NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force started a little over two years ago, and officials say they’ve been busy.
“I think what we’ve learned is there is no slow down since we started the task force. Our cases continue to be there, the tips continue to be there,” said ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael Lamonea.
The office is partnered with the Commonwealth’s Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney General, and the Samaritan House.
Virginia State Police and six local police departments are also a part of the task force.
Throughout 2018, there were 89 new investigations, 32 arrests, and 61 confirmed victims.
Half of those stats came during a three month period over the summer.
Lamonea believes it’s because the public is more aware about the crime through their initiatives like a billboard campaign launched last spring.
“We are getting more cases because people are more aware of it. It’s always been happening, which is the reason we started this task force to start with and getting the public more educated and the ability for them to report suspicious activity gives us more influence on the process to mitigate the problem in Hampton Roads,” he said.
Lamonea says human trafficking is a crime that’s in every community.
Many aspects such as the tourism industry, the transient population, and the major highways and seaports in Hampton Roads make the area more susceptible.
Last year, they found a new trend in trafficking.
“We found the tie between drug distribution networks and sex trafficking, specifically. We’ve known it has existed in the region and the country. It’s one of the ties that’s typically there, but we’ve definitely seen an increase,”he said.
He referred to the Foster Gaines case, involving a prisoner in California who’s been accused of running a major prostitution and drug ring from behind bars.
Lamonea says that many traffickers will use victims who are drug dependent to perform sex acts.
While law enforcement may not always be able to charge traffickers with prostitution, because victims will not always say they’ve been forced, Lamonea says they do go after them with other charges such as drugs, financial, and immigration crimes.
The task force will continue to work hard to eliminate it from our area, but say they’ll need the public’s continued help.
Lamonea also had a message to the traffickers.
“My folks and our partners are coming after them 24/7, and we’re here to stop this throughout the region, and we really want to put a dent in it and flush it out,” he said.
If you are a victim of human trafficking or know anyone who is, you can call this hotline — 1-888-373-788 — for help.