Sex slaves live among us in Fresno. Mayor’s new initiative aims to end that

‘Modern day slavery’ problem targeted in Mayor’s human trafficking initiative

Human Trafficking Initiative announced by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand to combat "modern day slavery" and the victimization of women by gangs around the city, during a press conference on Wednesday.
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Human Trafficking Initiative announced by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand to combat "modern day slavery" and the victimization of women by gangs around the city, during a press conference on Wednesday.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand on Wednesday announced the launch of a new collaborative initiative targeting human trafficking.

The initiative brings together law enforcement, schools, faith-based organizations and nonprofits to address human trafficking with five different approaches.

“The fact that slavery still exists in this world – and especially here in the Central Valley – is unacceptable,” Brand said. “We cannot rest until human trafficking and slavery has been ended.”

The five approaches detailed under the initiative includes law enforcement agencies teaming up to specifically target massage parlors that are operating illegally, and working to strengthen legislation, such as amending the hotel registration and codes for massage parlor operations.

Law enforcement also will work with immigration groups and the Consulate of Mexico to crack down on labor trafficking. Fresno County service providers and nonprofits will work educating children on the issue in an effort to prevent them from becoming victims.

Additionally, Fresno Pacific University will lead a team to gather and streamline data from multiple sources. The mayor and Fresno EOC are tasked with finding sustainable funding to continue the collaborative work.

City officials did not provide a total estimate for what the new initiative is expected to cost.

The Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, an initiative partner, received a $770,000 grant to use over three years for victim services. Additionally, a $500,000 grant from the state Office of Emergency Services for the Fresno EOC will be renewed in April. Each partner will use its own funding and resources to contribute to the collaborative.

Partners will form subcommittees for each of the five areas and create action plans and goals documented in annual reports.

The mayor made his announcement in a news conference at the Double Tree on the day of the Central Valley 10th Annual Conference on Human Trafficking.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer said gangs now make more money from sex trafficking than dealing drugs. “You can only sell a drug one time,” he said, “but you can sell a female over and over again.” Gangs often use social media to recruit young women and girls and set up “dates” with customers.

Debra Rush, cofounder of Breaking the Chains, called sex trafficking a “global war” that can only be won by rallying the troops — or everyday people in this case.

In 2018, Brand assembled a group of leaders, such as Dyer, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, Debra Rush with Breaking the Chains and Sarah Johnston with the Fresno EOC Central Valley Against Human Trafficking to create an anti-trafficking movement. The group already has made progress in reducing human trafficking in Fresno, Brand said.

In 2017, Fresno Police Department’s vice investigations resulted in the arrests and prosecution of 19 human trafficking suspects. Nearly 30 victims were identified and referred to services. Also in 2017, Smittcamp created a human trafficking prosecution unit, where prosecutors secured key convictions.

Brand’s administration also organized a Motel Owners Association, specifically targeting Parkway Drive, to enforce building codes in an area known for crime, particularly human trafficking. That effort, with targeted enforcement operations, recently resulted in 25 arrests.

Another important element of the new initiative is the sharing and streamlining of data between agencies, nonprofits and faith groups which are part of the collaborative. The data piece is being led by Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Community Transformation.

Johnston said many of the signs someone is a victim of human trafficking are similar to signs shown by domestic violence victims.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.