Bianca Morales-Egan, Associate Manager of Field Operations, Project Concern International
Related Story: Group Aims To Curb Sex Trafficking In San Diego
CAVANAUGH: An Oceanside couple is headed to prison after being convicted of using their 12-year-old niece as a sex slave. The young Mexican girl was promised schooling and a place to live in San Diego. But instead she entered a nightmare of sexual and forced labor abuse. Bonnie Dumanis said the case was a tragic reminder that human trafficking exists and is on the rise in San Diego County. An effort is underway to determine how much human trafficking is occurring here in San Diego or moving through our area. Associate manager of field operations for Project Concern International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization here in San Diego, Bianca Morales-Egan, welcome to the program.
MORALES-EGAN: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Is that something your organization also found, that sex trafficking is on the rise in San Diego?
MORALES-EGAN: Yes, we recently conducted an assessment over the past three months on the scope of the problem in San Diego. PCI has done some work internationally, we helped create a manual, so we're aware of the issue globally. But we wanted to dive in deeper into what was going on here in San Diego County. And based on that, we found it is definitely on the rise. This is an estimated 38,000 forced labor trafficked persons in San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: Now, sex trafficking is a part of the overall crime of human trafficking isn't it?
MORALES-EGAN: That's correct. Sex trafficking is a subset. But an estimated 20% of human trafficking globally.
CAVANAUGH: And can you have give us an idea of what the survey is about how widespread we think the sex trade is here in San Diego?
MORALES-EGAN: The data is difficult to see. There are efforts out there being made to have a centralized database. So we're not sure of the problem. We know that work with survivors that it is a large issue am.
CAVANAUGH: What other kinds of human trafficking are there?
MORALES-EGAN: Well, there's labor trafficking which is involved in industries of construction or sweatshops, agricultural industry, domestic servitude. So it manifests itself in different ways.
CAVANAUGH: You hear a story like the one I mentioned in Oceanside, and it really is staggering. This girl was only 12 years old. What are the similarities between her story and some of the trafficked kids in San Diego?
MORALES-EGAN: The most marginalized groups are usually the ones that fall prey to traffickers. This could mean people that are in poverty, for instance. The story that you were mentioning, the girl lived in a poor village in Mexico. So the traffickers are unfortunately smart. They go to where people are at a disadvantage. Next girls that have, I think according to the interviews that were conducted, the stakeholders said that about 100% of the girls they interviewed that have been victims were either neglected, abused or suffered some sort of trauma.
CAVANAUGH: Are the young women who are here illegally especially vulnerable?
MORALES-EGAN: Of course, yeah. There's language barriers, just a lack of am of what services are out there, how to get out, and one important thing to note as far as the definition of trafficking, it doesn't mean to be transported from one place to another. The simple definition is that there's the use of force or coercion for the commercial exploitation of somebody. So the person could have willingly come across the border or from point A to B, but once they got there, the force started.
CAVANAUGH: How do you even begin to do a survey for this?
MORALES-EGAN: It's been difficult. We're still not there. It still -- we need all the people speaking the same language. Exploitation of children and one sect, human trafficking and forced labor is another sect. So we need to speak the same language to get those numbers down.
CAVANAUGH: You are with the project, concern international, part of a group conducting a survey on human sex trafficking in San Diego County. Let me go back to the Oceanside story for just a minute. Both people in the case were sentenced to 20 years or more in prison. Is law enforcement doing a good enough job of prosecuting traffickers?
MORALES-EGAN: I think they're starting to. I think that there's maybe 20 laws on the books right now that are ready to be passed, as far as the persecution of traffickers. According to a report from 2012, the state of human trafficking in California, there's only 28 convictions of traffickers last year, and we know the problem is much bigger than that. I think there's a lot of work that's been done, but still some work to be done.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things your survey found is that many young girls who are working in the sex trade here or have been trafficked in the trade, they're contacted on social media?
MORALES-EGAN: That's correct. There are sites where they call themselves escort services, for instance, but really those are ads for maybe someone who is in a forced prostitution situation. There's all the the recruitment done on social media, on Facebook and so forth where traffickers are looking for young women who they can befriend, or even become a boyfriend or intimate partner with, and then the coercion starts and they're forced into prostitution.
CAVANAUGH: These people used to be referred to as pimp, right?
