Updated April 7, 2023
BY GRAYDEN MILLER
“I am you,” says Ashley Chesney, executive director at Set Free Monterey Bay, a Christian anti-trafficking organization that aims to rehabilitate female sex trafficking survivors.
Chesney was a straight-A student in Pacific Grove with what she calls normal upbringing when she was human trafficked. Generally defined as the unlawful act of coercing or transporting people with the objective of benefitting from their work or service, trafficking is not exclusive to big cities or drug-ridden areas, and Ashley Chesney is proof.
At 18, Chesney was trafficked by a man that she was dating, and she began to develop a drug addiction. Her relationship and addiction triggered a saga of commercial sex trafficking that started in southern California, looped back to the Monterey Peninsula as she was then forced into a high-end escort service and ended in her four-year incarceration in Georgia.
She was trafficked for a total of five years.
“At the time, it felt like a consequence of my drug use,” Chesney explains.
According to the United States Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, and it’s happening on the Monterey Peninsula. Local law enforcement, survivors and preventative organizations explain that sex, child and commercial human trafficking on the Peninsula is getting worse, and traffickers are evolving.
So what makes the Peninsula susceptible to trafficking? According to Monterey County District Attorney human trafficking investigator Pablo Andrade, the Peninsula’s proximity to Interstate Highway 101, Interstate Highway 5 and Highway 1 makes transporting people to and from different locations an easier process: Highway 101 runs from San Diego to the Oregon border, Highway 5 stretches from Mexico to Canada, and the latter bisects the coast for about 650 miles, cutting straight through the Peninsula.
“Traffickers like to keep moving,” Monterey County Prosecuting District Attorney Donna Bakich says. “If they are trafficking underaged victims, they keep moving because they don’t want to get caught. With Highway 101 and Highway 1, traffickers are stopping off in places in Monterey County.”
Officer Joe Martis at the Carmel Police Department explains that means, purpose and gain, as well as transients in areas such as the Peninsula, are vital factors in determining how often a population is trafficked.
“As blunt as it is, human trafficking is about people using other people as a commodity,” Martis says, “and they are constantly moving to where the demand is highest.”
Andrade explains that the Salinas Valley’s extensive agricultural community creates incentive for labor trafficking, that the high concentration of immigrant workers increases vulnerability, like in the fear of deportation or the police, and that vulnerability is what traffickers look for. And with the demand for cheap work and labor trafficking comes the trafficking of minors, who are among one of the most vulnerable groups.
“Immigrants tend to work for lower wages and may not know their rights or be here legally,” says Desteney Garcia, human trafficking specialist at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center.
In addition to agricultural communities, massage parlors are a common place for human trafficking to occur.
“A huge problem in this area is massage parlors…a hybrid of both sex and labor trafficking where victims are brought in from outside of the country and are vulnerable to deportation and forced to work long hours without pay,” Bakich says.
Chesney explains that vulnerability can be manifested mainly in the form of drug addiction, childhood abuse, foster youth, those in and out of juvenile detention facilities, grooming, homelessness, single or unavailable parents, the emotionally vulnerable and those lacking consistent housing, in addition to immigrants. Leveraging that vulnerability can be one of the most common reasons why people are trafficked.
Salinas is home to vulnerability in another way, and it is leveraged through what is called a blade or a track. Chesney explains that the track is a known area for exploitation or prostitution and defines the blade as a known road or section of a boulevard in a city for sex workers to solicit. And unlike some other forms of trafficking, blades are where traffickers do not hide their violations of human rights.
“They have an area in Salinas where obvious commercial sex work is happening,” Bakich says. “Other prosecutors and jurisdictions are well aware of the activity happening in Salinas because of what people in the commercial sex trade are saying about the area.”
But Andrade explains that the nearness of three large highways, blades and agricultural communities are not the only factors that put the Peninsula at risk. Largely celebrated events, tourist attractions or places with money entice traffickers. The human trafficking expert says that high-profile events, like the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a professional golf tournament with numerous celebrity participants, and Concours d’Elegance, a luxury car show, do more than just congest the streets. The hotels in which tourists stay, the cleaning services they use, the nail parlors they visit, the cars they rent, the restaurants they eat in and the sex that they pay for during these events can support different types of human trafficking.
“Traffickers know that events like the Pro-Am attract money,” says Andrade, explaining that traffickers prepare, educating their workers with the knowledge that, for example, there is business with men who are away from their wives and are consuming substances, making them more likely to reach out to sex workers.
According to Sgt. Michael Bruno at the Carmel Police Department, there is a challenge in pinpointing the trafficker amid short events like the Concours d’Elegance or the Pro-Am that district attorney offices, investigating agencies and police departments are faced with.
