Law enforcement agencies in California made nearly 500 human trafficking-related arrests and aided more than 80 trafficking victims in the state in a sex trade crackdown executed during Super Bowl week, authorities announced on Tuesday.
The statewide effort, called Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, was coordinated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department but involved agencies from Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and seven other counties.
In all, officials arrested 34 people suspected of trafficking or exploiting sex workers, 201 people who were allegedly caught trying to buy sex, and hundreds more on other similar charges, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Villanueva added that the operation aimed to "send a message to pimps, exploiters, and buyers that it is unacceptable to buy another human being for sexual purposes."
In the week leading up to the big game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, investigators reportedly contacted 74 women and 8 girls who were being victimized in illicit sex trade operations, Villanueva added. Those women and girls were then "rescued," given shelter, and directed to resources to help them recover from any abuses they suffered.
Mercury News reported that the Super Bowl and other major sporting events have long been considered hotbeds for human trafficking as traffickers flock to the host city from other areas.
Alan Smyth, CEO of the advocacy group Saving Innocence, confirmed that big sporting events "absolutely garner an increase in trafficking of both adults and minors."
"I can tell you, from an agency that’s on the ground, embedded with advocates and survivors that ... we have seen repeatedly, over and over again, an uptick [in human trafficking] and our services required," he said.
Santa Ana Police Commander Jose Gonzalez explained during Tuesday's news conference that many victims are "lied to in the beginning, and have gotten so deep it’s difficult to find a way out."
As an example, Villanueva reported that in Contra Costa County, authorities arrested a man allegedly running a nationwide prostitution ring. He said a search warrant executed by police turned up two handguns, an AR-15, a shotgun, body armor, and 100 rounds of ammunition.
The sheriff went on to describe another arrest in Costa Mesa in which officers set up an online date with a young woman to trap her pimp. When he drove the girl up to the pre-arranged location, officers discovered an unregistered loaded handgun. They also determined that he had recruited the girl when she was at a young age.
"That should kind of illustrate to you how pervasive this is, once they get their claws on someone, they’re going to continue exploiting them from childhood into adulthood," Villanueva explained.