MORALES-EGAN: Correct. And they still are. But there's a difference between pimping and pandering as far as what's on the lawbooks and trafficking. It's proving that force that is a challenge. And law enforcement is starting to catch up.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of prevention efforts are in place to perhaps warn young people of becoming victims?
MORALES-EGAN: In east county school district, they are starting to look at the issue as a community solution. Getting all the agencies involved to help the victims of trafficking. There's some school programs as well to warn kids. But I think a lot of the programs now are in high school level, and I think that the problem is starting earlier at ages like 13. So 5th and 6th grade is it maybe the target for prevention, however, that's difficult to do in schools. So there are some really great efforts out there, but I think there's still a major need as far as primary prevention goes in stopping the problem before it occurs.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you mentioned survivors, people who managed to escape from this life. Are there places in San Diego where young girls can go if they do get out of the sex trafficking world?
MORALES-EGAN: Yes, there are some wonderful providers, very dedicated people that have been doing this for over a decade. The bilateral safety corridor coalition, generate hope, and in North County they are providing services to providers.
CAVANAUGH: How do the services correlate with the number of people who need them?
MORALES-EGAN: Well, I think that there's an estimated 30 beds available. But the problem is more than that. So there's definitely a need for more housing, safe places for these girls to go, for these survivors to go.
CAVANAUGH: As you say, this problem of human trafficking, sex trafficking, is multifaceted. You have social media being used primarily north of the border, and yet you're launching a study in Tijuana now. How is the sex trade different in San Diego versus Tijuana?
MORALES-EGAN: Well, there are similarities and differences. There's similarities as far as the use of force and the vulnerable groups that are being targeted. In the San Diego side of things, the girls that are being targeted for the sex trafficking part of it range in all classes and -- so it's not necessarily a result of poverty but more of having that history of trauma or abuse. On the other side of the border, and we're still yet to do that assessment, but I think it's more a result of poverty and lack of knowledge. And the differences between the traffickers as well. In the south side of the border, it's leaning more toward cartels and the larger organized crime. And this side of the border in San Diego, it's a lot of the street gangs who are the traffickers or pimps. So there's some similarities, but differences too as far as the root causes of the problem, who are the traffickers, and how it manifests itself.
CAVANAUGH: What are you hoping to do when you have these studies completed?
MORALES-EGAN: We would like to coordinate with those who are already doing great work in this area. They are the experts in this by far. So learning from them. But we really would like to focus on the international piece and how both sides of the border correlate with differences and similarities. And also looking at primary prevention efforts to see how we can stop this from happening, work with individuals, communities, houses and schools in educating people about this and preventing it from happening.
CAVANAUGH: Project concern international is largely a health-focused organization. Is sex trafficking a public health issue?
MORALES-EGAN: Yes, absolutely. Women and girls that are victims or survivors have a much higher risk of HIV infection, unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, TB, hepatitis, the list goes on. So they're at a much higher risk for these diseases and unhealthy things.
CAVANAUGH: And therefore does it also pose a threat to the larger community of public health as well?
MORALES-EGAN: Of course. The spread of these diseases infections is a public health risk.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that PCI was interested in and developed antitrafficking campaigns in other countries in India and Ethiopia. What is the success rate?
MORALES-EGAN: Well, in Ethiopia, we did develop a manual on the prevention, protection, and persecution in trafficking. And in India, our programs involved vocational training centers for young girls and boys that are at risk in inner city slums in Delhi. Having these centers, knowing these girls are saying no to early marriage, for instance, and other high-risk sexual exploitation is considered a success by us.
CAVANAUGH: Human trafficking has been identified as the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the 21st as much. It's estimated to be a $9 billion industry. That's quite a lot to take on. What's it going to take to begin to dismantle a huge operation like that?
MORALES-EGAN: Well, if I had the answer to that, I would be a pretty famous person!
[ LAUGHTER ]
MORALES-EGAN: I think it's really looking at the root causes. There needs to be multifaceted approach to this. It needs to be both prevention and using what is known as the current framework as prevention, protection, persecution, and partnership. Using those four areas and really tackling the problem from that. There's also the demand side of thing, just knowing where your products are coming from, for instance, if there was forced labor involved in those products in those industries, having that awareness. There's also just not being a bystander. If you know there's something going on as far as sex trafficking in your alley for instance, calling the law enforcement and involving them and trying to get this in the forefront.
CAVANAUGH: So it's global down to local.