In 2003, my team and I were listening to wiretaps of gang leaders as part of a murder investigation. We heard the usual gang chatter about shootings and guns, but what really shocked us was all the talk about sex trafficking. We learned about how gang members would find young girls at local malls or high schools and force them into prostitution through abuse and manipulation. In San Diego alone, at least 110 gangs are involved in the commercial exploitation of people.
The sad reality is that under current law, members of organized crime know they are much less likely to go to prison for trafficking human beings than for trafficking drugs. Getting caught with a girl in your car isn’t a crime. It should come as no surprise that organized crime pivoted toward the safer enterprise.
A recent study by Point Loma Nazarene and the University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace uncovered some horrifying statistics about the extent of this underground industry in San Diego County. Human trafficking is estimated to be an $810 million annual business that could have more than 8,000 victims a year. Out of 20 high schools surveyed, 100 percent reported incidents of recruitment, and 42 percent of first-time prostitution arrests are in fact sex-trafficking cases.
To address this ugly truth, an important shift has taken place in the way we as a culture discuss this issue. The term human trafficking – a more accurate description – has begun to replace prostitution, which erroneously implies a victimless crime. The victims are real and numerous.
In addition to changes in terminology, there are practical changes that should be made to the way we investigate and prosecute these crimes. Here are four ways the next city attorney can help combat human trafficking in San Diego:
Treat the victims as victims.