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More than 30 people were arrested and over 300 charges were laid in a multi-province, year-long investigation that is one of the largest sex-trafficking busts in Canadian history.

The investigation, called Project Convalesce, was undertaken by four police services from Ontario and one from Quebec, as well as the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario. It was started in October, 2018, after two women who had been trafficked contacted police while attempting to escape.

“They were coming to the end of their rope and they had called York Regional Police for assistance while they were at a hotel,” York Regional Police Insp. Thai Truong told reporters at a news conference in Aurora, Ont., on Wednesday morning. He says subsequent arrests have been made since the conference was held, but police are still searching for nine suspects.

“It’s somewhat uncommon to have victims reach out to police,” says Barbara Gosse, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. “Usually this is a very clandestine crime. Victims and survivors are coerced, abused and subjected to extreme violence so often that they are quite afraid to try to get help.”

Threats, crippling debt and lives lost: Human trafficking leaves foreign workers suffering in silence

From 2009 to 2016, there were 1,099 reported incidents involving a human-trafficking offence, with incidents rising steadily since 2010. According to the latest data from Statistics Canada, there is a rate of about one human-trafficking incident for every 100,000 Canadians. The vast majority of trafficking victims are women under 25.

York Police say the trafficking was carried out by an unnamed organized crime group headed by a single “kingpin” presiding over his three brothers and several other individuals. Police say this is atypical for a sex-trafficking case, where often there is only one pimp controlling victims.

This hierarchical structure is why, after the arrest of Jonathan Nyangwila, the alleged kingpin, in July, the organization was still able to function with other members assuming his role.

Mr. Nyangwila, alias “Zoulou” and “Skulls,” faces at least 34 charges, police said.

Insp. Truong alleges Mr. Nyangwila continued to run the organization from behind bars, a scenario he said is not uncommon.

“He’s not confined 24 hours a day with no contact,” Insp. Truong said. “He has contact while in jail, and through those contacts and those opportunities he can still … give orders.”

The group, which spanned several provinces, was funded in part through fraud, police allege.

“They had a sophisticated operation,” said Insp. Truong, adding that the suspects are accused of using identity theft to take out lines of credit.

Investigators in York Region say they searched more than 30 locations in the Toronto area and Quebec last Thursday. Of the charges against the suspects, 100 were related to human trafficking. Other charges include fraud, drug trafficking and weapons offences.

Insp. Truong did not specify exactly how long the group had been in operation, but said it’s been recruiting women for several years. Police say officers identified 12 victims, ranging in age from their 20s to mid-30s, and determined that more than 30 women in the sex trade were linked to the ring. Most of them came from Quebec. Once involved, the women were shuffled west to Ontario and other Canadian provinces, where they were controlled by means including physical violence, emotional manipulation, drugs and alcohol, Insp. Truong alleged. He added this follows the preternatural trend of Canadian victims being trafficked from east to west, most often from Nova Scotia and Quebec.

He said the women were forced to work constantly, allegedly bringing in what he called a conservative average of $1,000 a day for the organization.

“[The victims] are broken inside,” said Insp. Truong, adding that they had been recruited from both inside and outside the sex trade. “They’ve suffered severe stress and oppression. We’re working to try to get them as many resources and supports as we can. They need therapy, counselling, individual supports. We’re doing everything we can to get them the help they need.”

“A case like this is very resource dependent,” Ms. Gosse said. “It takes significant staff power to not only investigate this but to have enough evidence to lay the charges. We need our governments to understand that there needs to be more investment in this.”

With files from Canadian Press

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