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Pimps Recruiting Underage Girls In San Diego Through Force And Coercion

Editor's note: A previous version of this story mis-identified the high school Lisa attended.

Above: A car slows down for two female police officers posing as prostitutes in southern California during a major prostitution sting operation.

Aired 10/31/11 on KPBS News.

Sex slaves are often equated with a desperate place. But underage girls are bought and sold every day in San Diego County. One police detective calls them "broken souls."

Lisa’s passage into the world of sex trafficking began with a party invitation from her best friend Desiree.

The two were inseparable in high school until Desiree left to attend a charter school. Lisa felt desolate.

“I never really got asked to hang out with any kids my age so hearing from her, it just felt good that I knew I had my friend back," she said.

When Lisa, not her real name, arrived at the party at a hotel, there were only two people there: Desiree and her boyfriend. Lisa says the pair drugged her. Then they took pictures of her in her underwear. They posted the photos online. Within minutes, men called offering $200 for sex with Lisa.

“Then, I see this old white man and he said my fake name and I felt like I was going to throw up," she said as she began to sob. "And then we went into the room and he began to like ….I had never been touched like this before…. I could just picture everything. I know his face. I’ll never forget this guy. It’s just so hard to forget.”

Lisa's pimp branded her with a tattoo on the inside of her lip.
Enlarge this image

Above: Lisa's pimp branded her with a tattoo on the inside of her lip.

The man, Lisa said, was in his 50s. She was 16. More dates were set up. Lisa said Desiree wouldn’t let her leave.

“She just kept making phone calls and they kept drugging me," Lisa said. "It’s really, really hard because I thought she was my friend. I had so much trust for her.”

By early morning, Lisa said she had slept with six men ranging in ages from 30 to 70. Lisa never saw one penny she earned.

The sex for money business is booming. And San Diego Police Detective James Hunter said Lisa’s story illustrates a growing problem of sexual exploitation of young girls.

“The majority of our victims are between the age of 14 and 18," he said. "We have interviewed girls as young as 11 years old.”

Broken Souls

Young girls are bought and sold daily for sex in San Diego County. Some are forced into the life. Others are coerced. The girls can make six-figure salaries for their pimps without ever seeing a penny of their earnings. San Diego is trying to cut demand by educating Johns about the perils of picking up prostitutes especially if they're underage.

Young girls are bought and sold daily for sex in San Diego County. Some are forced into the life. Others are coerced. The girls can make six-figure salaries for their pimps without ever seeing a penny of their earnings. San Diego is trying to cut demand by educating Johns about the perils of picking up prostitutes especially if they're underage.

No clear numbers exist locally but a University of Pennsylvania study reveals up to 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of becoming forced sex workers.

Hunter said pimps recruit online, at schools, malls and bus stands. Many of the girls are foster kids, runaways, and even disabled.

“They are just broken souls," Hunter said.

Pimps exploit that vulnerability.

“They’ll bring a girl in," Hunter said. "They will manipulate her. They will break her down completely and then they will build her back up the way they want her to be.”

Kim, not her real name, became a prostitute when she was 12 after she was gang raped. She said girls stay because they see no alternative.

Kim became a prostitute after she was gang-raped at the age of 12.
Enlarge this image

Above: Kim became a prostitute after she was gang-raped at the age of 12.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center

A national, toll-free hotline for the human trafficking field in the United States and is reached by calling 1-888-3737-888 or emailing NHTRC@PolarisProject.org.

“You’re offered a sense of security," Kim said. "When you come into a pimp’s stable and he’s got five or six girls, they become your family.”

More than half of the pimps in San Diego County belong to gangs who find it less risky to sexually traffic girls than deal drugs. But some pimps, according to one man who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he rescues child sex workers, are also small business people with big dreams.

“You have entrepreneurs that are saying 'wow, I can make $300,000 per girl, per year tax-free.' And in a stable you’ll have anywhere from four to 10 girls. And you do the math, they’re making money. The girls are reusable everyday. They’re just a product to these guys.”

A product that must be branded. Lisa’s pimp ordered her to get a tattoo of his name on the inside of her bottom lip.

“When I’m not focused on him, his goals, he would always say,`look in the mirror and see whose name is that.'“

The health risks to these girls are also profound according to San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means.

“We deal with horrible stories of girls ages 11, 12, 13 years old who have STDs that are so bad, they cannot walk and they have to have hysterectomies.”

Kim said life with the men who buy the girls for sex is not any better.

“I’ve been kidnapped. I was raped 20 times. I’ve been beat up. I’ve been left for dead.”

Comments

Avatar image for user 'Henry_W'

Henry_W | October 31, 2011 at 9:06 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

I have to wonder about the veracity of this story when there are such glaring factual mistakes.
There is no Morris High School in Chula Vista much less anywhere else in SD County.
What other facts are fabricated?

