More than 300 charges laid in multi-province human trafficking investigation

Dozens of women suffered "horrific" acts at the hands of a human trafficking ring that operated across the country, police north of Toronto said Wednesday as they announced more than 30 arrests in the case.

The operation was allegedly run by a single "kingpin" and involved three of his brothers in high positions, Insp. Thai Truong of the York Regional Police said.

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It operated for more than a year and had contact with dozens of women over that time, Truong alleged, adding that those 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 and they face more than 300 charges between them, he said, noting investigators are still looking for 11 more suspects.

He said the investigation began a year ago when two women attempting to escape control of the alleged ringleader, Jonathan Nyangwila, reached out to officers from a hotel in Vaughan, Ont.

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, 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, Truong alleged.

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.

The investigation into the group's activities, dubbed Project Coalesce, identified 45 women believed to be in contact with the organization over the past year, Truong said. The current raft of charges relate to just 12 of them.

Truong said the alleged ring was more structured and tight-knit than many other similar operations across the country, suggesting the group was unique in the force's experience.

He said that while Nyangwila is suspected of controlling the operation, all members serving under him — including three of his brothers — all allegedly held their own "stable" of victims that were subject to the whims of the other members.

"For the first time, we're actually seeing girls traded within and girls being controlled by other individuals for the benefit of the organization," he said.

According to the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, however, this arrangement is increasingly common.

Chief Executive Officer Barbara Gosse said "peer-to-peer" trafficking is a phenomenon researchers are encountering more often, noting such activities sometimes take place within networks whose members are still in high school.

She said the case involving what police dubbed the "Nyangwila group" also illustrates another emerging trend — a growing tendency to shuffle victims between cities and provinces.

Such a move, she said, serves a purpose beyond helping would-be traffickers evade police.

"When victims and survivors are moved they become disoriented, and that's exactly what the traffickers want," Gosse said. "They don't want them attached to anyone, they don't want them speaking to anyone, they want to isolate them."

Nyangwila was arrested in July and faces an unspecified number of charges, police said.

Truong alleges Nyangwila continued to run the organization from behind bars, a scenario he said is not uncommon.

"He's not confined 24 hours a day with no contact," Truong said. "He has contact while in jail, and through those contacts and those opportunities he can still ... give orders."

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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