Wednesday Rally to end human trafficking

As part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force will hold a rally in Santa Rosa Wednesday to take a stand against slavery in Sonoma County. The event will focus on putting a stop to human trafficking, both sex trafficking and forced labor, that is on the rise not only in Sonoma County, but also worldwide.

According to a report from the office of California’s attorney general, from mid-2010 to mid-2012, California’s nine regional human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 victims, initiated 2,552 investigations and arrested 1,798 individuals. Of those victims whose country of origin was identified, 72 percent are American. Labor trafficking, the attorney general’s office notes, is under-reported and under-investigated, but it is indicated that labor trafficking is 3.5-times more prevalent than sex trafficking worldwide. The abundant agricultural jobs in Sonoma County make it a prime location for labor traffickers to force people into slavery, especially men.

“Together, we can and will take a stance against human trafficking and show our unwavering support for its victims,” Pattie Heisser, a Sonoma County task force spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

Santa Rosa Police Department Det. Chris Mahurin, whose primary focus and passion is putting an end to sex trafficking, said the average age of entry into sexual slavery is 12-to-14.

Human trafficking, he notes, is not something that many residents think affects the bucolic county, but in the last year alone, Mahurin and the task force have rescued more than a dozen juvenile sex slaves.

Mahurin said a majority of the cases he sees take place along the Highway 101 corridor or in the Valley itself, with Santa Rosa Avenue in Santa Rosa a heavily trafficked area. But the biggest shift, he explains, has occurred over the last couple of years, during which traffickers have moved to online advertising and Internet trafficking through sites such as myredbook.com or backpage.com to sell sex. “This is a more discreet way to stay off the streets,” Mahurin said, noting women are soliciting dates with promises of sexual acts in exchange for goods or money.

Of the victims Mahurin has helped rescue, a majority are women, with some of the youngest just 13 years old. Mahurin recalls a young girl who was recently rescued who was kidnapped by one trafficker and picked up and exploited by a different trafficker. Another minor victim was forced into sexual slavery by her grandfather. “Most of the time it is usually someone who would look like a boyfriend,” the detective says, “and lots of times girls would say ‘It is my boyfriend,’ because they are so dependent and feel a connection that isn’t reciprocated.”

Predominantly all victims are domestics, either from Sonoma County or taken from another California region and relocated to the county. Mahurin said it is also common to see girls and women being shuffled around the Bay Area through various pimps in an organized crime ring.

Mahurin wants to debunk the misconception that pimps and traffickers are violent men who wear flashy jewelry and drive nice cars. While violence almost always comes into play, a vast majority of traffickers aren’t violent toward their slaves, but rather prey on fragile victims who have no home life or have been abused by close family or friends in the past. “These (traffickers) have a mental hold or coercion over (their victims).”

Mahurin hopes the rally will raise awareness that “human trafficking actually exists in our county and it’s a big issue.” He will speak at Wednesday’s rally, along with Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Det. Mechelle Buchignani, Verity Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Alli Brinkerhoff, Crossing the Jordan Executive Director Dana Bryant and a human trafficking survivor.

The rally will be held in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square on Wednesday, Jan. 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.