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Avatar image for user 'Susan Murphy'

Susan Murphy, KPBS Staff | October 31, 2011 at 10:21 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

Thank you for pointing that out. We've made a correction to the story.

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Avatar image for user 'MBee'

MBee | October 31, 2011 at 10:36 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

True that there is no Morris High School in Chula Vista, but there is a Morse High School. I would venture to guess this was misheard, not made up.

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Avatar image for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | October 31, 2011 at 11:49 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

DON'T equate the victims of sex trafficking with women who freelance and then cover it over with a broad brush. This issue has been brought up before. There even isn't any overlap.

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Avatar image for user 'justamantrying'

justamantrying | October 31, 2011 at 12:49 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

I've seen these young girls working El Cajon Blvd night after night and even in the day time, too. I've had to chase the johns out of the parking area where I live, as well. I've also seen SDPD drive right past them ignoring the problem. I understand how difficult it is to identify who is walking to work and who is "walking to work" on El Cajon. When there is push by SPDP to curb prostitution in my area, they only move the problem to La Mesa.

Not all of the girls are drugged and raped. I think stopping the demand is a key, but we also have to curb the push/pull factors that lead women into prostitution (poverty, education, unemployment, opportunity, etc). Don't just educate the johns...lock them up! There should be a countywide taskforce that unites the efforts of all law enforcement, so that the problem isn't just shifted around like a shell game.

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Avatar image for user 'rescueachild'

rescueachild | October 31, 2011 at 3:08 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

I believe you are wrong @MissionAccomplished. I worked in the sex trade for 8 years and there were plenty of free-lancers that started out with pimps who brought them into the game at a very young age. Just because you think that, the audience who is reading this is less informed of the situation, doesn't mean we are all as dumb as you think. That statement is so full of BULL I can smell it a mile away. MOST girls who sell themselves started young and with a pimp! You and I BOTH know it! Your statement is misinformation trying to mislead those would be child rapers into continuing their crimes against women and children being sold against their will.

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Avatar image for user 'no_soup_for_you'

no_soup_for_you | October 31, 2011 at 7:32 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

@rescueachild you seem very defensive. Back up your statements with a source. I don't think anybody here is on the side of "child rapists" as you accuse, people are just trying to look at the facts.

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Avatar image for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 1, 2011 at 8:05 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

@RESCUEDADULT, LOL. Yeah, I can understand you getting so defensive from a purely emotional point of view if what you say is true. But you fail to see the larger pix for EVEN the sex trade in the US is not monolith as you are those who would think that punitive measures is going to solve the problem.

Unlike in some other countries, the women here have many resources to help them "get out" IF that is what they would like to do. That they don't take advantage of these speaks VOLUMES. Back in the 90s I knew a girl who quit and joined the Navy. Why? Because she was freelancing and came to a decision in her life that she wanted OUT. Repeated trips to Las Colimas only damaged her more psychologically and serve little purpose except in the eyes of of the powers that be.

To reiterate, there are many girls who freelance and by no means are they being forced by pimps or circumstances. Why, some even have business cards as "escorts." The smart ones do, anyway. And what about all the advertisers on the internet charging hefty "donations" and setting stricter guidelines than a private school? LOL I hardly think they are being coerced or forced. Now, true, the Amy Taylor PhD's may be the exception to the rule, BUT they are out there.

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Avatar image for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 1, 2011 at 8:10 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

Justamanfailing, El Cajon Blvd. is by no means what it used to be. It's been cleaned up and its denizens scared off over the years. Drive down and you'd be hard pressed to single out the prostitutes especially since so many young women walk around with cell phones in their hands raised to their mouths.

As far as the cops, how do you know they are not responding to a call? But don't you worry, when the time comes, cops don't hesitate to cite/arrest a prostitute or cite/arrest a customer and even inpound his car--which I believe should not be permissible. Punitive measures will NOT solve the problem. Wake up.

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Avatar image for user 'justamantrying'

justamantrying | November 1, 2011 at 11:24 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

Missionaccomplished...I am wide awake. I live on El Cajon Blvd and I see the prostitutes each and every day. They are not that difficult to point out, as you think. They are young and old, barely dressed and fully dressed. But most importantly, they spend hours at a time walking a 10 block radius repeatedly. Apparently you did not read my entire post. I said "I think stopping the demand is a key, but we also have to curb the push/pull factors that lead women into prostitution (poverty, education, unemployment, opportunity, etc). Don't just educate the johns...lock them up!" So, obviously, I don't think punitive measures are not the only answer to the problem. But I do think stricter actions against the johns will curb the illegal activity in MY neighborhood. I have had to chase johns and hookers out of my driveway in daylight and at night. I have found prostitutes hiding from pimps in MY bushes upon arriving at my home. I think I am very informed and familiar with the issue as it affects me and MY neighborhood.

