York Regional Police say they have arrested 31 people and laid more than 300 charges in a multi-provincial human trafficking ring run by an organized crime group.
York police held a news conference on Wednesday detailing the investigation called Project Convalesce.
Insp. Thai Truong said the investigation began in October 2018 into Jonathan Nyangwila, a “suspected pimp,” after two female victims of human trafficking contacted police for help in attempting to escape.
Truong said the two victims, who are from the Quebec area, were in a hotel in Vaughan and were not immediately cooperative with officers. However, in the following days, one of them co-operated with police.
“Nyangwila was quickly identified as a pimp. We identified him as a human trafficker. And the investigation commenced at that point where we started uncovering and unravelling a large criminal network,” Truong said.
“Jonathan Nyangwila has been identified as the kingpin of the organization,” Truong added.
Officers were led to identify a number of suspects believed to be involved in a large, multi-provincial human trafficking ring run by an organized crime group, police said.
Investigators added that the group was also involved in fraud, drug trafficking and weapons offences.
“All below him are individuals that have their own stable of girls. But for the first time, we’re actually seeing girls being traded within, and girls being controlled by other individuals for the benefit of the organization,” Truong said.
Police said of 45 women involved in the sex trade and associated with the group, 12 have identified themselves as victims. It’s a number human trafficking survivor Karly Church said doesn’t shock her.
“That number makes complete sense to me,” Church said.
“Sometimes you don’t even know you are a victim of trafficking.”
Church escaped the industry in 2014 and said coming forward isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Church, who now works for Victim Services of Durham Region, said she currently works with hundreds of clients who are being trafficked in Ontario and can’t see a way out.
“The biggest reason I didn’t leave is the psychological manipulation – that trauma bone. They lured me, they groomed me, they manipulated and coerced me into the sex trade,” said Church.
And experts agreed that playing on a victims emotions is a trafficker’s bread and butter.
“They are controlled emotionally … through threats of violence … some with drugs and alcohol, they are manipulated and psychologically beaten down on a daily basis,” said Truong.
Tactics Inspector Tina Chalk with the OPP’s counter-exploitation unit agreed it’s difficult to seek help.
“It something that goes on beyond doors, something that police are not invited into or the general public, so it makes sense you would go to places such as an apartment, a place that can be leased, a rental property or a hotel,” Chalk told Global News.
On Oct. 10, police said numerous search and arrest warrants were executed in more than 30 Greater Toronto Area locations and in Quebec.
That same day, Global News cameras captured parts of a raid at a Fort York condo building in Toronto, which a source later confirmed was related to a human trafficking investigation led by York Regional Police.
Truong confirmed Wednesday that the Fort York raids were connected.
He said 34 search warrants were executed across Ontario and Quebec, eight vehicles were seized and out of the more than 300 charges laid, 100 were pimping and human trafficking charges, “which is quite significant.”
“I can tell you for the last year, especially those officers living and breathing this project, that … we have seen the horrific things that are happening to these women,” Truong said.
Police are searching for more suspects and investigators believe there are more victims.
They are willing to speak with anyone involved in the sex trade who may be looking for a way out or who may require assistance to escape these dangerous circumstances. An invitation was extended by Victim Services of Durham Region, adding you can also reach out them without any police involvement.