The Central Valley has a slavery problem of which most residents are unaware. It is a center for human trafficking, much of it focused on the sex trade, but now an effort is underway in Tulare County to change that.
Centrally located in the state with an entrenched criminal element and a high population of young people and immigrants to prey upon, the South Valley is uniquely suited to a terrible crime largely ignored both in the media and by authorities, say officials. That, too, is changing, as those charged with stopping these largely unseen crimes work to educate those who could become its next victims.
“Tulare County is in the middle of the state, so it’s a high-traffic area. We’ve got gangs. They’ll take young people and force them to participate in sex acts against their will,” said Louie Campos, president of the Society of Legal Studies at College of the Sequoias, which will host a forum on human trafficking on Tuesday, October 20. “That’s slavery,” he said.
Slavery by the Numbers
Statistics from the state Office of the Attorney General tell the story. From 2010 to 2012, nearly 1,300 victims of traffickers were identified within California, and about 1,800 people were arrested for enslaving them. Of the victims, 56% had been forced into prostitution, while 23% were being used as forced labor. The vast majority, 72%, were US citizens. Among those forced into the sex trade, 98% were women and girls.
Those arrests barely scratch the surface. According to the Center for Public Policy Studies, California may have as many as half a million immigrants forced to work in agriculture against their will, and the crime is not limited to the state’s fields.
Sweatshops in major cities are also home to human bondage. But the focus remains the sex trade, and the fact sex slavery happens here is a terrible surprise to many, including those whose job it is to address the crime.
“I was shocked Tulare County was in some of those briefs,” said Stuart Anderson, public information officer for the Tulare County District Attorney’s office, describing his work on the DA’s human trafficking task force. “I didn’t know that was going on here. I bet there are a lot of others in the same boat.”
Authorities Working Locally
The DA’s office has not been idle. A full-time investigator has been assigned to work with law enforcement when a case of trafficking is discovered, and a victim advocate now works with those rescued from their captors.
Their efforts have resulted in arrests and convictions, such as that of 31-year-old Tyrell Richmond, who was taken into custody in Visalia in August of last year, for allegedly forcing three girls into prostitution, or Alejandro Manuel Perez, 26, of Visalia, who pleaded guilty to two counts of sex trafficking a minor in 2013.
As important as prosecution is prevention, which is why the DA’s office has begun a series of educational presentations designed to alert area residents to the dangers of becoming a victim.
Those who attend will also learn to identify those already being exploited.
“A lot of times, people don’t understand what’s going on,” said Campos. “They accuse the victims of being prostitutes. It’s not the same thing. It’s slavery. We’re trying to bring awareness to that difference.”
Spotting the Signs
At the October 20 COS event, a 20-minute video “Chosen” will present the story of how two victims found themselves unwilling participants in sex-for-sale crimes.
“It spotlights two young women who were caught up in this, I don’t want to call it an industry, but that’s what it is,” Campos said. “They tell the story of how easily people can fall into this trap.”
The evening will also include an expert panel that will discuss the problem locally, as well as providing information on how to spot the signs of victimization.
The event organizers are hoping to reach a young audience, as that group is most likely to become prey to such crimes. The program begins at 6:30pm in the COS Theatre. Admission is open to the public, and the event is free to attend.
“We’re encouraging parents and children as young as middle-schoolers to come out,” said Anderson. “The video is youth-friendly. The subject matter is mature, but it’s been edited for community distribution. Human trafficking effects their age population, especially in high school. To able to recognize the signs among friends is really important.”
For more information on the October 20 event or to report suspected human trafficking, contact the DA’s office at 636-4517. Cases of suspected trafficking can also be reported to the California
Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking at (888) 539-2373.