REGION — A new element to the age old crime has made sex trafficking carried out in San Diego County more sophisticated, more widespread, and more mobile.
The involvement of gangs in human trafficking is changing how the crime is being committed and the faces of victims, according to law enforcement and prosecution officials.
In recent years, gangs, including those in North County, have realized how lucrative prostitution can be, and have concentrated more of their criminal operations on selling sex.
Where once sex trafficking was the third most profitable criminal business in the county, it is now the second most lucrative illegal undertaking, above arms dealing and after drug selling, according to a report from the district attorney’s office.
The underground commercial sex economy in the city of San Diego brought in about $96.6 million in 2007, according to a March 2014 study by the Urban Institute, “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities.”
“(Gangs) make big bucks on this,” explained San Diego County’s District Attorney, Bonnie Dumanis.
She and other experts spoke on the rise of human trafficking in the county at North County Lifeline’s second annual human trafficking conference on May 3.
To increase the scope and profits of their pimping operations in a certain area, gangs are teaming up with rivals gangs factions.
Sgt. Joe Mata of the Sheriff’s Department explained that even local gangs with intense, historical rivalries including the Bloods and the Crips will join forces.
“They will basically come together and forget about their wars and battles to get in together on human trafficking because it makes so much money,” he said.
“We’re seeing the emergence of a hybrid type of gang,” said Gretchen Means, a former deputy district attorney for the county who specializes in sex crimes.
Though gangs still utilize established tracks, or city blocks where pimping and prostituting is commonplace, they are also selling their victims for sex using the Internet.
Law enforcement officials have realized that websites, including BackPage.com and MyRedBook.com, are rife with human trafficking advertisements.
Gangs are also working together to create what’s called a circuit or pipeline, a series of cities across the country that pimps travel to transport people for sex trafficking.
Traveling to different counties and different states allows pimps to avoid being tracked by law enforcement and, if they are caught, makes prosecutions across multiple jurisdictions more challenging.
Local gangs frequently pay certain hotels, most along major transit ways, for rooms secluded from other guests to carry out human trafficking.
“If you basically see a hotel from the freeway, there is a victim being prostituted out of there,” said Dustin Nelson of the North County Human Trafficking Task Force.
Via the exploitation by gangs, the amount of human trafficking carried out in San Diego County is rising.
Over the past dozen years, violent gang crime in Oceanside has dropped while human trafficking has risen in the city, according to Detective Jack Reed from the Oceanside Police Department.
“The department is setting records every year for (the number of) human trafficking defendants that are charged and cases that are tried,” said the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, Laura Duffy.
And with the increase of the commercial sex trade, gangs are recruiting victims from all corners of the community, tempting their targets with promises of love and money.
“These young people are getting plucked out of schools, malls, from all over our communities, (and) from the Internet,” Duffy said.
While many human trafficking victims have certain risk factors, including coming from unstable, impoverished families and having a history of trauma, the prevalence of recruiting as resulted in victims coming from all types of economic, family, and educational backgrounds.
“Those girls are looking less and less like the girls in the shadows, and more and more like my 13-year-old daughter,” Means said. “They come from intact homes, they come from good schools, (and) they come from high socio-economic areas.”
“These are victims who are in plain sight,” stated Duffy.
Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and service providers are working to catch up to the changing landscape of domestic human trafficking by supporting new laws, developing victim services, collaborating with other agencies, and spreading awareness.
Officials said it is encouraging to see how far San Diego County has come already with the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking.
“The only way to fight (human trafficking) is working together,” Dumanis said.
Pointing to the expansion of North County Lifeline’s conference as a demonstration of the community’s growing commitment to fighting human trafficking, Means said, “I am shocked by how far this community has come.”