“A lot of it goes undetected and unreported to law enforcement,” Bruno says. “We truly don’t know.”
And while labor and sex trafficking remain on the Peninsula, one type surpasses both in terms of difficulty to track and in the number of cases. Transpiring in some of the most commonly used apps, like Snapchat and Instagram, both forms of social media, CashApp, an app for online payment, and Tinder, a dating app, online trafficking is constantly growing with the advancement of technology. It is becoming increasingly easier to rope others in without causing as much alarm.
“What the public doesn’t see is this is happening as we speak,” Andrade says. “Human trafficking happens all over social media and online escort ads where they post their services. It’s hundreds if not thousands of ads daily that are posted here in Monterey County.”
Andrade adds that trafficking can be organized online, where car dates or meetings for sex can often be set up with little to no notice, even as technology training becomes more common at police stations.
This is seen in Carmel, as Officer Bruno reports that local police departments recently closed a 16-month-long human trafficking investigation in Salinas involving a 14-year-old boy, a resident of Carmel, and a 30-year-old man. The grooming began on Grindr, a dating app, and grew into coercive sexual acts and forced prostitution. Trafficking specialist Garcia adds that the human trafficking demographics on the Peninsula match the minor’s case, showing that younger boys and slightly older girls get trafficked more frequently.
Technically, any minor involved with commercial sex is being trafficked, and Officer Martis advises to look for truancy, running away, other cellphones or credit cards, older boyfriends or signs of abuse to identify minor trafficking.
Bruno adds that 15 or 20 years ago, people were more easily identified due to their attire or behavior and that now people are in remote areas or hotel rooms and are meeting people solely online, lowering their chances of getting caught.
Online sex trafficking, according to Andrade, accelerated with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the closures of hotels and rentals, which, prior to the pandemic, were most commonly used for trafficking. Websites like OnlyFans, a monthly subscription service, and Snapchat introduced the idea of sex acts being performed online and paid for through cash apps. More people spent time on devices, increasing the incentive for online trafficking.
And some of the same tactics employed online can be transferred to in-person trafficking, as Chesney explains that fake connections can try to be established when a trafficker is looking for a victim, called recruits. These online traffickers are also often being trafficked themselves, according to Bakich, and are typically of the same demographics. Females can approach other females, offering modeling contracts, build relationships and buy the victim gifts, or they can try to impersonate someone online.
“Being safe online is incredibly important,” says Chesney, when asked if there is any way to avoid being trafficked and praising the classic “stranger danger” methodology.
Chesney emphasizes that, essentially, the extent of the manipulation and the state of the victim are what blurs the line between being trafficked and being part of a relationship. Teenagers have pre-existing insecurities or the want to be loved at their age. This was a key feature in how Chesney’s deceptive relationship with her boyfriend gradually grew to him trafficking her, using their bond as an instrument of coercion to have sex with other people, advertise sex online and facilitate manipulation. This can all happen while the trafficker makes the victim believe that it’s their choice or decision.
The Set Free Monterey Bay director says that traffickers provide the attention, stability, feeling of being special or being loved that is craved by the vulnerable and that victims’ past maltreatment predisposes them to normalize trafficking. Sometimes, Chesney says, they simply don’t know that they’re themselves victims.
“That’s the ultimate goal of the sex trafficker,” Andrade says. “It’s like a psychological mind game for them…. If they can manipulate the victim without using force or fear, they have them.”
“Traffickers will block access to basic needs, like food, safety, sleep and shelter, not letting you call your children unless you do what they ask,” Bakich says. “It is a mental manipulation and breakdown of a victim’s agency in self awareness. It is a cycle of victims victimizing other people in order to avoid maltreatment by their trafficker.”
So if trafficking is happening in the Peninsula, why isn’t it talked about? Christine Duncan, CEO of the YWCA, an organization to eliminate racism, empower women and support victims of trafficking, explains her theory.
“The people in Carmel don’t want to know,” she says. “It’s always been here…. It’s a hotspot. Society just exploits people for their own gain.”
One survivor of human trafficking who prefers to remain anonymous recounts her story of trafficking on the Peninsula when she was 16.
“Education is the key towards eradicating human trafficking, since we can’t address what we don’t know is happening or what remains hidden and in the shadows of society,” she says. “It is important to have these difficult conversations with your children, even if you think that human trafficking and abuse is something that can’t happen to them. There are even some days in which I just don’t feel free enough.”
“The Monterey Peninsula has been in the dark for a long time,” Chesney says, “and it’s time to wake up.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888.
This article has been altered from its original print version following a source’s request to remove inaccurate content.