Hotspots in Orange call attention to human trafficking

human trafficing
Kelcie Wiemann, deputy district attorney from the Human Trafficking Unit, told The Panther that many cases of human trafficking in Orange County occur near Santa Ana’s Harbor Boulevard and Hazard Avenue intersection. Photo by Kali Hoffman, photo editor

Orange County is a hotspot for human trafficking.

“There was a time earlier this year where everyone was on high alert and that’s when we were getting a lot of calls,” said Leo Solorio, a Mainplace Mall security guard supervisor. Mainplace is only 1.8 miles away from campus.

Twitter users in Orange County were treading cautiously due to situations involving potential human trafficking concerns in March 2019. Users shared their stories of being followed by cars while they were walking or driving.

“Pimps are operating economically: the fact that many people in Orange County are willing to pay for sex draws the traffickers to bring their victims here,” said Kelcie Wiemann, the deputy district attorney from the Human Trafficking Unit of the Santa Ana Police Department. “In a way, it’s economic supply and demand.”

The 2019 Human Trafficking Victim Report, created by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF), reported that a total of 415 victims were helped by the organization in 2017 and 2018. OCHTTF also found that 73 percent – about 302 individuals – were new victims that had not been identified before.

“Most cases will come out of Santa Ana off of Harbor Boulevard and Hazard Avenue,” Weiman said. “Throughout the night in the residential neighborhood, you see them getting picked up in these cars. It’s eye-opening.”

Since the release of the report, Solorio said Orange County residents entered more of a panic. Mainplace Mall security received an increase in calls during March 2019 from paranoid mall-goers feeling unsafe after reading the news and what they read on social media.

“I’ve gotten calls and been approached by people who have suspicions about the whole trafficking thing, because everyone reads (stories) online,” she said. “They do call. Even customers and employees say, ‘Can you just send someone to walk over here, because I don’t feel safe.’”

Solorio mentioned issues with customers feeling unsafe going back to their cars alone – particularly women. While security walking customers and employees to their cars is a fairly common occurrence around night, security receives a phone call from a customer being followed about once a month.

“One of the reactions when you’re being followed is that you want to get close in proximity to other people,” Solorio said. “Get in a more public area, especially if you’re in some place more secluded.”

To locate the potential suspects that are reported, mall security typically asks shoppers for a description in order to dispatch security guards and make an announcement on the mall’s intercom system.

“Pimps and traffickers will often target a very specific kind of victim: a runaway, a member of the foster system or someone who has experienced abuse in the home,” Wiemann said. “Pimps operate out of a sense of control because it’s all about the money for them. It’s sad, but they’ll target the most vulnerable kind of girl.”

When asked what Chapman students can do to help curb human trafficking, Wiemann said spreading awareness about the issue would make a positive impact.

“Talk to your friends and family,” she said. “The greater variety of people who are aware of the issue, the more word will get out there. The more people will pick up on it.”