By Susan Cork, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
A human trafficking ring that lured Mexican nationals to Canada with promises of a better life has been dismantled by police in an investigation dubbed “Project Norte.”
During Project Norte, police arrested five suspects and exposed an alleged human trafficking ring that was exploiting numerous migrants in the GTA.
A single foreign worker provided the initial tip. The operation began after a Mexican national filed a complaint about their living and working conditions.
Det. Sgt. Gary McBride said that officers then spoke with other Mexican nationals who also indicated that they had been exploited by an organized crime group operating in the Greater Toronto Area.
McBride said the victims were primarily deprived of their freedom and transported to “farms, factories and warehouses” across the GTA, where they were required to work long hours for little pay.
Instead of the better life they were promised, these workers were subjected to living conditions that included sleeping on mattresses on the floor, cramped quarters with numerous others, bug infestations, and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse, according to police. The living conditions of these individuals were so appalling that even the officers involved in the rescue were left deeply affected.
“This investigation has been a difficult one. To see the state of the workers’ living conditions, considering the promises that were made to them, was heartbreaking,” said York Regional Police Chief Jim MacSween.
The suspects allegedly used coercion, control, and sexual assault to maintain their grip on the victims, who were mainly men and women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
On February 8, after an in-depth investigation, officers from York Regional Police, along with members of the OPP, the Toronto Police Service and Peel Regional Police, executed search warrants at five properties in Vaughan, East Gwillimbury, Toronto and Mississauga. As a result, 64 exploited workers were rescued, five people were arrested and charged and two outstanding suspects had warrants issued for their arrest.
An ongoing investigation is being conducted to uncover the extent of the profits made by the traffickers, who are said to have lived in luxury while the migrants lived in squalor. According to the police, they are still investigating the details of how the migrants were convinced to come to Canada initially. In the meantime, police are providing support to the rescued workers through a victim assistance centre.
The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is a non-judgemental, confidential, multilingual, 24/7 service using a victim-centred approach to connect human trafficking victims and survivors with transitional and long-term support, as well as to receive tips from the public. The number is 1-833-900-1010, or visit https://www.canadianhumantraffickinghotline.ca.
Photo: Foreign workers from Mexico worked in deplorable conditions at a farm located north of Toronto, according to YRP. (YRP photo)