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The setting was classic Hollywood: a swank hotel where well-dressed couples mingled at the bar. Only on this night, as screenwriter Jessica Postigo saw firsthand, it also was the scene of a joint LAPD and FBI sting. After weeks of planning, Operation Summer Rescue (ORS) kicked off Aug. 10 with raids across the city, as FBI Special Agents and LAPD vice officers fanned out for three nights with one goal: Put a dent in human trafficking.
Trafficking generates up to $150 billion annually, according to the International Labor Organization. It’s mostly done by illegally forcing people into various forms of servitude — often, but not always, sexual — in virtually every country (UNICEF estimates there are 21 million victims worldwide). But there are certain circumstances that drive upticks in activity, including major sporting events. In 2014, New Jersey saw a bump in trafficking when it hosted the Super Bowl, as did San Francisco in 2016.
With the Los Angeles Rams set to kick off their season at the Coliseum on Sept. 14, and the Super Bowl to take place in the team’s new stadium in 2021, officials are concerned L.A.’s trafficking problem could get worse. ORS was scheduled for the days leading up to the Rams’ first preseason game on Aug. 12, in part to establish a baseline for monitoring activity throughout the season, according to LAPD human trafficking unit detective Lina Teague. “It’s just the beginning of the football season,” says Teague, “We’re preparing for an uptick in trafficking based on the season starting, and we’re looking for that nexus.”
Postigo, an anti-trafficking advocate and president of L.A.’s Commission on the Status of Women, got a front-row seat to ORS on Aug. 11. Vice detectives had laid the groundwork early in the evening by placing ads on Backpage (a notorious site known to pimps and johns alike as a go-to spot) and scheduling appointments at the hotel. The detectives aren’t interested in the women so much as the pimps, but the women, often abused and neglected, may fall for their abusers or, more commonly, feel so threatened that they dare not betray them.
After a casual meet-and-greet in the hotel lobby with undercover vice detectives, the women and girls were directed to a hotel room where they were arrested. Postigo, along with half a dozen other detectives and several service providers, waited in an adjoining room where the women were given some on-the-spot counseling. Detectives and trauma specialists urged them to turn on their pimps.
“There were six girls sitting on a couch and Phelps was getting a gold medal,” Postigo tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was all kind of surreal.” She was struck by how much effort the vice detectives put into getting the girls to give up their pimps. It rarely worked, but in at least a few cases some of the victims wanted out of their circumstances and cooperated. The more seasoned pros among them, or those most terrified of their pimps, took the step of erasing all the contact information on their phones. The savvier ones erased everything. “That’s when you know you’re dealing with someone who’s been in it for a while,” Postigo says. “They’ve been completely brainwashed by their pimps.”
Postigo hopes that bringing attention to the issue also will help Hollywood producers and writers to begin depicting fictionalized human trafficking in a way that is more reflective of reality. Nearly 80 percent of trafficked women in the U.S are American citizens, she says, and among those, 80 percent come from within the foster and welfare systems.
“This is a debt bondage issue,” says Postigo. “I’d love to see a program in studios and production companies that would offer [these women] jobs, self-respect and hope.”
The three-day operation netted 286 arrests — women, johns and pimps as well as nine underage girls. Postigo saw 16-year-olds and a pregnant 13-year-old who was raped by her pimp. She was known to the LAPD — the last time they saw her the girl had been beaten badly, with a bloody nose and a black eye, and she looked disheveled. Now she was three and a half months pregnant. For Postigo, the girl was a cautionary tale for anyone who lives in L.A. “When you see somebody who looks messed up and you look the other way — don’t,” she says. “Don’t look away, look again. There’s a reason behind what you’re seeing.”
The victims represented every ethnicity and came from every social background imaginable — and from all over the country, including Seattle, Florida and Compton. (Of course, none of them were the women whose pictures had been advertised on Backpage.) There were young women from well-to-do neighborhoods in Woodland Hills and others with children trying to make ends meet. Postigo met one who was holding down a job at Target. What they all had in common was a shared servitude to violent and abusive men. The pimps often target them as children, seeking out vulnerable girls (and sometimes boys) as young as 10 and steering them into a life on “the track,” a term which is commonly used to refer to the areas of a city where victims of sex trafficking can most often be found. In Los Angeles, the trade centers on four main thoroughfares: Figueroa Street, Western Avenue, Sepulveda Boulevard and Century Boulevard.
“These girls are more scared of their pimps than LAPD — they have no alternative,” says Postigo, adding that organizations like the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking and Journey Out, both victim-centered groups, can help fight trafficking in L.A. at a moment when it may be poised to grow.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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