An officer talks with a sex trafficking victim. Courtesy FBI

Nearly 500 people were arrested in a new crackdown on human trafficking in San Diego and other California cities during raids that also led to the rescue of more than 50 victims.

Law enforcement authorities reported Wednesday they had rescued 28 children, some of whom had been reported missing, and also 27 adults who had been coerced into prostitution.

“We let everybody know throughout the state that … we’re going to aggressively go after the pimps and the exploiters, as well as the johns and especially the johns that think that they can prey on the minors,” said Kent Wegener, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Authorities arrested 474 people and freed victims in and around cities from Los Angeles to San Diego and Santa Barbara in state-wide raids over three days in late January, Wegener said.

In San Diego County, the operation resulted in the arrest of 38 individuals, including 22 buyers, all of whom were charged with soliciting for prostitution, officials said.

“This operation sends a clear message to those who would pay for sex in San Diego County,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan. “If you think you’re not being watched, you are. If you think you’re operating in the darkness, you’re not. If you think you won’t be caught and held accountable for your role in promoting sex trafficking, think again.”

The San Diego operation involved more than 160 personnel from 18 different law enforcement agencies.

As part of the operation focused on buyers who shop for sex online, fake ads were posted online offering sex for money. When the men responding to the ad showed up at a hotel, they were arrested, authorities said.

The operation also focused on rescuing victims of human trafficking. Law enforcement worked to identify and make contact with adults and juveniles being exploited by their traffickers. As a result, two people were rescued, including a 16-year-old girl.

A recent study showed the underground sex industry in San Diego is about an $810 million annual business, Stephan said.

The statewide crackdown was carried out to coincide with the end of Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, which former President Barack Obama proclaimed in 2014.

More cases of human trafficking were reported in California than in any other U.S. state last year, according to data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center‘s hotline.

Some 5,500 cases of sex trafficking were reported to the center’s hotline nationwide last year, according to its website.

Globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of human trafficking, according to the U.N.’s International Labour Organization. An estimated 4.5 million of them are forced into sex work.

Reuters and City News Service contributed to this article.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.