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February 22, 2023San Diego, CA, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

HSI San Diego assists human trafficking task force, resulting in dozens of arrests

The operation resulted in multiple arrests, offers of support to victims and recovery of 2 firearms

SAN DIEGO — Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Diego special agents participated in Operation Better Pathways, a local operation that resulted in multiple arrests related to human trafficking. The San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force led the operation.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Operation Better Pathways’ results on Feb. 21. The multijurisdictional operation, which concluded in early February, is part of a broader regional effort to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation through targeted enforcement, including surveillance and officers working undercover.

Authorities arrested 48 people for alleged human trafficking, sexual exploitation and other criminal offenses and offered support to 41 people, including eight children. Officials also recovered two firearms, including a ghost gun. The arrests have been referred to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California for potential criminal prosecution.

“This collaborative enforcement operation is demonstrative of the dedication and commitment of HSI and our law enforcement partners to the victims of human trafficking,” said HSI San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “We are committed to working with our law enforcement community to help identify additional victims, offer support and bring to justice the perpetrators committing such egregious crimes.”

“Human trafficking and sexual exploitation destroy lives,” said Bonta. “Through Operation Better Pathways, we’re fighting to hold perpetrators accountable and help survivors get a fresh start. I’m thankful to all of our partners on the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force for their collaboration and I’m proud of our office’s work to help uplift vulnerable Californians. When we work together, we get results. At the California Department of Justice, we’re always ready to answer the call when it comes to standing up for public safety.”

“The San Diego Police Department is a proud member of the Human Trafficking Task Force. We will use every tool at our disposal to rescue survivors and hold traffickers accountable,” said San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. “Operation Better Pathways is a reminder that the fight against human trafficking is an endeavor that requires continued collaboration and our ongoing commitment.”

“I personally visited the National City and San Diego City locations that this operation targeted and what I saw was appalling,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “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. As a result of this collaboration with our law enforcement partners, dozens of victims were offered services or were recovered, and trafficking was significantly disrupted in areas of the county that have been plagued with the negative ripple effect that this crime brings to a neighborhood.”

“This operation sent a clear message: If you come to our neighborhoods to buy sex, be prepared to leave in handcuffs,” said San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott. “We are committed to cleaning up our streets by prosecuting sex traffickers and buyers, while obtaining help for victims forced into illicit activity.”

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California is a proud partner in the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “By working together as a multijurisdictional team on important initiatives like Operation Better Pathways, we are holding more perpetrators accountable and transforming lives by providing crucial resources and support to victims.”

“The National City Police Department is committed to our continued partnership with local, state, and federal agencies to address human trafficking,” said National City Police Chief Jose Tellez. “Our participation with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force is vital in the overall effort to provide resources to victims of human trafficking in National City and the region.”

“The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has been committed to fighting human trafficking in this region since 2015. Our focus is to rescue victims who are treated like property and abused by individuals who control them,” said San Diego County Sheriff Kelly A. Martinez. “We have a team of three detectives, a sergeant, and a full-time analyst assigned to the Human Trafficking Task Force. Our partnership with the DOJ, DA’s Office, FBI, HSI, National City Police Department, San Diego Police and other regional partners has culminated in this case, which highlights how prevalent this crime is. We will remain dedicated to this effort. If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking or is in immediate danger, call 888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).”

“The San Diego County Probation Department is committed to eradicating human trafficking in San Diego County by working and collaborating with partner agencies in events like Operation Better Pathways,” said Chief Probation Officer Tamika Nelson. “We support the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, which continues to evolve by finding creative ways to identify human trafficking victims, provide them with resources and hold the traffickers accountable.”

“CDCR is committed to fulfilling our primary mission of public safety, as evidenced by our Division of Adult Parole Operations-Special Enforcement Branch involvement in the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force,” said Director Guillermo Viera Rosa. “We are proud to be part of this multijurisdictional law enforcement team focused on helping exploitation victims and holding their traffickers accountable.”

“Investigating human trafficking is a national priority of the FBI, and we continue to take a proactive approach to identify human traffickers involved with the exploitation of adults and children alike,” said FBI San Diego field office Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy. “The FBI will never waver in its commitment to protect our society’s most vulnerable citizens and is grateful for the collaborative effort to protect our children. A first step in helping someone who may be a victim: Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 if you or someone you know has suffered sexual abuse.”

“The San Diego Imperial Valley HIDTA is proud to provide vital resources to the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force to assist their efforts in combating the sexual exploitation of our most vulnerable members of society,” said Executive Director David King of the San Diego Imperial Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. “Operation Better Pathways is a testament to how public safety can effectively intervene to stop the cycle of violence and abuse while sending a powerful message to those who seek to victimize others that their criminal conduct will not be tolerated!”

“I am so proud of our human trafficking task force,” said Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition Executive Director Marisa Ugarte. “We could not do it without them. It is an unbreakable partnership. Thank you for saving victims and fighting the demand.”

“As one of the victim services organizations that work with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, my team has the unique opportunity of participating in and collaborating with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force on operations like these to provide immediate, in-person crisis intervention, victim advocacy, and access to basic needs and supportive services,” said Melissa Haupt, director of Project LIFE’s Lifeline. “The task force has been exceptional in their trauma-informed approach to working with victims, utilization of best practices, and keeping open lines of communication with victim services organizations, which is instrumental in engaging victims and getting them connected to necessary services. Through this collaboration, victims are able to regain control of their lives without fear of judgment or re-traumatization and begin their healing journey.”

Through Operation Better Pathways, the task force sought to hold perpetrators accountable, provide empowering support services to victims and survivors, and victims regain their independence. During the operation, law enforcement personnel conducted targeted surveillance of areas known for sexual exploitation in San Diego and National City, using various investigative techniques to identify and stop alleged human trafficking and sexual exploitation in real time. Simultaneously, law enforcement went after sex buyers by posing as individuals offering sex for sale at the same locations. Sex buyers were generally directed to an alternate location and arrested.

Among other alleged violations, arrests during the operation ranged from human trafficking of a minor to assault with a deadly weapon. Operation Better Pathways began on Jan. 9 and was carried out intermittently through February 10. As part of the effort, San Diego County Child Welfare Services and adult and juvenile support service advocates provided assistance. All the potential victims and survivors were offered access to resources and supportive services.

The San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force is a cooperative effort involving the California Department of Justice, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Highway Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, the National City Police Department, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the San Diego County Probation Department, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the San Diego Police Department, the Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California. In addition to serving as the lead agency on the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, the California Department of Justice has two regional Human Trafficking and Sexual Predator Apprehension Teams serving Northern and Southern California.

Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery where perpetrators profit from the control and exploitation of adults and children for sex or labor through force, fraud or coercion. Human trafficking does not require movement across borders. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were more than 1,300 human trafficking cases reported in California in 2021 — more than any other state in the nation. In California, human trafficking is prevalent in the hospitality, commercial sex, domestic work and construction industries. Victims of human trafficking are also found among migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, providers of residential care, and in California’s garment sector.

If you or someone you know is being forced to engage in any activity and cannot leave, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 to access help and services. If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 911. Additional information and resources to support survivors of human trafficking is available in the online version of this release.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.