Mayor Brand’s human trafficking initiative confronts a scourge afflicting Fresno

‘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.

“Women and children are bought and sold every day in Fresno — online, on street corners, while at school. They are raped, branded and beaten. They are taught that they are the problem, not the people who force them into this life — causing psychological scars that may never heal. It is what many refer to as ‘modern-day slavery.’”

That stark reporting comes from the “Slaves of the Sex Trade” series by Bee staff writer Rory Appleton that was published in November 2017. The series was a shocking look at Fresno’s problem of human trafficking. Appleton shattered the illusion that the sex trade only occurred on the red light motel row along Parkway Drive, or down the bad alleys of Fresno’s impoverished neighborhoods. Readers learned that in the digital age, pimps used cell phones to lure teen girls into regular sex work from every corner of the city, including high schools located in upscale areas, such as Clovis North and Clovis West.

One local group that helps victims told Appleton it had contacted 500 sex workers in the Valley, but the truer estimate was that there were thousands of cases.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer emphasizes that criminal gangs now make more money by sex trafficking than selling drugs. “You can only sell a drug one time,” Dyer says, “but you can sell a female over and over again.”

Add the central location Fresno occupies in the state, and it is easy to traffic women to the Bay Area or Southern California from here.

Arien Pauls, now an advocate for women and trafficking victims in the Central Valley, talks about the night she escaped her trafficker in Las Vegas.

Such a huge problem demands a major response, and that is what Mayor Lee Brand envisions with his newly launched “Initiative to Combat Human Trafficking.”

The initiative brings together the mayor and City Hall officials, police, the District Attorney’s Office, schools, churches, more than a dozen human service agencies already working on the trafficking issue, county officials and the FBI. Their goal: To develop comprehensive strategies to rid Fresno of human trafficking.

Sex trafficking is most common, but labor trafficking — in which a person is kept hostage and made to work — is also a growing problem.

The initiative divides its efforts into enforcement, prevention and education, developing a database, labor trafficking and finding funds to keep the work going.

Much of these efforts already are underway. Fresno police have for years been arresting pimps and closing massage parlors that were fronts for sex businesses And a local task force involving many of the key players has become a model for groups elsewhere in the nation.

But the mayor’s initiative will be far-reaching, will carry the authority of his office, and includes a first — a common database under development for nonprofit agencies to use. Fresno Pacific University students will help create the database. A uniform terminology for reporting will also be developed.

Some good things have already happened:

City and police officials have helped the owners of the 15 or so motels on Parkway Drive form an association. It will hire a security company to patrol the area and work as a liaison with police. A recent targeted-enforcement drive on Parkway netted 25 arrests of men who allegedly solicited prostitution, and dozens of women known to be sex workers were contacted.

City code officers are also working with Parkway motel owners to fix blighted conditions and improve their lodges to make the area nicer.

Forty-five elementary schools in the Fresno area have implemented a program that teaches young students how to resist traffickers. And the Central Valley Justice Coalition gave anti-trafficking presentations to 2,500 students in the first two months of the year.

The District Attorney’s Office secured a conviction of a 53-year-old man last August for farm labor trafficking, the first such case in the county. Efren Alvarez was also found guilty by a jury of extortion for his scheme in which he obtained the victims’ visas, passports and other documents as collateral for a loan. He threatened to harm the victims and report them to immigration officials if they stopped working for him.

Much remains to be done. For one thing, the police department needs four new officers and an analyst who will focus on stopping trafficking. Funding has yet to be committed.

The city also wants to create new laws for how massage businesses and motels operate, with heavy penalties for anyone caught trafficking. Another idea is to turn some motels into transitional housing for the homeless.

Brand is confident that the initiative will meet its goals. “We have taken this a long way, we have taken a deliberate, comprehensive approach,” he says. “Fresno may become the model for others to use.”

When the Slaves of the Sex Trade series was published, a key finding was to have better coordination among the entities trying to defeat trafficking. Brand’s campaign aims to do just that, and for that reason is worth supporting.