The arrests of more than 30 people have dealt a serious blow to an alleged human trafficking ring that is believed to have victimized dozens of women for more than a year, York Regional Police said Wednesday.

The operation was allegedly run by a single man and involved three of his brothers in high positions, Insp. Thai Truong of the York Regional Police said. It operated throughout the country and had contact with 45 women in the past year alone, Truong alleged.

He added that while the group appeared to centre on one alleged “kingpin,” the women caught in its web are the true focus.

“To the naked eye it may appear that these females that are involved in the sex trade are willing participants,” Truong said at a news conference. “They may smile at you, they may not even appear to be controlled or victimized.”

But, he added, police “have seen the horrific things that are happening to these women. They’re controlled in every way imaginable.”

Truong alleged the organization focused on human trafficking, but also dabbled in fraud, drug trafficking and other illegal activities. Police have arrested 31 people in connection with its operations who are now facing more than 300 charges between them, he said, noting investigators are still looking for 11 more suspects.

Truong did not specify exactly how long the group had been in operation, but said it’s been recruiting women for several years. Many of those women, he said, are sex-trade workers in Quebec and range in age from their early 20s to their mid 30s.  

Once involved, Truong alleged, 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.

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. He said the investigation into its activities, dubbed Project Coalesce, identified 45 women believed to be in contact with the group over the past year and the current raft of charges related to 12 of them.

He said the organization also allegedly forged government identity documents and stole the identities of innocent people as part of its alleged activities.

Truong said the alleged ring was more structured and tight-knit than many other similar operations across the country. He noted that human trafficking investigators have observed that pimps appear to be getting younger.

The suspected head of the operation, Jonathan Nyangwila, was arrested in July. Truong alleges he continued to run the organization from behind bars, a scenario he said is not uncommon.

The bulk of the remaining arrests came last week, and Truong said the project is expected to remain open for some time.

This report by The Canadian Press was originally published on Oct. 16, 2019.

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