Modern slaves usually don't wear shackles.
But they live all around us, Inland law enforcement and social services experts say.
Riverside County is a hotbed, with pockets of agricultural slavery, as well as being an artery from Mexico and South America to Los Angeles.
"Everyone has to go through Riverside County to get to LA," said sheriff's Deputy Aron Wolfe, who is part of the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which has representatives from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He spoke last week to the Riverside Branch of the NAACP, asking for the public's help in reporting suspected cases.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year.
Investigators said they are seeking prosecution of a case where a girl was brought here from Egypt to work as a nanny in the trafficker's home. She and her family were promised she would receive an education and a salary to send home.
Once she got here, she was barely fed, not allowed to go to school or even leave the house. If she tried to leave, she was told her family would be killed. She didn't know the language. After a few years, neighbors finally called police.
Some slaves are forced to sell candy, flowers or food on street corners, often with no idea of where they are, not even what city. They have no identification and follow a circuit throughout Southern California and Nevada or across the southern United States, investigators said. Keeping them far away from familiar surroundings is one way traffickers control and manipulate their victims, added Jennifer O'Farrell, Riverside County Collaboration Against Exploitation director.
Human trafficking has grown from a $9 billion to a $33 billion-a-year industry, Riverside police Officer James Barrette said. It rivals drug and arms trafficking for the most profitable criminal enterprise.
VICTIMS CAN BE REUSED
It's growing because victims can be reused and resold over and over. An ounce of drugs can only be sold once.
United Farm Workers National Vice President Erik Nicholson said trafficking is a growing problem, in part because of the growing difficulty of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Families could migrate easily with harvest seasons 10 years ago.
"Now it takes more knowledge and sophistication, and usually that knowledge is possessed by the drug cartels," Nicholson said. Small farmers in Mexico and South America pay recruiters $5,000 to $7,000 to come work. When they get here, their focus on their debt, at high interest rates, sometimes turns them from human smuggling clients into human trafficking slaves, Nicholson said.
"There's been a number of successful convictions for slavery in the United States," he said.
Trafficking involves coercion or some type of physical threat and victims being held against their will and forced to work. Victims' identity documents are taken away from them. Smugglers sometimes do that but not always, said Virginia Kice, public information officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
There are no statistics yet on the extent of the problem in the Inland area. Kice said more initial reports are coming since the task force started training local police.
The task force is finding previously overlooked or misidentified problems, O'Farrell and Kice said.
"We know it's occurring in Riverside County," a Riverside County sheriff's deputy said. "I've seen it but not recognized it because I wasn't trained properly."
O'Farrell works from Operation SafeHouse, a shelter in Riverside for homeless and runaway teens. SafeHouse is now also the nonprofit arm for the task force. Runaway youth are most vulnerable, she said, but victims include men, women and children from all races and backgrounds.
STATE IN TOP THREE
California is one of the three states with the most human trafficking, with victims smuggled from around the world, as well as locally, she said.
Wolfe said he's working on a case in which a group is recruiting minors out of a high school and forcing them into prostitution. Some of the recruiting is through Facebook, said Barrette, the Riverside police officer.
Prostitution is not a choice for most of them, Barrette said.
"A kid doesn't wake up at 12 years old and say 'I want to be a prostitute,' " he said.
In the past, police just arrested the prostitutes, and sometimes the pimps, who served little jail time. Wolfe and Barrette said federal anti-trafficking laws add increased penalties.
"If we can stop the people who are exploiting, we can make a big difference," Wolfe said.
Victims seldom ask police for help, even if arrested, Barrette said.
They have been manipulated through fear, O'Farrell said. It may take two years before anyone trying to help hears the whole story, because victims have been through so much psychological trauma. They feel dependent on their abusers, she said.
'THE LOVE THAT BEATS THEM'
"The love they have come to know is the love that beats them," O'Farrell said. "I had one girl say 'why are you so nice to me? Kick me or beat me. That's how I'll know you love me.' "
Gaining their trust is difficult, Wolfe and Barrette said. Victims from other countries expect police here to be corrupt, like many in their home counties, they said.
The men in their lives will show them love and affection and then beat or manipulate them, Barrette said.
He said he feels he's gaining some trust from a 13-year-old girl who has been a prostitute since she was 11. She keeps running away from different group homes but calls his cell phone when she does.
Juvenile prostitution is just one aspect of human trafficking, Wolfe said. Children or teens selling flowers or candy, especially at hours when they should be in school, in the rain or in 110-degree summer heat, are usually trafficking victims, he said.
Reach Dayna Straehley at 951- 368-9455 or dstraehley@PE.com