Orange County Officials Turn to Buses to Fight Human Trafficking

"I used to be 11, 12 years old, riding with the pimp on that bus," a survivor told NBC4

Orange County officials aiming to crack down on human trafficking are targeting public transit to combat what's being called a growing local problem as abusers often use buses to transport their victims.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has added cameras and emergency radio codes for their buses and trained more than 1,000 bus drivers to recognize suspicious signs, such as an older man paying for a young girl’s fare or watching to make sure she gets on a certain bus.

The buses are also plastered with messages from the "BT1 (Be The One)" campaign, asking riders to be the one to help or call if they see anything suspicious.

"That's amazing to have a bus like that," said Oree, a 19-year-old human trafficking survivor who spoke with NBC4. "I used to be a girl, I used to be 11, 12 years old, riding with the pimp on that bus, in the back of the bus. Everybody else thinks that this is just normal, this is her brother or something."

Authorities said half the human trafficking victims they find are teenage girls, many of them drawn to Orange County because of its tourism.

"If you bear in mind that someone under the age of 18 is not even able to legally consent to sex, it's ridiculous to think, then, a 14-year-old is, quote, 'making a choice' to exchange sex for money," said Lita Mercado of the OC Community Service Programs.

The Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force has tracked about 400 victims since it began in 2010. Anaheim police said they find about eight victims every month, often at intersections like Beach Boulevard and Ball Road, where cheap motels line the streets and runaway girls meet pimps at bus stops.

"If you're at a bus stop, you see a young lady sitting there, and a few hours later you come back, she's still sitting there," said Ray Lugo, an OCTA bus driver. "Maybe a few hours later you come back, she's still there."

The number of human trafficking arrests in Orange County have doubled in the past two years. Anaheim police said they are aiming to go after those who pay for sex with the victims.

Oree said she ran away from home when she was 11 to escape abuse, and met her pimp within 48 hours. She said seduction and promises eventually gave way to beatings and rapes, until about a year ago, when she chose to leave and fight for other victims.

"Right now I know they're still out there, being raped over and over, being used over and over again," she said. "They have no voice. They have no voice in this world."

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