Los Angeles County is among the nation’s three most infamous destinations for sex trafficking. With January serving as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the scourge of underage persons forced to participate in the multi-billion-dollar sex trade has focused attention nationwide on how to spot, report and possibly save another child from a life of danger, health risks and, if not rescued, an early death.

We witnessed the vile activity again this month in San Diego. Seventeen people were arrested there, as well as in Arizona and in New Jersey, charged for sex trafficking as part of a prostitution ring spanning 46 cities in 23 states. Human trafficking can range from the sex industry to domestic service and general labor in which immigrant persons from Mexico and Central America to China and Southeast Asia are smuggled here to toil endlessly to satiate and compensate the so-called pimp or “coyote.”

Last August, a man and woman from Apple Valley—just up Interstate 15 from the Antelope Valley—were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping a 17-year-old girl, forcing her into prostitution. San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies said the girl had been transported across state lines from Nevada and told them that she had been taken to Los Angeles, Pamona and back to Hollywood to “turn tricks” for at least two weeks.

By mid-2012, California’s nine regional human trafficking task forces had identified 1,277 victims, initiated 2,552 investigations and arrested 1,798 persons. These cases probably would not have gotten the attention of law enforcement if not for the landmark Proposition 35 legislation which in 2012 put a broad spotlight on human trafficking and minors working in the sex industry. Today, California task forces have provided training to more than 26,000 law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, victim service providers and other first responders to rescue defenseless persons from slavery.

In only a few years, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement Los Angeles say human trafficking off the Southern California coast has grown into an elaborate, highly lucrative and increasingly dangerous operation, as smugglers venture farther out to sea and farther north along the coast in search of safe places to deliver their cargo undetected.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich proposed two years ago the aforementioned task forces charged with addressing the problem of sex trafficking of minors in the foster care system. Led by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, as well as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s, Probation and Mental Health departments, these task forces have become a nationwide model in illuminating the tragedy, as well as the resultant punishment for organizers.

“Los Angeles County is considered a hub for child sex trafficking,” Antonovich said at the time. “Given that most of these youth have a long history of abuse and neglect and are involved in the foster care system, it is critical that the county address this issue.”

The San Diego case involved a street gang which recruited women and girls by promising the “good life” of fancy cars, parties and fineries. In reality, these women and girls were subjected to near inhuman treatment, including being marked—not with a tattoo—but with a branding iron reminiscent of any horrific story found in the annals of American slavery two centuries ago. “The kind of sex trafficking described in this indictment is nothing less than modern-day slavery,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy told the Associate Press. “Unfortunately, more gangs are expanding from traditional pursuits like drug dealing to this lucrative business.”

L.A. County street gangs have effectively moved out of the drug business and into the sex trade. In March 2013, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support and co-sponsor legislation that would add pimping, pandering and human trafficking to the list of crimes associated with gang activity. Senate Bill 473, authored by Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), was drafted to create tougher penalties for gang members convicted of human trafficking, including adding a three-year sentence for anyone convicted of a human trafficking crime that occurs on or within 1,000 feet of a school.

The Board has been studying this issue for some time. “Untold numbers of children fall victim to predatory adults, many of whom have ties to criminal street gangs,” said Supervisor Don Knabe (Fourth District) told the Antelope Valley Times last summer. “They are sexually exploited and abused in unspeakably brutal ways, all for commercial gain. Criminal street gangs have embraced human trafficking as a lucrative revenue source; as sex trafficking now rivals narcotics sales as the major source of revenue for many gangs.”

According to a 2012 report by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, here’s how young girls are often ensnared in the sex trade. A child as young as 12 years old and without a family to count on, longs for the love and safety of a mature adult. She’ll meet a man who allegedly “sweet talks” her, promising her love, protection and money, and he may even buy a pair of expensive sneakers and new clothing, or sometimes an Android or iPod.

He has promised and is now delivering to her a better life. She’s watched Hip Hop videos and yearns for the club scene, fancy convertibles, pool parties and all the “bling” befitting Hollywood. But this is not free. The pimp then coerces her with threats and violence to force her to make a quota of $500 to $1,000 per night by selling her body and dignity to men up to three times her age.

A new, more wicked practice used by pimps and traffickers is called “guerilla pimping” whereby an unsuspecting girl is snatched of the street, raped, drugged and then enslaved into sex trafficking. Sometimes girls are tattooed in the face so that if they escape, they are easily identifiable on the street and retrieved by their pimp. Law enforcement court officers say it is difficult to prosecute pimps and the “Johns” because the girls are too afraid of the consequences or are sometimes affected by Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where captives identify with their abuser.

After working her “corner” or “beat,” the child doesn’t keep a penny of the money, and a certain beating awaits if she doesn’t make her quota; this non-cooperation can result in daily rapes, so the best option for her is to run and hide in the streets, praying that the pimp doesn’t find her. By now she’s wandering the streets—possibly hooked on dope—but she’s fled her pimp and pusher, and finds herself alone, broke and hungry. Suicide is a common thought at this point, but often such a young girl will simply have herself arrested in order to find food and shelter.

Now, mobile phones have become a key method of conducting business, according to a 2012 report issued by the University of Southern California. Researchers found that 19 percent of all numbers used on a Los Angeles County adult online classified site were registered to MetroPCS and more than five times the carrier’s national market share of 3.4 percent. Add to these phones the anonymity provided by so-called “burner” cell phones (available at any convenience store without ID)—and law enforcement has yet another avenue to investigate within the sex trade.

Ridley-Thomas said the sex trade and human trafficking in Los Angeles County has reached near epidemic proportions. “The trafficking, abuse and sexual exploitation of children is abhorrent and it must be stopped. We must stop looking at these children as criminals and, instead, view them as victims. We must crack down on the pimps and the customers that are making this one of the greatest human rights problems of our time.”

In Los Angeles County, the probation department has stepped up its efforts to recognize when a child is being trafficked. Currently, there are several programs at work to identify at-risk youth, including the County Department of Children and Family Services, the district attorney’s diversion program as well as a collaborative court program to help sexually exploited teens re-enroll in school, get counseling, receive advocacy services from other survivors and, most importantly, receive shelter.

“Human trafficking is what happened to kids in other countries,” said Michelle Guymon, director of the probation department’s sex trafficking project. “When I realized the kids I had worked with my whole career were actually victims of exploitation I said ‘Wow, how did I miss that?’ You think you have everything covered and then you ask yourself ‘How did I not see what was staring at me right in the face.’”

Throughout Los Angeles County, significantly more girls are arrested for prostitution compared to the number of pimps and customers. Proposition 35 has affected so far what it set out to do: bring about more prosecution of pimps and traffickers.

“Human trafficking is a growing threat because criminal organizations have determined it is a low-risk, high-reward crime,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris at a 2012 law enforcement summit at USC. “We want to change that calculus. We must counter the ruthlessness of human traffickers with our resolve, innovation and collaboration. Law enforcement must continue to get trained, gather data and work to shut down the human trafficking operations in our state.”