Tulare County gathers grants for human trafficking task force

Thirteen agencies sign MOU to continue Tulare County Human Trafficking task force efforts

By Paul Myers

VISALIA – Since 2010, the month of January has been declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and Tulare County is doubling on their efforts to help victims. 

Last Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between 13 different county agencies. The MOU notes that grant funding was awarded to the Tulare County District Attorney’s office from the United states Department of justice. The funding comes from the Enhanced Collaborative Model Task Force to Combat Human Trafficking program. 

Tulare County was awarded grant funding in 2017 to help expand the Tulare County Human Trafficking Task Force’s efforts. According to County reports, between July 2014 and December 2016, the task force investigated 14 cases, convicting three traffickers. After grant funding was awarded to them in January 2017 through September 2019 the task force investigated 45 cases, made 21 arrests and convicted 14 individuals on human trafficking charges. Meanwhile they provided services to 49 victims.

All 13 agencies include: Tulare County District Attorney’s office, Family Services of Tulare County, Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency, Child Welfare Services; Central California Family Crisis Center; Visalia Police Department, Porterville Police Department; Tulare Police Department, Tulare County Probation Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation/Fresno Resident Agency, Immigration & Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations, United States Attorney’s Office and United States Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division.

Family Services Tulare County CEO, Caity Meader said that there has been a big investment in helping the Central Valley combat human trafficking, and seeing it go on for two more years illustrates how well it is working. She added that the massive collaboration is important to providing victim services.

“We have a huge county…and we really can’t all be everywhere…what we are finding is that the education, understanding of this issue and being equipped to identify victims and connect them to the right services is important,” Meader said.

In order to make services more effective agencies need to be aware that victims do not necessarily see themselves as victims, Meader said. And many of them make their way through the Highway 99 corridor that connects northern and southern California. Being particularly vigilant in this area in particular is vital.

“We have a lot of transport that goes on in those 99 communities like Tulare that really see a lot of movement on those issue. And we have large farm worker populations and communities that are more likely to see those types of issues,” Meader said.

The term of the grant program effectively began on Jan. 1, and will last through Dec. 31, 2022. 

Tulare County’s most notable sting on predators entrapping girls, boys and other victims in sex trafficking was Operation Baby Face in 2016. Since then several men have been put behind bars. The tactics they used to lure in underage girls were devious.

Antonio Alvarez, 44, of Visalia, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2017 after pleading to one count of human trafficking of an adult (with force, fear, and coercion), six counts of human trafficking of a minor, one count of oral copulation of a person under 18, one count of lewd act upon a child, two counts of oral copulation of a person under 16, one count of pimping of an adult, and one violent count of sexual penetration with a foreign object. Each count is a felony. In addition to his sentence, Alvarez was forced to register as a sex offender for life.

From January 2014 to August 2016, Alvarez befriended and attempted to recruit minors and adults to engage in commercial sex acts for money using a fictitious Facebook account. The account used stolen photos to create a persona named “Rebecca Rodriguez,” a prostitute who glamorized the lifestyle. While pretending to be a female, Alvarez requested naked photographs of the minor and adult women he contacted; many sent photos, some of which Alvarez sent to co-defendant Joel Mancini. As part of Alvarez’s scheme, “Rebecca” would inform the minors and adults that they would have to meet the “boss,” who was Alvarez, for an “interview” to get hired and perform sexual acts on the “boss.”

“Selling and engaging children for sex is an immoral and indefensible crime. It dehumanizes and demeans those who are already the most vulnerable in our communities,” said District Attorney Tim Ward said in 2017.

To date, The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, with hundreds of thousands in the United States. The victims of this crime in the U.S. are men and women, adults and children, and foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.

According to the California Department of justice, in 2016, 1,331 cases of human trafficking were reported in California. Of those cases, 1,051 were sex trafficking cases, 147 were labor trafficking cases, 46 involved both labor and sex trafficking and 86 cases were not specified.

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