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Orange County is a destination spot for human traffickers, report finds

A 2010 protest against human trafficking in London.
A 2010 protest against human trafficking in London.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Orange County’s affluence has produced one disturbing side effect: making the county a destination spot for human traffickers aiming to fetch higher prices for victims' forced labor and sex work.

That’s one of the findings of a new report (PDF) released by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, an anti-trafficking effort involving dozens of law enforcement departments, nonprofits, government agencies and community organizations. The task force on Friday released its annual Human Trafficking Victim Report, which tallied 137 newly discovered victims of human trafficking in Orange County for 2015 – a twofold increase from the year before.

The report also found that the vast majority of both victims and traffickers found in Orange County were from other locations: 78 percent of victims identified and 80 percent of perpetrators were not originally from the area.

“Perpetrators are telling us that they can charge more money here in Orange County than in many other counties, so they are purposefully and specifically bringing women and girls here to meet the demand,” said Lita Mercado, director of victim assistance programs at nonprofit group Community Service Programs, which cofounded the task force. “And this insatiable demand here in Orange County includes the desire and willingness for underage girls.”

Around 21 percent of the 225 victims who received services from the task force last year were under the age of 18, according to the report. More than 90 percent were female, and most of them were U.S. citizens.

Having traffickers bring in women and girls from other places complicates efforts to stop the operations, Mercado said.

“When [victims] are here they don’t know anybody. All they know about Orange County is that there are people here wiling to pay their trafficker to have sex with them, and when they’ve made all the money they can make their trafficker puts them right back in the car and sends them to the next county or next state,” she said.

The report’s figures calculate the number of victims for whom the task force has provided services, including getting them identification information, clothes and other basic necessities, an on-call advocate and support from law enforcement.

While the human trafficking numbers have grown, part of that may be attributed to the task force’s growing reach. The police departments of Santa and Costa Mesa joined the task force over the past year, and the Anaheim police department has long collaborated with the effort, giving it more resources to find victims and stop trafficking operations.