VISTA — Nearly 150 people on Sunday heard speakers in Vista shed light on the shadowy world of human trafficking — often referred to as modern-day slavery.
The sixth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day Event and Walk, hosted by Soroptimist International of Vista, was held from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Avo Playhouse on Main Street. The event featured speakers from the sheriff’s North County Human Trafficking Task Force, North County Lifeline and GenerateHope. A short walk to and from the nearby Wave Waterpark followed the presentations. Attendees were asked to donate $10, which would benefit the Human Trafficking Task Force of Soroptimist International of Vista.
Often, human trafficking is thought of as a problem abroad, said event organizer Kaye Van Nevel. While the criminal enterprise is indeed international, rivaling the illegal arms trade in scope, San Diego and North County, specifically, have a high incident rate of human trafficking, she said. San Diego’s proximity to the border, its tourist appeal and its number of military bases are all believed to be contributing factors.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, kidnapping, abduction, transport, harboring, buying or selling of a person using force, fraud, threats or coercion often for the purpose of labor or sexual slavery. Women and children are most often the victims.
Since the North County Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in August 2010, 123 investigations have been conducted, and 264 individuals have been arrested and prosecuted, said Deputy Joe Mata, one of the event’s speakers.
On Dec. 3, for example, authorities charged Oceanside couple Inez Martinez Garcia and her husband, Marcial Garcia Hernandez, with 26 counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child in a sex-trafficking case.
Authorities say they smuggled a 12-year-old Mexican girl across the border and used her as a slave for sex and labor more than 10 years ago.
Many investigations and prosecutions are ongoing, Mata said.
“Human-trafficking investigations are the most difficult to conduct because the victim has to testify in court and that can be tough,” he said.
And while the statistics can be bleak — criminals conduct $32 billion in business annually, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center — progress is being made, Van Nevel said. Perpetrators are receiving longer sentences; profits, if they can be found, are more often being directed to survivors of human trafficking; and more services are available and working together in North County to help rehabilitate trafficked women and children.
“My hope is, in addition to continuing to break the silence, is to leave people with a sense of hope,” Van Nevel said of the event. “We are succeeding. We are finding survivors and helping them.”
Dottie Pechek, a Soroptimist member, said human trafficking is a devastating reality.
“Events like these … it’s a start,” the Vista resident said. “Something needs to be done.”
Soroptimist is an international volunteer organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls around the world. Human trafficking became a group focus almost a decade ago.
Vanessa Kramer, 30, of Vista, heard about the event at her church and decided she wanted more information.
“I just couldn’t believe it was happening around Vista,” she said of human trafficking. “I couldn’t believe it was so close to home. … It’s scary.”
Advocates are also calling on local congregations to participate in “A Weekend of Prayer” Friday through next Sunday. Congregations are encouraged to participate in events that raise awareness of human trafficking and conclude services with a prayer calling for an end to modern-day slavery.
Staff photographer Bill Wechter contributed to this report. email@example.com