An undercover operation conducted by members of the Victoria Police Department’s special victims unit has confirmed the Capital Region has a prominent human trafficking problem.
Black Press Media received an inside look at the logistics of Operation No More and heard from one of the officers leading the charge. The officer has asked not to be named in order to protect the cases and victims he works with.
While there is no specific human trafficking unit at VicPD, files alluding to these crimes or a larger problem are brought to the attention of the special victims unit. Working off the side of his desk, on downtime and in between other sexual related crimes, the officer started to piece together other overlapping crimes such as fraud and property offences that were indications of human trafficking. He, and another officer, received specialized training and now plan on doing more projects that target human traffickers in Victoria.
Operation No More started at the beginning of June, with officers monitoring a website called LeoList — which is commonly used to advertise escort or massage services. The officer would look for keywords or phrases that would indicate a girl was working in a circuit as opposed to someone who was advertising their services independently.
A circuit is when human traffickers hit various cities, spending a couple of nights to a week in each place before moving on – which makes investigating human trafficking offences challenging as multiple agencies are usually involved.
Back in February, Black Press Media sat down with the same officer to learn more about how girls are recruited into human trafficking after four Vancouver Island residents were arrested and charged. The officer described two routes that are most commonly seen – the Romeo or the gorilla.
A ‘Romeo’ will make the girl feel special, loved, similar to a girlfriend but will slowly insert fear, threats and debt bondage to make the victim feel helpless to escape. A ‘gorilla’ trafficker will go straight to physical or sexual violence to control her.
On the day of the operation, officers messaged the girls online, posing as a John inquiring about services and asking to meet up either on that day or the next.
Officers in plainclothes, accompanied by a social worker, were waiting in a hotel room for the girls with ‘go bags’ ready. Containing toiletries, clothes and gift cards to provide some basic items, the bags were there if any of the girls decided they wanted out in that moment.
Out of the 24 girls who were contacted, eight showed up.
“You’re not in trouble,” said the officer, who immediately identified himself as a cop when a girl would walk into the room. He asked each girl if they were being forced into the work and if they needed or wanted help. Two girls left as quickly as they could, while the other six sat down and talked.
None of the girls took the help, but the officer said this was a good initial step in creating a point of contact. The first girl to enter the hotel room initially opened up but when she was confronted about her situation, the officer said she became emotional, scared and didn’t want to talk any further.
Similar to victims of domestic abuse, victims of human trafficking typically take a few tries before they feel confident in accepting outside help. The officer said he hopes outreach operations can lead the victims “to a place where she feels like she can accept the help.”
And while VicPD didn’t learn a lot during the operation, the officer said it confirmed their suspicions of a prominent problem in Greater Victoria. The girls who came to the hotel ranged in age between their teens to mid-twenties and were on a circuit that included cities such as Surrey, Burnaby, Richmond, Calgary and Vancouver.
Officers will also be better equipped for future operations with a better understanding of how to approach and talk to these girls. The next step will be to reach out to the eight girls who came to the hotel, see how they’re doing and offer help once again.
The motto of the unit is ‘everybody counts or nobody counts,’ and this officer wants to encourage victims to contact VicPD if they are in need of help, along with asking members of the public to report suspicious behaviour either online or by calling the non-emergency line at 250-995-7654.