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A total of 339 people were arrested and 48 suspected victims rescued during a statewide human trafficking operation that took place over three days last week and involved participation from multiple local law enforcement agencies, including the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office and the Lompoc and Santa Maria police departments.

Operation Reclaim and Rebuild, now in its fifth year, occurred Jan. 23 through Jan. 25 and included cooperation from nearly 100 agencies across California in conjunction with Human Trafficking Awareness Month. It was coordinated by the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, which revealed the results of the operation Tuesday in Los Angeles.

The 339 total arrests included 156 males who were apprehended for solicitation and 36 people who were suspected of being traffickers and/or exploiters.

Twenty-two of the arrests and seven of the rescues occurred in Santa Barbara County.

“The L.A. Regional Human Trafficking Task Force is an example of how individual entities can be far more effective when they join together in a shared mission,” said Capt. Kent Wegener, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Today, 48 individuals have been removed from their traffickers and connected with the services necessary to rebuild their lives, free from exploitation.”

In Santa Barbara County, investigators from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara Police Department, Santa Maria Police Department and Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office all worked together along with advocates from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office Victim Witness Program, special agents from Homeland Security Investigations and the California National Guard Counterdrug Task Force.

Between Jan. 23 and Jan. 25, investigators conducted several different local operations aimed at curbing human trafficking.

Each of the seven females who were deemed to be potential victims of exploitation were given opportunities to meet with human trafficking advocates from the District Attorney’s Office Victim Witness Program and were offered or provided with services geared toward helping them break away from their exploitation, according to a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

To combat the demand side of human trafficking, so-called “sex buyer” stings were conducted in the cities of Santa Maria and Goleta.

As part of these stings, advertisements were posted on escort websites known for promoting prostitution and undercover investigators posed as the prostitutes in those ads. When contacted, the undercover investigator and the buyer negotiated sex acts in exchange for money. When the buyer arrived at the agreed-upon location, the buyer was taken into custody.

As a result of the local “sex buyer” operation, 13 people were arrested and released with a citation for the alleged misdemeanor violation of solicitation of prostitution.

In an effort to identify traffickers and rescue their victims, investigators also conducted so-called “sex trafficker” stings in the cities of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.

Through those, undercover investigators reviewed escort websites known for advertising prostitution and posed as a sex buyer when contacting the escort. Undercover investigators negotiated a sex act in exchange for money and then made contact with the individuals who were advertising in an attempt to determine if they were being exploited.

During one sex trafficker operation, according to the Sheriff’s Office, a male and female were contacted at a Santa Maria hotel. As a result of the investigation, the male is alleged to have been acting as the female’s pimp and was booked into County Jail on suspicion of pimping and pandering.

In a separate incident, investigators contacted four people at a Santa Maria hotel, one of whom was found to be a juvenile female who was being trafficked, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

As a result of that investigation, one of the individuals was arrested on charges of human trafficking of a minor, robbery and pimping and pandering. A second person was arrested on suspicion of pandering, and the third was alleged to have violated a court order. All three are also alleged to have been conducting their criminal activity for the benefit of a street gang and all three were booked with an additional charge of participation in a street gang.

The Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force includes participants from local and federal law enforcement, behavioral wellness, faith organizations, child welfare services and health care providers.

In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $1.34 million to Santa Barbara County to help fund its Human Trafficking Task Force. The grant funding was also allocated to help provide investigative resources necessary to not only proactively investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases but to also enable victim advocates to provide critical services for both adult and minor domestic and international trafficking victim’s services.

“The Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force is committed to ending both sex trafficking and labor trafficking within Santa Barbara County through a collaborative effort of proactive law enforcement and providing victim services to those that are exploited,” read a portion of a statement from Kelly Hoover, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.

For more information about the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Unit, visit www.sbsheriff.org/human-trafficking/.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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