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Trafficking in Plain Sight: In-depth look at street food vending and human trafficking

You see it in nearly every Coachella Valley city. Stands with fruit or coconut water for sale...popping up on street corners. 

These are the types of scenarios investigator Aron Wolfe monitors for potential human trafficking victims. 

“These individuals have paid some type of exorbitant smuggling fee to come up through Mexico into the U.S," Wolfe said.

Wolfe says usually once victims are smuggled into the country – they are forced to sell items on the street to pay off their debt. But not everyone is a victim.

“Labor trafficking is the exploitation of another human being through force, fraud, fear, or coercion,” Wolfe said.

It’s common for individuals typically from L.A., Wolfe says, to get dropped off by a large truck or van. Investigators will have a conversation with an individual to spot anything unusual.

Using that method, News Channel 3's Jennifer Franco approached a fruit vendor in Palm Springs and asked what a typical work day means for him. 

“I’m alone all day and they give me the fruit already prepared. I just focus on selling,” said Daniel, a fruit vendor.

Daniel has been doing this for the past six months since arriving from Mexico. He says he and others drive down from LA and once he’s dropped off in the morning, he’s out selling until 5 or 6 at night, even in sweltering heat. 

Each cup of fruit sells for $8 and he says he keeps very little of that. 

We don’t know for sure if he’s a victim, but his circumstance matches a lot of the criteria Investigator Wolfe says they pay close attention to identify a possible case.

“They don’t know where they are. Oftentimes they don’t have access to use the restroom,” Wolfe said.

Lawful food vendors, like Juan Carlos Barajas, have seen what they believe are victims being exploited in their communities. 

“That is concerning. It’s sad,” Barajas said.

He says the lack of oversight is also concerning when it comes to the health and safety of customers. 

“No permits, no license, no inspections. They make their money and take off,” Barajas said.

He thinks city, county, and state officials should do more to educate the public about the problem. 

“As long as there’s business on their end, they’re going to keep coming,” Barajas said.

The county task force prioritizes education to help combat human trafficking. including with billboards like this one along the 10 freeway. 

“How difficult is it to get someone to admit to you that they are victims?” Jennifer Franco asked Investigor Wolfe.

“It’s extremely difficult," Investigator Wolfe answered.

Wolfe said some individuals don't consider themselves victims. In other instances, traffickers control their victims by confiscating legal documents, threatening to harm or kill family, and misrepresenting US law and consequences for illegal entry.

“When they come to America, they don’t understand what their rights are,” Wolfe said.

Despite some challenges, Wolfe says the goal is to connect human trafficking victims with resources.

“And rescue as many people as we can,” Wolfe said.

The Riverside County Anti-human trafficking task force has partnered with the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center in Rancho Mirage to establish the Coalition to End Human Trafficking Coachella Valley Riverside County to raise public awareness about the issue and offer resources to victims.

If you think someone is in immediate danger, authorities urge you to immediately call 911. If you notice indicators that suggest someone is being trafficked, you can call the 24-hour RCAHT hotline at (855)-758-3733. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

Watch the special report, "Trafficking in Plain Sight" - TONIGHT at 6:00 PM on News Channel 3.

Be the first to know when news breaks in Coachella Valley. Download the News Channel 3 app here.

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Jennifer Franco

Jennifer Franco is the weekend anchor/weekday reporter for KESQ News Channel 3


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