Nine people are facing 61 charges, and another suspect is being sought, in a human trafficking ring that police say operated in the GTA and across Canada.
The Toronto police investigation, dubbed Project Guardian — conducted between October 2014 and April 2015 — focused on a local street-level gang called the Complex Crip Gangsters.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Insp. Joanna Beaven-Desjardins said the nine arrested face human trafficking and drug-related charges after 13 raids were conducted in area of Jane Street and Wilson Avenue, and Kipling Avenue and Rexdale Boulevard, on April 2.
Police allege the gang members lured females — ranging in age from 15 to 33 — into prostitution for monetary gain, forcing them to service 10 to 15 clients a day and hand over all proceeds.
The victims were recruited from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta, police said. Some were lured from dance clubs, schools, group homes, as well as Instagram and Facebook.
Beaven-Desjardins said the alleged pimps would prey on the victims’ vulnerability, and romance them with attention and gifts, leading them to believe they were in a “boyfriend [and] girlfriend relationship.”
“They would slowly manipulate the victims into thinking prostitution was glamourous and lucrative. Once the victim agreed to the plan, the relationship would change dramatically,” Beaven-Desjardins said.
She said photos were taken of the females in lingerie and various stages of undress, which were posted along with ads on websites listing their services.
Police said the suspects controlled the victims by isolating them.
“These pimps would take their cell phone information and identification, and would regularly transport them to various hotels and motels within Toronto, York Region, Peel Region, Hamilton, London, Kitchener, Niagara Falls, Winnipeg and Edmonton,” Beaven-Desjardins said.
And, police said if the women did not make enough money, they were beaten and threatened.
“In most cases, what happens is they’re mentally abused. All their basic human rights are taken from them,” Beaven-Desjardins said.
Some of the women, between 15 to 18 years old, managed to escape and called police. They were provided with support from Deborah’s Gate, Covenant House, and East Metro Youth Services.
Beaven-Desjardins said police are in touch with four victims, but know there are more out there.
“We still have work to do,” Beaven-Desjardins said, adding it’s a “circuit.”
“The commodity is a person, that’s your evidence,” she said, and some are abused so badly, that the trial is difficult for them.
She said the “sad thing” is that if there wasn’t a demand for underage girls, “there wouldn’t be this issue.”
During the raids, police also seized cell phones and computers, various drugs like cocaine and heroin, the victims’ identification, money, stolen property from break-ins, and other documents.
The following people, all from Toronto have been charged in the investigation: Marcus Cumsille, 21; Joel Edwards, 22; Tyronne Matthews, 20; Felix Funes Vasquez, 19; Shane Hendry, 18; Symisha Murray, 19; Abdulwahab Sheikh, 18; Keron Christie, 32; and Chanelle Espinosa, 20.
Police have issued an arrest warrant for Levi Alexander, 19, of Toronto. He is facing five charges, including trafficking and obstructing justice.