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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.

A car slows down for two female police officers posing as prostitutes in sout...

Photo by David McNew / Getty Images

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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

“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.”


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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