and Rebuild resulted in 76 adult and 11 minor victims recovered; 266 males arrested for the charge of solicitation; and 27 suspected traffickers and exploiters arrested. In total, 518 arrests were made.
Police agencies and other trafficking task forces throughout the state joined in the enforcement operation to send the message that California law enforcement shares a unified mandate that human trafficking must not be tolerated, according to officials.
In preparation for the event, an operational planning meeting took place in Los Angeles, with over 200 federal, state and municipal law enforcement detectives from all over California in attendance.
Investigators focused enforcement operations wherever the trafficking of human beings took place, from confronting the reality of sidewalk prostitution by conducting demand operations, to challenging the virtual reality of the cyber world where traffickers believe they can operate anonymously using the internet.
The internet furnishes a variety of opportunities for traffickers, but with the experience of specially-trained cyber detectives who posed as vulnerable teenagers and interacted with suspects on social media, traffickers and customers who were anxious to exploit found their plans foiled, according to officials.
Victims encountered during enforcement efforts were cared for by personnel from various Department of Children and Family Services agencies and victim service providers in each county.
In Los Angeles County, CAST, Saving Innocence, Zoe International and Journey Out coordinated the emergency services response for victim care and collaborated with similar, non-governmental victim service organizations throughout the state.
Villanueva relayed the mission, efforts and results of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, and gave a firm direction to the victims, perpetrators and buyers.
“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and our partners stand with each victim of this heinous crime. You are the focus of this endeavor. We are here for you. We are here to help you reclaim your freedom from the binds of sex trafficking, and to provide you the support and tools to rebuild your lives,” said Villanueva.
“To the traffickers and solicitors: We will not tolerate the enslavement and trafficking of others in any form. We will seek you out and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
Villanueva went on to point out that the clients were as much to blame as the traffickers for their part in the proliferation of sex trafficking.
“To the ‘Johns:’ Purchasing commercial sex is illegal and buying sex adds to the exploitation of those involved,” he said.
Capt. Michael Hannemann of the LASD, who oversaw the coordinated effort, defined Operation Reclaim and Rebuild as a state-wide operation “which displays the mutual commitment of California law enforcement, social service agencies and victim service providers in the fight to end sex trafficking.”
“The L.A. Regional Human Trafficking Task Force is an example of how individual entities can be far more effective when they join together in a shared mission,” said Hannemann. “Today, 11 children have been rescued from their exploiters and 76 women have been connected with the services necessary to rebuild their lives, free from exploitation.”
The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based organization, helps rehabilitate survivors of human trafficking, raises awareness and affects legislation and public policy surrounding human trafficking, according to their website.
“As a task force, we are continuing to find cutting-edge approaches to serving survivors that prioritize their rights, secure their safety and provide access to services while holding traffickers accountable,” said Kay Buck, CAST director and CEO. “I want to thank all of the amazing community leaders that are a part of the task force for being stewards of our shared community values and our evolving national model.”
Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher of the Los Angeles Police Department shared four cases which came as a result of Human Trafficking Taskforce operations and daily operations. He attributed them to the collaborative work between organizations and non-governmental resource providers which come alongside to lift victims “out of their issues, provide them life-saving skills, life-building skills, and ultimately… prosecute those vicious criminals who prey upon them.”
In the six years of operations since its inception, the Human Trafficking Task Force has resulted in 1,978 arrests, including 348 for internet crimes against children. Additionally, 388 victims, including 284 minors, have been rescued as a direct result of the operations.