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San Diego’s Human Trafficking Problem Requires Binational Work

San Diego was identified as one of the Federal Bureau of Investigations highest sex trafficking areas in the country back in 2003 — and the problem hasn’t gone away. The city’s location, adjacent to Tijuana and on the busiest border crossing in the Western hemisphere, plays a big role in why we see so much human trafficking in the region.

That’s why nonprofits, government prosecutors and survivors of human trafficking from both Baja California and San Diego gathered in Chula Vista on Friday to strengthen their collaboration in combating human trafficking.

“It’s about the network,” said District Attorney Summer Stephan. “We can only beat it by working together and leaving no border where they can run to.”

The binational conference was organized by International Network of Hearts, a nonprofit that helps victims of human trafficking, and the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.

Just the night before the conference, dozens of men were taken into custody during a sex trafficking sting in the Mission Valley area.

“It’s one of the world’s most lucrative illicit practices,” said Southern District of California U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman.

According to a 2015 study from the University of San Diego, human trafficking is the second largest underground economy in San Diego after drug trafficking. The study estimated that, in 2013, the illicit sex economy in San Diego garnered roughly $810 million in annual revenue.

Since that 2015 study, some progress has been made in addressing human trafficking in the region, but prosecuting the crimes remains a challenge.

Eric Roscoe, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of California, revealed during one of the panel sessions that his most successful human trafficking case took three years to prosecute and, though two victims had been assaulted on the same night by the same perpetrator, the case resulted in an acquittal — exemplifying how difficult these cases can be to prosecute. Roscoe said that the victims gained some relief in being able to speak out.

Working across the border, officials in Baja California focus their efforts on education and prevention, trying to raise general awareness of human trafficking and associated crimes and improving their efforts to identify and help victims.

“Slavery continues to this day,” said Hector Orozco, a prosecutor of trafficking crimes for the Baja California Attorney General’s office, in Spanish. “The worst thing is that now they are invisible slaves, because before we saw people in shackles and we knew they were slaves.”

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