By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Across the nation there has been a dramatic rise in gang-controlled sex trafficking rings. For example, in San Diego County, California, a recent three-year study found that street gangs are increasingly operating sex trafficking rings. The study found that at least 110 gangs were involved in sex exploitation and 85 percent of pimps or sex traffickers were gang members.
Gangs are turning to sex trafficking because it’s highly profitable and—unlike dealing narcotics or firearms—it requires little to no financial investment. Sex trafficking is also a renewable resource: Women can be sold over and over again. Also, running a profitable sex trafficking ring requires fewer people than drug rings and it is less risky; if a girl gets caught and imprisoned, she is easily replaced.
[Related Article: Organized Crime’s Involvement in Human Trafficking]
In recognition of January as national human trafficking awareness month, we revisit a presentation given by Special Agent Jeff Johannes, a member of the Child Exploitation Task Force with the FBI Washington, D.C. Field Office. During his presentation at the annual Mid-Atlantic INLETS conference, Johannes discussed this rise in gang-controlled sex trafficking and offered guidance about how police can be proactive in identifying victims.
Profile of Victims
Women who are recruited into sex trafficking rings tend to be vulnerable individuals. Often times they are runaways, lack interpersonal relationships, and do not have a strong support structure. Some have mental health issues, low self-esteem, or substance abuse problems. Many of these women want to feel like they belong to a family, which is a connection a gang can often provide.
[Related Article: Tips to Identify Potential Human Trafficking Victims]
Recruiting Sex Trafficking Victims
Many gangs rely on traditional recruiting methods to identify potential victims. Victims are recruited on the street, in schools and in neighborhoods. Some gangs use social media to gather intelligence about potential targets and it enables them to contact many people at once, in hopes of getting responses from just a few.
Once recruited, a gang will groom women by providing them with whatever it is that she needs. For example, for a runaway girl, a gang would provide housing and food as well as the false sense of stability as a member of the gang “family.” Gang leaders often give these women drugs and alcohol to help control them. They will go to great lengths to make a woman feel like she is dependent on them.
Warning Signs of Potential Victim
Johannes discussed several indicators of victims such as:
- Withdrawing from family activities
- Changing friends and/or spending time with undesirable people
- Having unknown money and/or possessions
- Running away from home
- Placing of gang graffiti on folders, desks, walls, and/or buildings
- Obsessions with gangs
- Purchasing or expressing a desire to buy or wear clothing of all one color or style
- Unexplained injuries
- Changing appearance with haircuts, eyebrow markings, and/or tattoos
- Using hand signs
- Developing a negative attitude towards family, school, and/or authorities
- Staying out later than usual
- Carrying weapons
- Substance abuse or additional mental health concerns
Proactive Police Work
If police identify women who are victims of gang-controlled sex trafficking, Johannes emphasized the importance of building a rapport and being especially careful not to degrade or belittle these women. In order to prosecute such cases, police will often need the victim to testify in court, which can be a frightening prospect. Police also need to be aware that these women have likely been given anti-law enforcement messages, making them afraid and wary of officers.
[Related Article: Know the Language of Human Trafficking]
Police must take a victim-centered approach and provide these victims with everything from basic safety to legal resources and emotional and social resources. Police also need to address the “family” issue and help victims understand that gangs are not looking out for them nor are they protecting them. Johannes recommended bringing in former victims to share their perspectives and prove to these women that there is a better life ahead for them.
To collect intelligence on suspected gang sex-trafficking rings, Johannes advised working closely with local service providers. He recommended avoiding sting operations and instead relying more on informants and physical and electronic surveillance methods. Johannes emphasized that local, state, and federal agencies must work closely together.