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Gang Pimps’ Power Over Girls

Local street gang members turn to pimping for big profits

Audio

Federal investigators say one out of three teenage girls living on the streets will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. Many of those young girls fall prey to street gangs. As part of our series, San Diego Gang Stories, we take a look at how prostitution is the new drug for San Diego gang members.

KPBS SPECIAL SERIES

San Diego Gang Stories

— Elena is an attractive woman in her early twenties. Black eyeliner traces her almond-shaped eyes. Elena, not her real name, has lived in San Diego for most of her life.

Her dad is an alcoholic and drug addict. She learned to take care of herself at the age of five.

By 14, she was pregnant. Elena took odd jobs until she was about 18. That’s when she met Reality.

“Reality is the pimp, that’s his name. He used to be my neighbor. He lived in back of the house we rented,” she said.

Reality is also a gang member who belongs to one of the most violent street gangs in San Diego. He’s been in and out of prison for selling drugs.

Elena said she fell in love with Reality. He would tell her that he wanted to change his life and he was tired of selling drugs.

One night, after Elena came home from work, Reality told her to get “really pretty” and “get some heels.” Elena thought she was going to be treated to a nice evening with her boyfriend.

To her surprise, Elena was taken to a hotel parking lot in National City where men pick up prostitutes.

“I told him I wasn’t going to that,” she said. “And he said, ‘You want to help me right? You love me right? … So, I did it.”

Elena says that night led to three years of hell -- being forced to have sex with 10 to 15 men a day, getting beaten by her gang pimp boyfriend, and being transported to cities outside of California to have sex with men.

Elena said she tried running away once but her pimp Reality called on his gang to track her down.

“He beat me up there on the street. People were watching but no one did anything. They're so afraid of these gangs they don’t do nothing.” she said.

Elena is not alone. San Diego police say more gang members are pimping girls in exchange for big money.

Prostitution is now the second largest source of income for San Diego gangs -- dealing drugs is no. 1. Police have coined the term “gang pimp” to identify these men.

“We are not after prostitutes, we are after pimps,” said Gretchen Means, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who is aggressively prosecuting gang members for pimping.

Means said pimping and prostitution have replaced selling crack and cocaine because gang members can sell a girl again and again.

Police say one prostitute can make $500 to $1,000 a night.

Means said the girls don’t see a dime of that money. It goes back into the gang’s criminal enterprise so its member can buy drugs and weapons.

Means said it's the prostitutes who take all the risk, and the gangs get all the rewards.

“With drug sales and gun running, it is the gang members themselves who take the risk of getting caught and punished. With prostitution, the girls take all the risk with law enforcement and with their bodies.”

Means said it is not uncommon for the prostitutes to have multiple abortions and STDs. Others are raped by johns or other pimps.

The Internet has also revolutionized the way gangs commit this crime.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jason King heads San Diego’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. He said gang members are pimping girls on numerous websites.

“Now you can go online, you can view different girls, and they can come right to your home. No body knows,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, you would have to go down to a street where prostitution was occurring.”

Even when a pimp gets busted, police say there are plenty of young gang members who take their place. King said today’s media culture glamorizes the pimping lifestyle which helps to recruit new gang members.

“We almost idolize [pimps] … he's controlling girls and making all this money. But [the women] are victims. These people are being exploited and are doing horrific things for that [lifestyle].”

San Diego is now leading the way in prosecuting gang pimps. The DA’s office is tacking on extra prison time to gang members who are arrested for pimping. That gang penalty can increase their sentence from six to 10 years. It also makes the conviction a felony under California’s three strikes rule.

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