By Ken Williams | Editor
They run away from home or foster care, and then they run out of money for food and housing.
They run into trouble. Big-time trouble.
Desperate to survive on the streets with no support system surrounding them, they become easy prey for those who would exploit them.
They run headlong into the horrific underground world of human trafficking. Labor trafficking. Prostitution. Sex slavery. Or possibly worse.
It’s a taboo topic, but one that needs to see the light of day, according to those on the front lines of fighting human trafficking in San Diego.
On July 20, the North Park Community Association hosted an educational forum at Plymouth Church, designed to raise awareness about “Human Trafficking.” Speakers included U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego), District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria, Assistant Police Chief Terry McManus, Chief Deputy City Attorney Jamie Ledezma, and Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan.
“This is a tough topic,” Rep. Davis told the audience. “I know it’s hard to come out and hear about it. It’s not something you can see in your daily lives.”
Slavery: big bucks
Human trafficking is a thriving $810 million underground business in San Diego and it’s largely run by organized gangs, organizers said.
How big is the problem? Astonishingly, that dollar amount represents about 3.5 percent of the local economy, moderator Joseph Balestrieri calculated.
Rich or poor, no neighborhood and no socioeconomic or ethnic group is immune from this unsavory criminal operation.
“They prey on the vulnerable; girls and boys, young women and young men, LGBT and straight,” Stephan said.
“There is no gender distinction; there are men and boys who are also victims,” Ledezma said, dispelling the notion that only girls and women are forced into sex slavery.
“This is a problem citywide and countywide,” she said. “It happens in Poway, in Miramar, in La Jolla, in Del Mar and in North Park.”
It’s a growing problem across the U.S.
“President Lincoln thought he ended slavery when he signed the 13th Amendment” in 1865, Stephan said. “But human trafficking is in all 50 states today. We thought this only happened in third-world countries, and that we couldn’t do much about it.”
Worldwide, an estimated 27 million people are held against their will and forced into slavery, Stephan said, adding that the crime is grossly underreported because many of the victims exist in the shadows and aren’t known to law enforcement.
Slavery in San Diego
The FBI has identified San Diego as having one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the U.S.
A three-year study conducted recently by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University found that there are 3,000 to 6,000 victims annually in America’s Finest City, and that organized gangs control 85 percent of the illicit business. Again, the experts believe those numbers are low.
“Those numbers got our attention,” McManus said. “We were far behind the criminals, who had a head start.”
Stephan called trafficking a lucrative business.
“This is an illegal industry driven by profit … this is all about making money,” Stephan said.
The landmark study surveyed 1,200 respondents, 800 victims and 146 traffickers. On average, each trafficker or pimp controlled four victims. And those trapped in sexual slavery were expected to earn from $500 on a weekday to $2,000 on weekends.
The predators target young people in particular. Locally, the average age of a first-time sex slave is 16.
“They are minors,” Stephan said. “They are being raped.”
“It does start with running away,” Davis said. “You need somebody to help you. Often that means turning to the wrong people who only want to exploit you.”
Councilmember Gloria said many residents don’t think about the trafficking problem or know it exists.
“Initially, like other people, I thought it was a victimless crime,” he said. “You would see a pretty girl on the street, and think nothing of it. But it is a horrible situation … 13- and 14-year-old children are being enticed into prostitution by guys in passing cars.
“It’s such a big business, and they prey on young people, and this also has a nexus to homelessness,” Gloria continued, calling it “modern-day slavery.”
Stephan and McManus outlined how the predators work.
Stephan said the traffickers use Snapchat and Facebook, for example, to make connections with gullible youth. The teenagers get invited to parties, where the traffickers ply them with booze and drugs as they cozy up to their potential prey.
They make promises to them: “We’ll take care of you. We’ll show you how to make easy money. We’ll be there for you.” The victims get lured in, the traffickers photograph and market them online, and post ads on Backpage.com, for example.
McManus said the traffickers are experts at using social media to market their victims.
“They used technology to stay under the radar for years,” before the authorities figured it out, he added.
“Technology is a wonderful tool to try to track the traffickers and the horrific nature of the crimes; but it’s the same tool used by the traffickers,” McManus said. “You see them on the internet and in the digital world.”
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has been aggressively putting out the word about human trafficking through a website, TheUglyTruthSD.org, public service radio ads, bus stop signage, and posters in a number of languages spoken in San Diego.
Stephan said the website crashed the day it debuted due to heavy web traffic, and that the site is now averaging 3,000 hits per day.
Additionally, The Guardian newspaper did a big feature on San Diego’s proactive response to fight sex trafficking.
“The crime victims suffer in silence,” Stephan said, explaining why the website was created. “No victim is calling 911 to report a crime. How do we let them know we care about them?”
The message the website presents is simple and effective:
She explained how victims are often beaten, sexually abused, raped, and have a greater rate of HIV infection than the general population. Many are runaways or come from foster homes.
“Bring human trafficking into the light,” Stephan said.
“The County of San Diego has done a masterful job educating the public,” Gloria said.
Helping the victims
Another city program reaches out to victims who are arrested and charged with sex crimes.
“First-time offenders are offered an educational program to teach them that this is not a victimless crime,” Ledezma said.
Participants in the program hear from former victims and experts, with the goal of encouraging the offenders to get out of the sex industry.
“Since 2002, we’ve had 1,400 participants and 97 percent of them have left prostitution,” Ledezma said. “Only 38 people became reoffenders.”
But the people who return to their old ways often end up in more dangerous situations.
“It’s a gateway crime to worse offenses,” Ledezma said.
Victims include native San Diegans as well as people who don’t speak English.
“They come from any walk of life,” Ledezma said. “They could be your co-worker, a fellow student, your neighbor or a newcomer to San Diego.”
“The missing piece is community involvement,” Ledezma said.
“We must get the community involved to stop the selling of flesh,” Stephan said. “… If you see somebody in prostitution, ask yourself if they are doing this willingly. This is commercial sex slavery.”
Another place where sex crimes take place is inside illicit massage parlors where sexual acts are for sale, Ledezma said. People should report suspicious activity to law enforcement, she added, so authorities can contact landlords and tenants suspected of illegal activities.
But for victims who want to escape their servitude, they need to find a safe and affordable place to live, in order to get out of this dangerous lifestyle, Ledezma said. Those resources are hard to come by in San Diego, where affordable housing is lacking.
Gloria said residents must take up the cause of fighting trafficking.
“This has emerged as a high-priority issue,” he said. “We all have a role to play in this.
“What can be done? You are our eyes on the street. Keep an eye out. Get involved,” Gloria said, citing groups such as the Human Relations Commission, Citizen Patrols, community associations and Crime Watch.
“We must be proactive and get the message out,” he said. “This is still a clear and present danger in our community, particularly to young women.”
—Ken Williams is a contributing editor of the Mission Valley News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952.