A new billboard campaign is aimed at combatting youth sex trafficking. (Photo courtesy of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office)
A new billboard campaign is aimed at combating youth sex trafficking. (Courtesy, Alameda County District Attorney’s Office)

Human trafficking, the sale of human beings for labor and sex, is getting a national spotlight in January.

Bay Area political leaders, law enforcement and survivors groups are launching public awareness campaigns aimed at driving the human trafficking industry out of the shadows in one of the country’s highest-intensity markets for modern-day slaves. The issue has garnered much more attention in recent years, but a full account of how many people are trafficked in and through the Bay Area remains elusive.

“The reality is we really do not know the full scope of human trafficking in our community,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “We know that it’s large. We know that there are many victims out there. We know that most victims are suffering in silence, but we just don’t know how big the problem is because it is so underreported.”

The gap between known trafficking victims and estimates of their total is staggering. About 40,000 of the estimated 27 million trafficking victims worldwide have been identified, according to the State Department. The department estimates up to 17,500 people are trafficked to the United States every year, adding to a quickly growing domestically trafficked population.

Human trafficking doesn’t necessarily require smuggling people across borders. California and federal law define sex trafficking as forcing, coercing or transporting someone for the purpose of a commercial sex act. Labor trafficking is the act of forcing a person to work for little or no money.

The United Nations calculates human trafficking as a $32 billion-a-year industry.

“In the United States alone there are an estimated more than 100,000 children currently being exploited in the sex trade, and the overwhelming majority of these victims, more than 80 percent, are U.S. citizens,” U.S. Attorney Malinda Haag said at a human trafficking awareness campaign kickoff in San Francisco last week. “Incidents of forced labor and human trafficking are hiding in plain sight all over California and in the Bay Area. Modern slavery here and in this time rarely involves shackles or chains, but it instead uses more subtle forms of bondage, including coercion, false pretenses, isolation, surveillance, threats of harm, economic dependence and threats to family members.”

Haag mentioned two recent high-profile trafficking cases in California. Federal prosecutors disclosed charges against 24 alleged San Diego gang members on Jan. 8 for operating a prostitution ring spanning 46 cities in 23 states. They allegedly tattooed some of the 60 women victims, including 11 minors, with bar codes or gang symbols. Hayward police arrested two men that same day for running a sex-trafficking ring. Police say a 14-year-old girl who had been forced into prostitution led them to the suspects and two other victims.

San Francisco officials are stepping up enforcement of a state law that took effect last April requiring some businesses to post phone numbers for national human trafficking victim services. The mayor’s office and police chief are mailing notices and posters to establishments affected by the law, which include adult or sexually oriented shops, airports, train stations, truck stops, bus stations, emergency rooms, farm labor contractors and massage parlors.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said the Police Department identified 79 potential human trafficking victims in 2013. He said 380 human trafficking victims received services in the city in 2012. Estimates by the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking include new and past victims seeking services. That number approaches 1,000 a year.

The San Francisco Department on the Status of Women released this story in August of a woman who survived sex trafficking in the Bay Area that began when she was 12 years old.

With 325 defendants charged, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office handled almost half of the state’s prosecutions under California’s human trafficking law between 2006 and 2013. There were close to 900 convictions in California between 2007 and 2012 for trafficking-related crimes, however, including pimping, pandering and procuring a minor for a lewd or lascivious act.

“Every day in the Bay Area and in the city of Oakland, children are sold, they’re beaten, they’re drugged, they’re hustled, they’re molested and they’re raped, and they’re exploited for somebody else’s profit,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said.

O’Malley and an Oakland group that provides services to sexually exploited youth recently announced a sex trafficking awareness campaign that includes messages at bus stops and on billboards around the city.

“To each and every child who finds herself or himself in the clutches of a trafficker, unable to find their way to freedom, our bus shelters will send that message to them — there is a way out, and there is help,” O’Malley said.

The Oakland nonprofit Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, or MISSSEY, partnered with the district attorney and Clear Channel Outdoor to create the campaign.

MISSSEY Executive Director Nola Brantley said her organization serves about 250 youth sex-trafficking victims a year.

“We hope it will open up people’s eyes all across the city of Oakland to this horrible crime against children that is happening right here in our own backyards,” Brantley said about public awareness efforts. “We hope it will help to rescue more victims, but more important than this concept of the rescue, we hope that it will help to provide and connect victims with critical long-term and immediate resources to help them fully recover, heal and restore their lives.”

  • Kurt thialfad

    We encourage human trafficking with our municipal sanctuary city laws. We give sanctuary to criminals. That’s the dirty secret.

  • Skip Conrad

    Yes, the undocumented are the most vulnerable. Yet, we refuse to profile based on documentation and immigration status. There is the assumption that foreign people come to the US illegally solely for legitimate purposes. (Kind of an oxymoron here.) And bring their kids, or have their kids delivered to them by some “3rd party”. The “3rd party” is a trafficker by definition. Some people are really stupid.

Author

Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a news reporter focused on criminal justice policy, policing and legal issues. He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at community college in San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Emslie contributed to several Bay Area newspapers and online news outlets before joining KQED in 2013. He loves multimedia reporting, publishing source documents and transparency. He can be reached at aemslie@kqed.org and followed via @SFNewsReporter.

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