Malls and big-box stores are cashing in with a flood of shoppers this holiday weekend. But a thrift store in National City is raising money for an entirely different reason: To prevent the exploitation of men, women and children by people who sell their services for profit.
"This used to be a furniture place and it burned down," Marisa Ugarte said. Her non-profit group moved in about two years ago. Now it's a thrift store to raise money for the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition to help victims of drug-, labor- and sex-trafficking. Ugarte pointed out the window facing the street.
"So this is the National City blade, where a lot of the girls work the streets," she said. For almost 15 years Ugarte and her coalition of volunteers have been tracking, counseling and intervening on behalf of victims.
About 50 percent are men exploited mostly for labor, and the other half are women and children. She uses a color-coded map to show the extent of the problem in San Diego County. Red dots represent adult sexual exploitation, yellow for child sex slaves, blue for domestic workers and green for exploited laborers. The map covers almost every neighborhood from beaches to the inland valleys, to military bases, even Indian reservations.
Ugarte said another concern is children under 15 selling candy and magazines door to door.
"So when you go and ask them where is your permit, they run to the van and the van takes off," she said.
The traffickers range from pimps and predators to operators of drug cartels. Since 2005, the organization has helped or rescued more than 200 people from being exploited, Ugarte said. It's happening in restaurants, massage parlors, peoples homes, even outside of schools, she added.
"Look in the streets of El Cajon; look in the streets of National City; and when you see a young little face, call 911 because that child is someone's niece, daughter, or cousin," Ugarte said.
One client made a self portrait and gave it to Ugarte, who said her organization works with many clients for up to three years. She noted that California voters passed Proposition 35 this month, increasing fines for human trafficking. But she said the issue is not going away anytime soon.
"The next one could be your niece, your daughter who gets recruited. It could be like many other people -- the daughter that disappears into Mexico and never comes back."
The Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition is holding a fundraiser Dec. 5th in Coronado to help victims of human trafficking.
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