A monthlong investigation into human trafficking and sexual exploitation in San Diego and National City resulted in 48 arrests and identification of 16 people believed to have been trafficked — including eight children, officials announced Tuesday.
The investigation — dubbed Operation Better Pathways — was conducted by the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, a group that includes federal, state and local law enforcement partners, from Jan. 9 through Feb. 10.
The operation targeted areas known for sexual exploitation, according to investigators, namely Dalbergia Street near Interstate 5 and Naval Base San Diego and Roosevelt Avenue near Kimball Park in National City, where — as one official put it — would-be sex customers lined up like they were in a “fast food drive thru.”
Investigators conducted 17 stings, resulting in dozens of arrests. Thirty-nine suspects were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes, mostly prostitution-related offenses for people accused of buying sex. Another nine suspects were accused of more serious crimes, including human trafficking of a minor and assault with a deadly weapon.
Two firearms, including a ghost gun, were recovered during the operation.
The task force also identified 41 potential human trafficking or sex exploitation victims and survivors who were offered help from adult and juvenile support services advocates. Eight of the 41 individuals were children between the ages of 13 and 17.
Police said at a news conference Tuesday that the youngest victim, a 13-year-old girl, was walking a street, waiting for someone to buy sex from her when she was spotted by officers. She was reunited with her family; officials didn’t say where she was from.
In another case, a suspected trafficker allegedly used physical violence, sexual abuse and a gun to force three young people, including two 16-year-old runaway girls from Arizona, into sex work.
“The criminals who were taken down as part of this operation, abused and exploited women for their own enrichment,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria at the news conference. “We will continue to disrupt these criminal operations that seek to do our people in our communities harm.
“This operation demonstrates that if you do wrong in our city, if you harm others, you try and tear down our communities, you want to harm our children, law enforcement is watching.”
Dozens of local and state officials attended the news conference at San Diego Police Department headquarters, including state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who congratulated the task force on its efforts.
The operation was part of an ongoing regional effort to crack down on human trafficking and sexual exploitation. It is a goal some local officials believe has been complicated by a state bill that passed last year.
Senate Bill 357, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July, voids a misdemeanor law against loitering in public for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.
Anti-loitering laws have been contentious nationwide, in part because they are often vague in their definition of what constitutes loitering, which gives police wide latitude to arrest or disperse individuals. Before it was passed, SB 357 deeply divided Democrats in the Legislature, and the Assembly approved it with only one vote to spare.
Supporters of the bill said police used the misdemeanor provision to disproportionately discriminate against sex workers and LGBTQ people, many of whom are Black and Brown. They raised concerns that the law worsens conditions for workers and leads to unsafe and violent situations, especially for transgender women.
Opponents argued that police used the loitering law to hold johns and pimps accountable for taking advantage of young women and girls.
At Tuesday’s news conference, San Diego police Chief David Nisleit said the new law further complicates law enforcement efforts to identify victims of sex trafficking.
“We’re talking about a young lady who, by the age of 13, has fallen victim to this,” Nisleit said. “How many more victims do we need to have in sex trafficking before we realize this is not a good law? We can address the disparities in a different manner.”
National City police Chief Jose Tellez and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan echoed those sentiments.
Nisleit also said the operation highlighted the role technology often plays in the fight against human trafficking. The chief said potential suspects often spot undercover officers and police vehicles quickly.
During the operation, police used a variety of investigative techniques, including pole cameras set up by the task force, to crack down on sex exploitation and human trafficking as it occurred, officials said.
People who were arrested were referred to the county District Attorney’s Office, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution.
Officials said nine felony cases are being pursued in state and federal court as a result of the operation.
Stephan said her office filed four cases in state court. She said one case involved a pregnant 21-year-old woman and her 17-year-old sister, both of whom were allegedly being trafficked.
Stephan said she visited the San Diego and National City locations that the investigation targeted, and what she saw was appalling.
“Young women being openly trafficked in broad daylight, with individuals paying for sex lined up like they were going through a fast-food drive thru,” she said. “It’s an unacceptable situation.”
U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said at the news conference that his office has charged three suspects arrested during the operation with federal human trafficking charges — crimes that call for a minimum of 15 years in federal prison.
California has the most reported cases of human trafficking in the country and there were more than 1,300 human trafficking cases reported across the state in 2021, according to authorities with the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
The crime is prevalent in the hospitality, commercial sex, domestic work and construction industries, according to authorities. Victims also are found among migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, residential care providers and workers in the garment industry.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.