By SLO County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Board 

World Day against Human Trafficking, observed on July 30, has our community thinking, talking, and posting about human trafficking’s impact on our communities and what we can do to abolish it. This is huge. San Luis Obispo County has an Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and a Counter Human Trafficking Team. Both groups want to be sure that our community has access to relevant and accurate information about what human trafficking looks like on the Central Coast while providing resources and the ability to help in the fight. 

Our goal is to educate the community, help victims, and hold traffickers accountable, and we need your help. 

Human trafficking takes place all year long, and the goal of abolishing human trafficking deserves our attention day in and day out. Human trafficking takes no holidays and is not deterred by a pandemic. Many statistics show that human trafficking has spiked with the onset of COVID-19. Human trafficking knows no geographic border, affects all socioeconomic statuses, and is a societal problem. We all have the capacity to fight in some form. Human trafficking is a lucrative and profitable industry with surprisingly low risk. It is a crime that continues to flourish despite the Task Force and law enforcement entities’ recent efforts to intervene and stem the tide of exploitation.  

Human trafficking is often referred to as a form of “modern-day slavery.” This description is given based upon the forced exploitation of another human. It involves the use of force, fear, or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex. 

In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed, and human trafficking was clearly defined into two categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion. An example would be forcing someone to work long hours without adequate compensation in inhumane conditions. Locally, sex trafficking is the most prevalent of the two.  

Sex trafficking is defined as a commercial sex act (forced prostitution) induced by force, fear, or coercion, or when any individual under the age of 18 is forced to perform such acts. While both sex trafficking and labor trafficking deserve intervention and disruption, commercial sexual exploitation has been the primary focus of local counter-trafficking efforts.  

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling. Human trafficking is a crime against a person, while human smuggling is a crime against a border. Key differences are that there are a border and transportation involved in smuggling, and the actions of people involved are generally voluntary. 

Conversely, sex trafficking involves a person, no border crossing is required, exploitation is a key component, and the victim’s involvement is not voluntary.  

What does all of this mean to the Central Coast, and what is being done to combat this cruel and heinous crime? 

For starters, it should be recognized without a doubt that human trafficking is present and thriving on the Central Coast. The face of human trafficking is neither what was portrayed in the movie “Taken” starring Liam Neeson, nor is it the glamourous life of a prostitute depicted by Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” While there is a low likelihood of our children being kidnapped off our local streets and being forced into sexual servitude, families should still be aware of the dangers of human trafficking and the predatory nature of the traffickers. As parents, neighbors, coworkers, and friends, we need to know our communities are not immune to predators, whether they are homegrown, on the internet, or merely passing through town. A goal of our community should be to make it undesirable for traffickers to operate here. Generally, the crime of human trafficking has been under-identified and under-investigated. 

This is because human trafficking is an evolving and developing area in the law, and until the past few years, it has not been properly and consistently identified for what it is — a crime. Training for law enforcement and the community has increased recently. A paradigm shift is taking place within the law enforcement community where “sex workers” are handled as victims, rather than perpetrators. 

The traffickers are now the true targets. In terms of labor trafficking, only 4% of law enforcement personnel have ever investigated the crime of labor trafficking. Sexual exploitation and trafficking have become more of a focus within the law enforcement community. However, like labor trafficking, it is still often under-investigated in many regions despite efforts to make it a priority. Staffing and resources are typically the biggest hurdles. 

The good news is that training, education, and enforcement is increasing. Now more than ever, multi-disciplinary collaborations and collaborative investigations are being made locally and nationwide.  

Why does human trafficking thrive on the Central Coast?

It is our geography, affluence, and relative safety. Our location is convenient. We are halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. There are major highway arteries connecting the Central Coast to the Central Valley and big cities like Sacramento. Many of the victims that are brought to the Central Coast come from these larger communities. San Luis Obispo County is a natural travel corridor for sex trafficking and a lucrative destination due to the Central Coast’s relative affluence and the fact that many residents have disposable income that can be spent on prostitution services. Sadly, the Central Coast has become part of a statewide “circuit” that traffickers utilize while trafficking victims throughout California. The Central Coast is relatively safe, causing traffickers to believe they can operate free of competition or worry of detection. Most people would be shocked and saddened to know how simple it is to procure prostitution services in our communities.

All of this begs the question: What is being done?  

In 2014, the San Luis Obispo County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force was formed. Since its inception, the task force has gathered individuals from countless disciplines to educate the community, develop resources for victims and those at risk of being exploited, and ensure that human trafficking instances are investigated.  

In mid-2019, a partnership was forged between the District Attorney’s Office Bureau of Investigation and the Sheriff’s Office. At that time, a Counter Human Trafficking Team was formed with two full-time detectives assigned to investigate human trafficking proactively. In the last year, numerous investigations have been launched to disrupt the supply and demand side of the human trafficking market in San Luis Obispo County. These investigations have resulted in the rescue of victims, apprehension of purchasers and traffickers, and the formation of community relationships that will hopefully aid in the abolishment of human trafficking in our communities.  

To further aid our community, this introductory column is being written to expose the reality of human trafficking. Future topics for our monthly column going forward will include the pimping, prostitution, and human trafficking subculture, social media concerns, a look into human trafficking investigations, and pornography’s link to human trafficking.  

There is work yet to be done, but we’re off to a good start.

To email questions or ideas on future topics that you would like the SLO County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Board to address, email us at taskforce@13starsmedia.com 

For resources on human trafficking, the following organizations are recommended: (note: these organizations collaborate directly with task force investigators) 

  • DeliverFund — deliverfund.org
  • Resilient Souls — resilientsouls.org
  • North County Abolitionists — nocoabolitionists.org   
  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-2373