As Orange County authorities continue to target pimps, a report released Wednesday found that the number of people arrested on suspicion of crimes related to human trafficking more than doubled from 2011 to 2013.
The figures released by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force show there were 24 arrests in 2011, 37 in 2012 and 52 in 2013. The report also found that on average, eight new human trafficking victims were identified every month.
Lita Mercado, program director for Community Service Programs, attributed the boost to officers keeping a more vigilant eye for victims of human trafficking.
"I feel confident the increase is because of the increase in awareness and education in law enforcement," said Mercado, whose organization is part of the task force. "I'm not sure that the crime has increased per se between 2011 and 2013."
More officers are on the lookout for signs of human trafficking when they investigate sexual assault and domestic violence calls, Mercado said, and they're asking pertinent questions. Since 2004, the task force has assisted more than 380 victims of human trafficking from 26 countries.
The release of the report coincided with the launch of the Orange County Transportation Authority's public-awareness campaign on the issue. The "Be the One" campaign, which includes displays inside buses, encourages riders to report possible victims.
The transportation agency will also train operators on how to spot and report human-trafficking crimes.
"The more people understand what the signs are, the more those numbers [of arrests] are going to increase," Mercado said.
The report also found that 65% of victims were U.S. citizens and the rest were from countries such as Mexico, China and the Philippines. The task force also identified victims from Iran, Kenya and North Korea for the first time.
Nearly half were minors.
Sex trafficking was the most common form of human trafficking at 81%, officials said. Victims were forced into prostitution, stripping and pornography.
The Orange County district attorney's office launched a unit in 2013 that focuses on the crime. Prosecutors have won 50 convictions for pimping and pandering, with 48 of the defendants sentenced to state prison.
The department has about 50 human-trafficking related cases pending, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the D.A.'s office.
"These guys are preying on some of the most vulnerable people in our community," Schroeder said. "A lot of gangs see pimping and human trafficking as an easier, cheaper and more profitable criminal enterprise than selling narcotics."
Prosecutors have seen victims with the name of their pimps tattooed on them, Schroeder said. Others have been waterboarded, burned with irons or dumped in cold bathtubs. Many of them are runaways who meet their pimps on the street, she said.
"The perpetrators are some of the most despicable human beings because of the callousness it takes to exploit another human being is stunning," Schroeder said.