Columnists Judy Salamacha

Human Trafficking Today’s Slavery

Then & Now

By Judy Salamacha

Whether you appreciate his comedic style or choice of television and movie roles, once you’ve heard Ashton Kutcher talk about “Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children,” you learn to admire how he and co-founder Demi Moore, have invested talent and resources to take action against an underbelly world without human-kindness.

“What I’ve seen makes you question humanity,” he says introducing Thorn at: Several local Rotarians, including San Luis Obispo County District Attorney, Dan Dow, witnessed a reality check at the 2017 Rotary International Convention in Atlanta when Kutcher chaired a heartbreaking panel discussion on human trafficking.

He opened by stating, “Within three blocks anywhere in Atlanta — and anywhere beyond Atlanta — you can buy a person. 125,000 persons are sold daily.” Dow knew from experience it was true, even in SLO County.

“One of the problems with slavery is that most people think that it disappeared a long time ago, (today) there are approximately 46 million slaves hidden from view in every country and continent in the world. The majority are children and younger people,” state members of the Rotarian Action Group Against Slavery (see: Every country has laws against slavery, yet human trafficking is increasing.

A 2015 study by the University of San Diego concluded that human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the U.S., and California has the highest incidence of any state. In 2013, sex trafficking generated $810 million in San Diego County.

The average age is 16 with many victims as young as 12. The study also found 70% are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. According to Thorn, 70% of sex trafficking sales begin online.

Federal Law identifies “severe forms of trafficking” as: Sex Trafficking and Labor Trafficking (22-USC~7102). Dow says prosecution has been more active on sex trafficking, but labor trafficking does exist in SLO County. Once caught, penalties are harsh for traffickers, as law enforcement strives to treat victims respectfully.

Soon after his election DA Dow appointed his Assistant DA Lee Cunningham Chairman of the SLO Human Trafficking Task Force. Both passionate advocates, they recently spoke to the Cambria and Morro Bay Rotary Clubs and appeared on KVEC’s Dave Congalton radio show and at a public meeting hosted by local Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham to confirm and educate about this, “ugly thing right under our noses.”

The following barely touches the core of the issue facing our world — our community.

In 2013 Dow, then a prosecutor, learned firsthand San Luis Obispo was not immune. In fact, with a tourism-based economy the California Coastal communities are prime targets for sex trafficking.

“Gangs have discovered it is easier and more profitable to sell a human over and over,” Dow says, “moving them from Monterey to Cayucos to San Diego, than it is selling drugs or weapons.”

He recalls the first case he prosecuted that became his wake-up call: Two 15-year-old Central Valley runaways made a random bad decision to attend a party where they were snatched by gang members, branded with the gang moniker on their shoulders and forced into the sex trade. Their ID, phones, freedom all taken away, they were told their families were in jeopardy and the police would arrest them if they tried to escape.”

While sold for sex out of a motel near Santa Rosa Street in SLO, one girl bravely escaped and led the police back to rescue the other girl.

“It was the first incidence I knew of,” Dow said, “where the police realized it was an example of human trafficking rather than traditional prostitution.”

ADA Cunningham teared up telling about a 2016 case of a chronic run-away who was befriended, promised everything, then taken to Santa Cruz and ultimately San Luis where he and gang-partners sold the 15-year old as many as 10 times a day taking her to hotels or a buyer’s home, our next-door neighbors in San Luis, Arroyo Grande or Morro Bay. They advertise their victims for sale on the Internet at sites like Craig’s List and Back Door.

What can we do? The SLO Human Trafficking Task Force is a diverse, ever expanding group of community representatives dedicated to preventing human trafficking by allocating resources for education, protecting and assisting the victims, and promoting cooperation among law enforcement and community organizations. More groups are invited to get involved.

The task force meets at the DA’s Conference Room in San Luis on the fourth Thursday of the month at 9 a.m., see:

Open doors for awareness by informing the public and educators. Distribute brochures and post posters at businesses that identify signs human trafficking might be happening plus notices to victims where to call or text to gain freedom: 1-888-Key-2-Free or Text Be Free (233-733.)

Morro Bay’s John Weiss is Rotary District 5240’s District Governor serving over 3,300 members in four California counties. He said, “Rotary is all over this issue, which will be discussed at this October District Conference in Ventura. We will continue developing collaborations to seek solutions to catch the traffickers and support those trafficked.”

Dow and Cunningham implore, “If you see something, say something. Call Crime Stoppers at 549-STOP.”

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.