By Christian Mendez
Coachella, Calif. — In Riverside County, the human trafficking industry thrives, thanks in part to the accessibility of freeways connecting the area to major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.
A glimpse into the dynamics of human trafficking in the Coachella Valley, which sits on the eastern edge of the county, shows that readily available transportation and a resort atmosphere help encourage traffickers to bring victims to the area.
Kristen Dolan, the anti-human trafficking director for SafeHouse of the Desert, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping young people in crisis, says human trafficking is a critical issue in the Coachella Valley.
“There are several ‘tracks,’ or areas where the girls and guys walk here in the [Coachella] Valley, and a lot of trafficking occurs off the streets and online with sites like Backpage.com, and even social media sites like Facebook, Kik, and Snapchat, to name a few,” Dolan said.
In 2011, January 11th was designated at Human Trafficking Awareness Day to help draw attention to the 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. According to the U.S. State Department, half of these people are children, and as an industry, trafficking garners approximately $30 billion annually.
Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force
Currently, there are more than 100 open cases with the Riverside County Sheriff’s department regarding human trafficking; many of these cases pertain to youth, as reported by the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force in Riverside County.
The Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, made up of seven local organizations and law enforcement agencies, was formed in 2010 to combat and prevent human trafficking in Riverside County.
The task force includes federal and local organizations like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Attorney’s Office, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, and Operation SafeHouse. Its goals are to investigate and prosecute human traffickers, identify and rescue victims of human trafficking, and promote greater public awareness of human trafficking within Riverside County.
Dolan says that despite its remoteness, the Coachella Valley is actually at a higher risk of being targeted for human trafficking due its wide geographic area, stretching from the resort town of Palm Springs to the more rural or unincorporated areas in Coachella.
Recognizing that local law enforcement are often the first to identify victims, the Riverside Task Force is working closely with police department, both city and county, on how to handle trafficking victims.
The Indio Police Department has been working with the Riverside County Sheriff’s office and the Riverside Task Force to ensure that its officers are prepared to respond to situations where minors are being victimized.
“We most recently had a training for all field personnel and investigative units put on by the Riverside County Anti-Human Traffic Task Force to help us identify the signs of human trafficking victims,” Deputy Daniel Marshall said. “If a human trafficking issue is suspected, there is a specialized unit in Riverside County that the follow up investigation will be turned over to after the initial well-being of the juvenile is attended to.”
Decriminalizing Victims of Trafficking
As in other parts of the state, notably Long Beach, law enforcement in the Coachella Valley has begun to move towards decriminalizing victims of trafficking. Thanks to the Riverside Task Force, SafeHouse of the Desert is able to connect with law enforcement agencies to help address the needs of trafficking victims, especially minors, and keep them out of jail.
“We work very closely with the Riverside Sheriff’s Department. In fact, they have a whole team dedicated strictly to handling human trafficking investigations,” Dolan said.
Fransisca LaFranco, a residential therapist and case manager with SafeHouse of the Desert, said she hopes the collaboration with law enforcement will make for a better understanding of human trafficking victims and their needs.
“Law enforcement can make a huge impact on these individuals,” LeFranco said. “The victims tend to have only experienced law enforcement during [arrests] … they rarely experience officers as individuals that help others.”
The task force is also pursuing a public awareness campaign around the issue of trafficking. Recently the collaborative launched a campaign to post informational fliers in “hot zones” for human trafficking, including hotels, truck stops, resorts and liquor stores. The campaign is focused on helping to identify possible victims in these hot zones.
Dolan notes identification is critical, as many victims often remain in the shadows, increasing the likelihood that they remain stuck in the trafficking cycle. Dolan says many of these youth come from broken homes with little family support. Traffickers, she says, take advantage by posing as their protector and provider.
The trauma that victims carry as a result of their experience can be severe, explains LaFranco. “Most victims suffer from severe PTSD,” she said. “They experience flashbacks, nightmares, depression, fear, and helplessness. They often attempt to avoid certain people or situations that can remind them of their traumatic experiences.”
Safehouse of the Desert offers various services to help victims transition out of trafficking. These include a personal case manager, housing, mental health services, empowerment classes and life skills training. But LaFranco says the road to recovery is a long one, often several years or more.
“Victims have a very difficult time socially as compared to other youth their age. They are always on guard and do not trust others, which makes it difficult when they attempt to even make friends,” Lefranco said.
LeFranco said a better community understanding of what victims endure would help soften the transition.
“The first step for the community is to be educated … It would also be encouraging to have the community get involved in helping victims with job training so that they have choices instead of relying on the street to feed and clothe them.” LaFranco said.
About the author:
Christian Mendez joined Coachella Uninc. as a beat reporter last year and has covered issues like Prop. 47 and the Salton Sea. He is an Eastern Coachella Valley native and a son of farmworker parents. His interests include photojournalism and cinematography focused on Mexican-American communities. View his author page here.