A statewide human trafficking sting has resulted in the rescue of 56 people, including 11 girls, officials said Tuesday.
The three-day sweep known as Operation Reclaim and Rebuild was part of an ongoing effort led by the Los Angeles County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies and social service and community-based organizations.
The crackdown led to more than 500 arrests, including 30 suspected traffickers and 178 alleged johns, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said.
"Teams from throughout California have joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to come down hard on business as usual for the pimps, exploiters and those who believe that it's acceptable to buy another human being for sexual purposes," McDonnell said. "The message we hope to send to the traffickers is: Don't do business in Los Angeles County or the state of California, because we will find you and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."
Children between 12 and 14 are most at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking in California, officials said. Many come from broken families and foster care and are seeking love and acceptance.
"The pimps know who to look for," said sheriff's Lt. Kent Wegener. "They know who is able to be exploited … who is easy to manipulate."
Once the victim is under their power, traffickers typically control what they eat, where they sleep, who they see and where they live.
"If they don't do exactly what the pimp wants, they are met with violence," Wegener said.
Last year, roughly 200 human trafficking cases were filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
"Human trafficking is not a static crime," Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said Tuesday. "It is not confined to Los Angeles County barriers. The victims are often shuttled from county to county."
In recent years, much of the trafficking has moved online, prompting authorities to find new ways to catch criminals.
Law enforcement officials recently launched a computer automated system with bots that exchange text messages with potential johns, and eventually flip the script to warn them that what they're doing is illegal and exploitative.
Officials also set up decoy accounts on Facebook and other online sites, advertising girls as young as 11 or 12.
"Once the ad is up, it's only minutes before they start getting calls," McDonnell said. "It's incredible the amount of volume, the amount of people who are engaging in this."
Suspects often turn out to be people with homes and families, with respected jobs and positions of leadership in the community, according to the sheriff.
The women, girls and boys caught up in the trade can face a long recovery process, said Kay Buck, chief executive of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. Those who seek help often are terrified to speak. They lack for necessities such as clothes, food and shelter.
"They are taught to distrust by all the lies traffickers tell them about law enforcement and about their own value as human beings," Buck said.
Since its inception in 2015, the annual Operation Reclaim and Rebuild has rescued 221 people, officials said.
But with suspects needing little more than a computer and a phone to do business, traffickers can be difficult to catch.
"Across the country, wherever you look, if you look hard enough and know what to look for, you'll find this type of activity going on," McDonnell said.
Pimps who are able to put together a "stable" of five girls can net up to $800,000 a year, the sheriff said.
"We're hoping to change that dynamic," he said. "Where it's no longer low risk for anyone to be involved in this."
8:15 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout.