SAN DIEGO — Law enforcement in San Diego launched a major human trafficking operation that resulted in the successful rescue of eight children and arrest of 48 individuals, officials announced Tuesday.

Since Jan. 9, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies completed 17 operations in San Diego and National City neighborhoods as part of a larger undertaking to address human trafficking called “Operation Better Pathways.”

According to officials during a press conference Tuesday, members of the “Operation Better Pathways” task force used video surveillance and undercover units to monitor neighborhoods for potential victims, traffickers or buyers.

“There’s a focus on reducing demand, but really the focus is dealing with the traffickers — the people who are basically (enslaving) these women to go out there and perform sex acts for money — and then also trying to get these women onto better pathways,” San Diego Police Department Lt. Adam Sharki said to FOX 5 prior to the press conference.

Law enforcement said 16 people being trafficked were rescued overall, including eight children. The youngest of the children was 13 years old — she has since been reunited with her family.

Two of the victims rescued were 16 year old runaways from Arizona, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said during Tuesday’s briefing.

“Human trafficking operations can be viewed as an exploitation triangle with three parts: the trafficker, the victim and the buyer,” Nisleit said. “‘Operation Better Pathways’ highlighted the need for large-scale operations to combat human trafficking and the need to incorporate technology into the fight.”

Of the arrests made, nine were for felony charges, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said — four of which will be handled by her office, with the other five being headed up by the U.S. Attorney.

The remainder of the arrests, Stephan said, where charges levied at those soliciting sex from the traffickers. Those cases will be divided between the DA and the City Attorney’s office.

“This operation sent a clear message: If you come to our neighborhoods to buy sex, be prepared
to leave in handcuffs,” said San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott during the briefing.

In addition to the arrests of dozens, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said that two guns were recovered during the operations, including an untraceable “ghost gun.”

Officials at the conference stressed the partnership between local, state and federal agencies as the reason for the success of the operation.

“We have local leaders and state leaders and federal leaders all working together — hand in glove, in sync — on the same issue to achieve a common goal,” Bonta said Tuesday. “Whether it’s law enforcement, service providers or prosecutors, it takes us all working together to keep our communities safe.”

“Operation Better Pathways” remains ongoing, so additional arrests could be seen in the coming weeks.

Nisleit and Stephan during the conference said that a new California law, SB 357, that decriminalized loitering with intent to commit prostitution has had an inverse effect by emboldening those who engage in trafficking.

The bill was signed into law last year and took effect in January. The purpose of the act was to address the disproportionate impact that previous enforcement of loitering had on Black and transgender communities, according to the ACLU California Action, who co-sponsored the measure.

“The foreseeable and predictable consequences of this bill far outweigh this (impact),” Nisleit said during the conference.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline provided by SDPD, more than 1,300 human trafficking cases were reported in California in 2021 — more than any other state in the nation.

“Moving forward, these partnerships will need to continue in order to have a proactive enforcement posture to address human trafficking and the crimes associated with prostitution,” said National City Police Chief Jose Tellez.