Regarding the police responding to a call, I think I can tell the difference between a squad car responding to a call and one just cruising El Cajon. I have seen a police presence when there is a crackdown operation going on. And I have seen the police keep it moving when there is no operation going on. You have to understand that this problem is cyclic...when you don't see them on El Cajon Blvd in City Hgts/North Park its because the police have cracked down. In doing so they only pushed them to El Cajon Blvd in La Mesa. Then when La Mesa cracks down, they move back to City Hgts/North Park. That is why I suggested a countywide task force. It would join the efforts of the agencies and provide a path for real prevention/enforcement instead of shifting the problem around.

So...Missionaccomplished maybe you are the one who needs to wake up and read fully before you take someone to task.

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Avatar image for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 1, 2011 at 10:59 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

LOL Justamanfailing, you must be suffering from amnesia if you can't tell the difference between today and the 80's or even the early to mid-90's before the cops got heavy-handed.

"I think I can tell the difference between a squad car responding to a call and one just cruising El Cajon." Unless you are an ex-cop, I don't think you can. FIVE (count 'em, FIVE) police cars were present when Arevalos stopped one of the women testifying! It's not as if they were providing back-up. (Check the story on signonsandiego.) So maybe there's one of your answers.

It's like smoking marihuana. It needs to be legalized.

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Avatar image for user 'dontcrydosomething'

dontcrydosomething | November 2, 2011 at 1:15 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

missionaccomplished=TROLL - Seriously, how else could someone be dumb enough to say the stuff he's saying? Regardless of what this idiot thinks he knows, the truth is that most prostitutes, whether pimped or freelance, have been exploited in some way. They have been taken advantage of by a family member or a stranger, they have been violated and mistreated at some point in a way that they were NOT okay with. NO ONE just wakes up one day and says, 'hey, I'm going to have sex with complete strangers for money while putting myself in danger of rape, murder, and STD's' unless they have already been desensitized to doing it.

Dude, anyone who lives in an area frequented by cops knows the difference between a response and a cruise, especially if you've ever been a lookout. Johns should be thrown in jail and cited for a sex offense, then maybe they'd all be too afraid to look for dates and the demand would be gone.

Tell me how a woman who has been convinced that she is nothing but damaged goods can get out? Tell me how a woman who has been brainwashed into believing the only man who loves her is her pimp is gonna leave him? Look at abuse victims: when a person is beaten down so long it becomes almost impossible to get back up. A few do, but the vast majority are just gonna lie there. And YOU would just take it, too, if you had been sold since before your period even started, before your childhood was even close to being over. If you had been used like a grown woman before you were even close to resembling a grown woman. If you had spent every moment of your life constantly thinking of how to please HIM, and how to avoid getting beaten or killed. Oh, and getting out? Yeah, cause WHO IS GONNA hire a woman with prostitution arrests on her record??? What branch of the military takes women convicted of prostitution? What employer? So she gets out, tries to get a regular job. No one wants her. Where's she gonna go? Back to her pimp. What about the john? A john can work construction and manual labor that most women aren't cut out for, or other jobs where background checks are few and far between. Oh, and that's ONLY if it actually goes on their record in the first place. It's the women who suffer, the women who are the victims of people like missionaccomplished who think they're in it cause they want to be, just blame the woman and give no fault to the man. Just do everyone else a favor before you tout your imbecillic drivel: change your posting name to "male chauvinist john" so we know in advance not to take you seriously.

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Avatar image for user 'Len'

Len | November 2, 2011 at 1:36 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

@don'tcry. I agree about Mission Accomplished. No matter the subject, his comments are uninformed--to put it nicely.

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Avatar image for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | November 2, 2011 at 8:49 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

dontcrydosomething wrote, *"Johns should be thrown in jail and cited for a sex offense, then maybe they'd all be too afraid to look for dates and the demand would be gone. "*

Come on, this is the world's oldest profession, it has been around throughout mankind's history much like the flailed "War on Drugs" arrests and costly jail time are *not* the answer.

The answer comes through education and the empowerment of women.

Exploitation is not a one-pronged beast.

It is the result of many interactive social ills that involve societal inequality, economic disparity, and educational deficiency just to name a few.

You and others who think the problem can be solved through jail for johns and raids are simply naive.

It's already been tried my dear, and it's failed.

Of course those on the receiving end of an already overly-bloated multi-billion dollar prison-industrial complex will likely disagree with me because they want more jails, more prisons, and more money flowing into pointless crackdowns.

