Thirty-one people, including a central "kingpin," have been arrested and more than 300 charges laid in a major investigation into a human trafficking and organized crime ring that operated around Canada.
At a news conference on Wednesday in Aurora, Ont., York Regional Police said they uncovered a network of criminals who used fraud to help fund a widespread trafficking operation.
The year-long investigation, called Project Convalesce, involved extensive time and effort by four police services from Ontario and one from Quebec, reporters were told.
York Regional Police Insp. Thai Truong said the project began when two female victims of trafficking contacted them last year about a suspected pimp, Jonathan Nyangwila.
Truong said the women, who were from Quebec but based in Ontario, had tried to escape from Nyangwila. "I know they were extremely terrified to call police."
In the subsequent investigation, police uncovered a "large criminal network," said Truong, who described Nyangwila as the "kingpin" at the top of a complicated hierarchy.
The 28-year-old from Markham, Ont., is now facing more than 30 charges relating to human trafficking, firearms possession, harassment and fraud.
Underbosses and strikers
Police said they discovered a criminal organization, which Truong said has no name police are aware of, that was involved in a variety of criminal activities, including fraud and drug trafficking.
"Organized frauds are occurring across the country. The profit from the frauds that the organization is making is fuelling the human trafficking," said Truong.
Police said the organization was structured with Nyangwila at the top, delegating to several figureheads, including three of his brothers.
Underneath the figureheads was a group of underbosses, followed by several strikers — men paid to carry out high-risk frauds in banks and stores.
Many people working under Nyangwila "had their own stable of girls," said Truong. "For the first time we're actually seeing girls being traded within and controlled by other individuals for the benefit of the organization."
Of the 300-plus charges laid against the 31 suspects, about 100 relate directly to human trafficking.
Truong also noted that Nyangwila was arrested in July, but was able to continue controlling and directing the people working under him while in custody.
Victims assaulted, controlled, police say
Ultimately, police identified 12 confirmed victims as well as 33 other women who police believe are in the sex trade and were associated with the group over the last year.
"We're hoping they reach out to us," said Truong of the 33 women.
Truong also said the majority of the women came from Quebec and were recruited there, but had been moved to Ontario and then west to other provinces.
He said women had been recruited from both inside and outside the sex trade, and controlled in "every way imaginable." The confirmed victims range in age from 20 to mid-30s.
"They may smile at you, they may not appear to be controlled or victimized," said Truong.
"That is not true. We have seen the horrific things that are happening to these women."
York police Deputy Chief Brian Bigras said: "These victims endured violent assaults, sexual assaults and other degrading circumstances as they were controlled by these violent criminals."
Investigation remains active
Truong told reporters the investigation remains ongoing, with police still seeking several suspects.
York police also said they continue to urge human trafficking victims to seek assistance.
"We urge anyone looking for a way out of that lifestyle" to contact police, said Bigras.
The five police services involved in Project Convalesce are:
York Regional Police.
Ontario Provincial Police.
Toronto Police Service.
Peel Regional Police.
The Quebec integrated human trafficking task force.
The Quebec task force is led by Montreal police and includes representatives from the RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec, and police forces in Quebec City, Laval, Gatineau and Longueuil.