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Humans can be, without doubt, the cruelest species on the planet. Our ability and inclination to cause harm to each other seem without limit.

Human trafficking is one example to support such a belief. It’s a global industry that pulls in tens of billions of dollars a year, and ensnares nearly 3 million men, women and children at any given time.

Most folks will likely assume the majority of human trafficking occurs in Third World countries, and that is a reasonable assumption. But before we start fist-bumping each other over our innate goodness, be aware that at any given time about 300,000 humans are being trafficked here in the United States.

As bucolic, serene and kind as the Central Coast may seem to be, we are in the thick of human trafficking here. Hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly young men, women and children are caught up in the web of trafficking, either for commercial sex purposes or forced labor.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month — and general public awareness of the problem of such human misery is sorely lacking.

Actually, it’s difficult to imagine such misery in the midst of such beauty and opulence. But believe us, it’s here.

A federal grant received by Santa Barbara County to fight human trafficiking is split up between the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program. The money allows the addition of an investigator and a victims’ advocate — which to us seems like attacking the Thomas fire with a garden hose. But it’s a start to at least putting a crimp in the human-trafficking industry in Santa Barbara County.

Human trafficking is a form of slavery, involving victims who are sexually exploited or forced to provide free labor, or both. Pimps lure girls and boys, men and women into an existence of prostitution and abuse, and for most of their victims it doesn’t end well.

California is one of the top four human-trafficking destinations in the nation, according to the DA's Office, and the Central Coast has been pinpointed as a major transit corridor for trafficking activity between two of the state’s coastal metro areas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Much of the traffic is generated on social media, on which pimps post fake profiles, luring in mostly young people who are lost and wandering.

The county’s task force has zeroed in on those sites, and some progress has been made. But it’s a one-step-at-a-time operation that takes patience and compassion.

For task force members, it’s not always about rescuing someone or getting someone out of that sort of life, which does happen. It is about sending out signals of caring — what can I do to help you? Can I feed you?

If officials can sell and spread that message of hope, maybe they will eventually extricate a victim from that life. The point is to show victims there are options available.

We can all help. If you know or suspect a human-trafficking situation, call 911 immediately. There also is a nationwide hotline operated by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, available by calling 888-373-7888, with help in English, Spanish and 200 other languages.

It sometimes seems our planet is in perpetual turmoil, and for those trapped in human trafficking situations, it most definitely is — and it often is a situation that seems impossible to escape.

But escape is possible. It takes diligence, patience and a willingness to reach out to a victim. We can do that.

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