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Southwestern Ontario: Four police forces led by London’s targeted human trafficking and prostitution in Project Equinox

Dale Carruthers

By Dale Carruthers, The London Free Press

(Postmedia Network file photo)

(Postmedia Network file photo)

A six-month investigation into human trafficking and prostitution in Southwestern Ontario that led to 78 arrests trains a harsh spotlight on a problem gripping the region, an opposition London MPP says.

Thirty-five men trying to buy sex were swept up in the London police-led probe and 129 charges were laid, including four for human trafficking — a crime advocates say is closely linked to the sex trade.

It was the region’s largest roundup in years of suspects trying to buy sex.

Monday, London police announced the results of the Project Equinox investigation that was conducted with police forces from Strathroy-Caradoc, Stratford and Woodstock.

Police hadn’t released the names of anyone arrested or charged, and the lead investigator wasn’t available for comment, a police spokesperson said.

But the crackdown resonated with London West NDP MPP Peggy Sattler, who sat on an all-party committee of the Ontario legislature that travelled Ontario to hear about the fallout of human trafficking and the stories of victims of sexual violence.

“It reinforces how ubiquitous human trafficking is in the province. The reality is, that it is happening in London — it’s happening in communities all across the (Highway) 401 corridor,” said Sattler. “We hear about women who are being moved from hotel to hotel, up and down (the 401) from Windsor to Belleville, forced to work as sex slaves.”

Police had previously identified London as a hub for human trafficking, an offence that’s on the rise in cities across the province.

In response, the Ontario Liberals last summer pledged $72 million to establish an anti-trafficking office and dedicated prosecution team.

The director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, one of several city agencies involved in Project Equinox, applauded police for devoting the resources to combat human trafficking, but she cautioned the crime is especially challenging to prosecute.

“It’s very difficult to have sex-trafficking charges (laid) because it often times relies on the victim — the woman — to testify or disclose she’s being trafficked,” Megan Walker said.

“And because there are so many women that are fearful, they often times won’t disclose that information. They’ll say they’re there by choice.”

London Abused Women’s Centre provided services to 233 survivors of prostitution, trafficking and or sexual exploitation between June 2015 and March 2017, said Walker.

Project Equinox investigators identified 18 women, ranging in age from 15 to 55, involved in the sex trade as a result of human trafficking, who were provided with support, police said.

It came as no surprise that teens were among the victims, said Barbara MacQuarrie, community director for the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western University.

“I’m saddened, but I’m not surprised,” she said. “Young women are vulnerable and we know that young women are being exploited.”

Experts say many females involved in the sex trade — some as young as 13 — appear to be doing so voluntarily, but that they’re actually forced into the work through threats, violence and drug dependency, with most or all of their earnings handed over to a male controller.

Other agencies involved in the investigation — some of which helped police pinpoint where suspected trafficking was happening, while others assisted victims — included the Salvation Army, Children’s Aid Society of London and Middlesex, the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Centre, and Anova, a London agency that helps victims of sexual violence and abuse.

The investigation, running from Oct. 4, 2016, to April 1, targeted individuals answering escort ads, people involved in human trafficking and victims of human trafficking.

Police also laid 24 drug charges, seized $8,070 in drugs, $12,740 in cash, one rifle and three knives.

Walker said London police should follow the lead of forces in other cities and publish the names of men charged with trying to buy sex.

“The community has a right to know who these men are,” she said.

dcarruthers@postmedia.com

twitter.com/DaleatLFPress

Project Equinox by the numbers

78 - People arrested

129 - Charges laid

4 - Human trafficking charges laid

35 - Prostitution customers charged

6- Months of investigation

4 - Police forces involved