Educate and empower, that's how you make change, because you will never root out the element that wants easy sex in our society no matter how large of prison-state you turn our country into.

You also wrote, *"NO ONE just wakes up one day and says, 'hey, I'm going to have sex with complete strangers for money while putting myself in danger of rape, murder, and STD's' unless they have already been desensitized to doing it. "*

A normal person doesn't just wake up one morning and decide they want to work in a prison either.

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Avatar image for user 'dontcrydosomething'

dontcrydosomething | November 2, 2011 at 11:26 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

peking_duck_SD: what does "the world's oldest profession" have anything to do with it? So just because it's been happening since day one makes it okay? Using that line is the biggest cop-out, naive comment someone can use, like they're saying that because sexual exploitation and abuse are a part of the history of mankind it's okay. When people are getting hurt it's NEVER okay, whether it's been happening for one day or one million.

As far as the jails and prisons go, I do agree to an extent. I think the justice system is extremely flawed, and that a lot of low-level criminals that pose no danger to society are using resources that should go to more serious offenses. However, using victims of sexual abuse helps perpetrate the crime, and it's been proven that sex offenders don't become "cured". If a man is willing to buy a woman once he'll do it again, and that act of buying is harming society and innocent people. Therefore, I think that while jail time for a first offense might not be feasible, I believe that registering as a sex offender and being promised jail time for a 2nd offense is more than appropriate. (BTW, it's not so strange to want to work in a prison. I've met countless people who want a job in corrections because they have a heart for society's outcasts and feel they could make a difference in that field. Oh, and as far as not having the capacity to arrest all those johns? How about they arrest the johns instead of the prostitutes, cause apparently they have room to hold the women but not the men....just sayin'....)

The real solution is not about arresting johns, it's about curbing demand. And the only way to do that is to teach our daughters that they're worth something and prevent them from being exploitable. A young girl who knows she's beautiful is so much less likely to fall for the guile of a pimp telling her he's the only man that will ever love her. If a girl is shown that she's beautiful no matter what she's gonna be less likely to feel like she needs to validate herself through sex. But (and if you're a dude you're gonna call me a liar) that falls on the shoulders of the men. Men shape what women become, women strive to attract the attention of men. And if men are desiring barely-legal no-strings-attached sex, that's what a woman, even at a young age, will try to deliver. Instead of being an beautiful, strong, emotional, sensual being an woman is reduced to an object, a plaything for men in a man's world, an item that is supposed to be devoid of all feeling and desire beyond pleasing that man.

I don't hate men, I'm not a femi-nazi, but truth is truth. Women have a place just like men do, and it's not in the backseat of a dozen cars a night. Johns who help make that happen to victims of exploitation deserve punishment, period.

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Avatar image for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | November 3, 2011 at 1:59 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

dontcrydosomething, I agree with many of your points, but please note I was not bringing up prostitution being the "world's oldest profession" as a means of justifying it or saying it's ok, I brought it up as an attempt to show how pervasive and rooted in the human fabric this issue really is.

Periodically the media decides to focus on the issue, and then they move on to other things just to return to it again in a few years when they need a ratings boost.

Each time they act like they are uncovering some new phenomenon, when in fact they are just uncovering something that exists in every society and every culture continually.

My point was that the knee-jerk reaction of wanting more police activity and arrests has been tried many, many times and it has not reduced the problem.

The underlying social issues that lead to prostitution need to be addressed in order to make any real impact on solving this problem.

People who say eliminating the customer are misguided, in my opinion.

It is impossible to eliminate sexual desire from society, and there will always be people willing to pay for sexual gratification.

My philosophy is that we work on eliminating the prostitutes themselves, through education and empowerment so these women (and males because there are also young boys who prostitute as well) have other avenues and are able to see the consequences before getting into this business.

Going after the johns may make for a good 11 o'clock news clip, but it doesn't solve the problem.

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Avatar image for user 'justamantrying'

justamantrying | November 3, 2011 at 11:56 a.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

<p>@missionaccomplished...all I can say is that maybe you are stuck in the 80's. The face of prostitution has changed in the last 30 years and so has the uniform. So, if you are still looking for the prostitutes and expect them to look the way they did in the 80's...WAKE UP!

Your thoughts and opinions on this matter are outdated and insensitive. I will not waste more any more space responding to your ill-informed and chauvinistic comments.

DISMISSED!

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Avatar image for user 'klklkl'

klklkl | November 21, 2011 at 10:48 a.m. ― 2 years, 4 months ago

I am ashamed and embarrassed for the hatred and ignorance of my fellow Americans. Claiming that prostitutes are not exploited or that they do not out of any other reasons than force, addition and or desperation is a terrifying thing to hear.

What has gone wrong with this country?

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