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Dozens of people have been arrested, and 16 victims removed from exploitative situations, in a cross-country effort to crack down on human trafficking.

This is the fifth time Canadian police have carried out Operation Northern Spotlight, a co-ordinated outreach effort focused on reaching vulnerable people in the sex trade. This year's investigation, conducted by 53 police services in nine provinces, was carried out last week. It coincides with a similar operation in the United States, led by the FBI, and is part of a global effort to stop child sex trafficking.

In this investigation, police charged 32 people in Canada with 78 offences, with charges including trafficking in persons and child luring.

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Among the victims, police said they found 16 people who had been working in the sex trade "as a minor or against their will," including "numerous" people who were 16 and under.

In Toronto, two victims, aged 17 and 18, were moved to safety over the weekend after being forced to have sex with johns in a Scarborough motel. Their traffickers – two men – took all of their money and threatened them if they didn't cooperate. One of the men, aged 20, was arrested.

"These guys, they talk a big story, tell these girls that they can make a lot of money. And in the end, they don't make any money, and they're forced into the sex trade," said Detective Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi, head of the Toronto Police Service's sex crimes human trafficking enforcement team.

Most trafficking victims found by Toronto police this year have been under the age of 18, he said. His team has arrested 64 pimps this year on trafficking or related charges, and found 53 victims – the youngest of whom was 13 years old.

"That's the age where they start recruiting them out of high schools and middle schools," he said, adding that they "come from all walks of life" in terms of income, background and ethnicity.

Human trafficking is defined as recruiting, harbouring, transporting or controlling the movement of a person for the purpose of exploitation. More than 90 per cent of human trafficking victims are female, and a quarter of victims are under the age of 18, according to Statistics Canada.

Most victims know their traffickers, who often lure girls as "boyfriends" with promises of love or protection. Often, girls who are being trafficked are reluctant to approach authorities, due to fear or mistrust. Police hope this operation will reach victims and offer them assistance, and that the effort will help build public awareness about trafficking.

The business is lucrative for the perpetrators. Det. Sgt. Tramontozzi estimates one girl can typically make a pimp $250,000 a year. "And they don't have just one girl. They call it a stable – they have five to 10 girls. So they're making an enormous amount of money."

As for the victims, he describes the condition of some young women: "We've seen girls that are 80 pounds, because they don't eat; these pimps get them addicted to drugs and booze, we've had victims with their teeth knocked out, we had a victim who had her Achilles tendon sliced and the pimp dropped her into a dumpster ... that's how they treat these girls, like garbage. And it's heartbreaking."

The crackdown comes after Ontario said in June it will spend up to $72-million over four years in a new anti-trafficking strategy, the third province to adopt a plan to fight trafficking. The province has about 65 per cent of the human trafficking cases reported to police in the country.

The RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police co-led this year's investigation. The RCMP said it was "unable to accommodate" an interview about this year's operation.

In Winnipeg, police have been working with the hotel industry, educating staff and owners on what to watch for, and encouraging them to call police if they see signs that someone may be trafficked. This has helped them locate victims. Traffickers, however, are changing tactics, by using rental properties and, now, Airbnb, said Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon, head of the Winnipeg Police Service's counter-exploitation unit. "They're evolving … and we're trying to stay ahead of the curve."