The Ontario Provincial Police have busted an alleged human trafficking operation that spanned multiple cities across the country — including Sault Ste. Marie.
Dubbed Project FOXTROT, the investigation began in February when police received a tip about the suspected trafficking of three Mexican labourers. Police say the male victims were recruited online with promises of work permits and well-paying jobs, only to be forced to work in recycling plants for wages “less than had been promised.”
One of those recycling plants is in the Sault, police revealed yesterday. The others are in North Bay, Lévis, Que., and Red Deer, Alta.
In a phone interview with SooToday, OPP Detective-Inspector Jordan Whitesell shed some light on the sting’s Sault Ste. Marie connection.
“It’s important to note that the recycling facilities were dealing with third-party contractors, so the recycling plants weren’t aware that these people were trafficked,” said Whitesell, the lead OPP officer at Ontario’s recently formed Human Trafficking Intelligence-led Joint Forces Strategy (IJFS). “They weren’t involved in the offence and they weren’t charged with any offences.”
Because of that, Whitesell would not disclose the name of the local recycling facility. “We’re not releasing that information,” he said.
It is also not clear how many of the Mexican victims worked in the Sault — one, two or all three — or how long they were here. “I can’t speak to the specifics of whether or not all three of them were there, if they were trafficked together or if they were trafficked individually,” Whitesell said.
What is clear, according to police, is that the men had fallen victim to a sophisticated criminal operation that controlled their movements, their living arrangements and their wages. The victims were between the ages of 27 and 42.
“They were housed in short-term rentals and they were not given appropriate payments for the work they were doing,” Whitesell told SooToday. “We know the period of exploitation began in the Fall of 2022 and our investigation began in February 2023.”
On May 16, police executed three search warrants: one in Etobicoke, one in Mississauga and one at a house in Tottenham, a Simcoe County community where the victims were allegedly living in a basement apartment owned by one of the accused traffickers.
Francisco Eluid Antionio-Olvera, 33, of Simcoe County, has been charged with three counts of human trafficking of persons and three counts of material benefits in trafficking of persons. A bail hearing was scheduled for May 23.
Floriberta Sarmiento, 27, of Simcoe County, has been charged with one count of trafficking in persons and one count of material benefits in trafficking of persons. She was released on an undertaking and is set to appear in Brampton court on June 26.
Miroslaw Blachuta, 72, of Etobicoke, has been charged with three counts of human trafficking of persons and three counts of material benefits in trafficking of persons. He was released on an undertaking and will appear in Brampton court on July 17.
Mikhael Akin, 53, of Halton, has been charged with three counts of trafficking in persons. He was released on an undertaking and is set to appear in Brampton court on July 17.
None of the allegations have been tested in court, and all four accused are considered innocent unless proven guilty.
“This type of trafficking can occur in plain sight,” Whitesell said. “So it’s really important to have people understand what trafficking looks like, and to be suspicious and call police if things just don’t sit right with them.”
Police ask anyone with information about human trafficking to call the national hotline at 1-833-900-1010.