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Sex Trafficking Overtakes Drugs As San Diego County Gang’s Top Cash Source

A sex trafficking victim named "Lisa" shows her tattooed lip with the name of her pimp, in 2011.  Federal officials in San Diego say such branding continues.
A sex trafficking victim named "Lisa" shows her tattooed lip with the name of her pimp, in 2011. Federal officials in San Diego say such branding continues.
Sex Trafficking Overtakes Drugs as San Diego County Gang’s Top Cash Source

The paradox of boys joining San Diego gangs to be tough men is they’re now building mini-empires on the backs of girls. Literally.

“They don’t work hard,” FBI Assistant Special Agent Robert Howe said. "They don’t do anything other than coerce, manipulate and threaten children. A real man would not target a child. A real man would have a good, honest, hardworking job he could be proud of.”

Howe said San Diego’s rival street gangs like the BMS, the Neighborhood Crips and Brim have put aside their differences over turf and drugs, and have struck up alliances to sell women and girls, some as young as 12.


“They’re absolutely a syndicate,” Howe said. “We have noticed an increase in the sex trafficking piece over the drugs. These criminal enterprise street gangs have realized the profit margins are so much bigger.”

It’s a cash-rich business for pimps because the girls and women can be sold and resold daily.

“You have a product that you don’t have to keep in inventory,” San Diego U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said. “You don’t have to purchase it. You don’t have to wait for the money to come back on this product and then buy it from the supplier. You are not as exposed as you are if you are caught with drugs to being caught with a woman or being a girl.”

Smartphones, social media and websites like Backpage.Com have turned two-bit drug gangs into entrepreneurs. They not only track competitors’ tactics but also keep tabs on police investigations too.

A federal indictment against 24 North Park gang members and associates unsealed this month revealed a powerful and sophisticated sex trafficking network across 46 cities and 23 states. Sixty girls were rescued, 11 were under 18.


Duffy said this enterprise underscored the shift in tactics and emphasis on the sex slave trade.

“Some transported the prostitutes around different locations for business,” Duffy said. “Some rented rooms where prostitution took place. Some individuals were the ones responsible for placing ads to generate business. Some individuals actually coerced and forced and did some of the acts of violence and threats against girls.”

Each girl can earn anywhere from $500 to $10,000 a night depending on whether they work the street or an event, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serrano said.

Not a penny goes into the girls’ pockets, federal officials say. Since gangs don’t file taxes, federal officials are reluctant to put a number on how much a pimp can earn annually from trafficking.

But FBI agents found flashy cars and clothes during searches in the North Park case. Investigators found thousands of dollars in cash, flat-screen televisions, luxury cars, 50 pairs of Air Jordan shoes and bejeweled pimp cups and pimp sticks among North Park gang members’ belongings, according to the federal indictment. Pimp sticks are used to hit the girls.

Duffy said North Park gang members demeaned them in other ways.

“They gifted these women,” Duffy said. “They traded these women. They sold these women amongst each other. They marked these women like property. They tattooed them. They even barcoded some of these women.”

Prosecutions of gangster pimps have skyrocketed over the last four years. San Diego County prosecutors quadrupled the number of cases they filed between 2009 and last year. On the federal side, prosecutions jumped from two to 22 in the same period. And the feds are using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to prosecute cases because the penalties are stiffer.

But FBI agent Howe believes child sex trafficking will stop only when people realize it’s a community problem. Many of the girls who end up in the slave trade are runaways and foster children. Howe said many also come from stable family backgrounds but were successfully manipulated by pimps.

“These are not somebody else’s children,” Howe said. “These are our little girls who grew up in our neighborhoods, going to our schools. In some cases, they grew up in our own families.”