MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson admits it: For most of his 30 years in law enforcement, human trafficking wasn't on his radar. Twenty-one million victims worldwide put it there.
"That's a staggering number," Peterson said Thursday after a news conference to discuss details of his office's monthlong human trafficking-awareness initiative. "And so many involved in labor exploitation. That was my 'aha' moment that, boy, this is a bigger problem than I thought it was."
The International Labor Organization has estimated there are 21 million victims of human trafficking -- 16.5 million in forced labor and 4.5 million victims of sexual exploitation. Peterson said 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year, adding that the Bay Area is one of the top destinations for those victims.
Deputy district attorney Nancy Georgiou can attest to the growth in trafficking, estimated by the United Nations to be a $32 billion-a-year criminal enterprise. In 2011, her first year as head of the sexual assault unit, her office fielded four cases. Last year, there were 32.
"Our neighborhoods are being used to house these victims," Georgiou said. "Neighbors are not recognizing it for what it is."
As part of the effort to raise awareness, billboards will be displayed in Richmond. There will be posters and ads on BART, buses and bus stations. All will publicize 211, the phone number people can call to report trafficking.
A law that took effect in 2013 requires any store with a liquor license to post an informational notice regarding human trafficking.
In data collected from 2012-13 in Contra Costa County, 51 percent of victims were 17 or younger, 98 of exploited youths were female, and 87 percent of exploited youths lived in urban areas. But Devorah Levine, executive director of Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence, cautions against generalizing who might or might not be a potential victim.
"We can't make assumptions of who can be trafficked," Levine said. "At any point in your life, you may become vulnerable. Human trafficking is real in Contra Costa County. We have an obligation to not tolerate modern-day slavery."
Peterson cited the recent vigilance of a Target employee who was able to lead Antioch police to a suspected kidnapper as an example of what people can do to combat trafficking.
"You follow your gut, your hunch," he said. "When something doesn't look right, an age-inappropriate relationship that you see, or how someone acts, I think you've got to step in and try to do a little further inquiry about the situation."
Said Georgiou: "It's time to look around, educate yourself and be aware that trafficking is real."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.