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Heard Of Sex Trafficking? Other Trafficking Victims Hide In Valley Homes And Fields

Kerry Klein
'Francisca" is one of 500 local human trafficking survivors known to the non-profit support group Central Valley Against Human Trafficking.

A few weeks ago, the Fresno Police Department busted a sex trafficking ring among the Bulldog Gang—unfortunately, only the latest of many sex trafficking cases uncovered recently in the Valley. This kind of crime is likely what comes to mind when you think of human trafficking—but another kind of trafficking also occurs in the Valley, sometimes in plain sight, and law enforcement officials worry it’s more common than anyone knows.

A few years ago, a woman we’ll call Francisca found herself in a bad situation getting worse. She and her young daughter had just crossed the desert into the U.S. in the dead of night. They had been struggling to make ends meet in Mexico City and had been promised a better life up north. Francisca says her extended family had agreed to help pay their way.

Shortly after making the illicit crossing, however, Francisca says the woman who had smuggled them had some bad news. “The lady called me and said that my family was no longer responding,” she says, “and there was no way I could communicate with my family because our cell phones had already been taken away.”

"They used the excuse that I owed them a little over $10,000, and I had to work to pay that debt off," Francisca says.

We’re protecting Francisca’s identity and whereabouts because of what happened next. At that time, Francisca and her daughter spoke no English. They knew no one else. So they went to live with this woman in the San Joaquin Valley, then found themselves forced into working for her. Francisca says she spent her days in the fields, her evenings doing housework. “They used the excuse that I owed them a little over $10,000, and I had to work to pay that debt off,” she says.

But after a few months, a few neighbors took notice. One night, Francisca says, they drove up to the house and tried to rescue her and her daughter. Their captors caught them and blocked the car from leaving.

“At that moment, they opened the car door and they pulled my hair out and they dragged me out of the car, and I had no choice but to go with them,” she says. “They threatened all of us not to call the police or they would call ICE.”

The neighbors did call the police. Sheriffs’ deputies arrived at the house, brought Francisca and her daughter to a shelter, and arrested three of their captors. Law enforcement has investigated the case and the local district attorney is currently reviewing it for criminal charges.

What Francisca experienced was human labor trafficking through fraud, force and coercion. Though labor trafficking cases appear to be much less common than sex trafficking cases, they’re also harder to recognize, and even harder to prosecute. But local law enforcement agencies are devoting more resources to trafficking cases. They worry they’re only scratching the surface—partly because the geography of the Valley itself may be attractive to traffickers.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Central Valley Against Human Trafficking program manager Melissa Gomez, right, and case worker Evelyn Gonzalez work with over 500 survivors of human trafficking from Merced to Kern Counties.

“If you think about the concept of isolation used by many traffickers to keep someone under their control, rural communities are perfect examples of where individuals may be isolated,” says Melissa Gomez, program manager of Central Valley Against Human Trafficking, an arm of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission that helps survivors access therapy and services.

More human trafficking cases are reported in California than in any other state. Roughly a sixth involve labor trafficking, mostly in industries like domestic work, agriculture and traveling sales crews. Gomez’s organization alone serves almost 500 trafficking survivors from Merced to Kern counties—though not all of them were trafficked here.

Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Lynette Gonzales suspects the scale of labor trafficking in particular is actually much larger. Unlike with sex trafficking, labor trafficking survivors are overwhelmingly foreign nationals, many undocumented. For that reason, Gonzales suspects many victims never report what happened to them. “It could be language barriers, it could be that their immigration status, they might be in fear that that would be exposed, or that they might be subjected to removal,” she says. Plus, “fear of the police is a general thing, and that's very common for both labor and sex trafficking.”

Gonzales is the prosecutor in what she believes is one of the first labor trafficking cases to make it to trial in California. A Fresno resident has been charged with six felony counts of trafficking and extortion for forcing Mexican immigrants into agricultural work. “These are migrant workers, and there was no actual physical violence or sexual assault or exploitation that was going on, but the level of psychological control is pretty immense,” she says.

That case will go to trial in Fresno Superior Court in November.

The Fresno County DA’s office recently upped its involvement in human trafficking cases, devoting more staff to the issue and working in tandem with local police departments and support groups—a collaboration Senator Dianne Feinstein lauded when she visited Fresno earlier this year.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Law enforcement and anti-trafficking advocacy groups emphasize that community outreach and education can help prevent human trafficking.

But these officials rely on the public’s help, too. Many of these cases began with calls to 9-1-1 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

It was vigilant neighbors and the police that eventually helped Francisca escape. And that better future? She’s beginning to glimpse it once again. She works as a cook and recently enrolled at a local community college. “I want to further my education, I want to be a teacher, I want to be an example for my daughter,” she says. “I want my daughter to know that she can be strong and that no matter what happens to her, that nobody has the right to take those dreams away from her.”

Meanwhile, she now has a work permit and is applying for permanent residency.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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