Last month, law enforcement officers led by the FBI busted a large, multi-gang prostitution ring in Oceanside.
Manolo Guillen, the founder and director of the ACTION Network, said this is not an isolated incident in San Diego County, during a presentation about human trafficking Wednesday at .
“Here in San Diego, gangs are really starting to get involved,” said Guillen. “We have seen a lot of this in San Diego County.”
Guillen said gangs are trafficking children like they trafficked crack cocaine in the early 1980s because it’s a “lucrative” business.
“This is becoming a lucrative criminal enterprise, and unfortunately, it’s at the expense of children,” Guillen said.
“If you’re a drug trafficker, whether you sell a pound of marijuana or 10,000 pounds, whatever the amount is, after that point of sell, there is no more profit to be made,” he added. “But if you have children as modern day commodities, you can turn around and sell those children over and over and over.”
As the Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator for the Institute for Public Strategies, Guillen founded the ACTION Network in 2005 to help combat human trafficking, the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of commercial sex or labor exploitation. Through his work, Guillen discovered many cases that involved American children, he said.
“They were being recruited, groomed and forced into prostitution just as much as their foreign counterparts,” he said. “What we realized is that the prostitution of children was a serious problem in the United States.”
According to the California Department of Justice, 6,748 youth reported runaway in San Diego County in 2009. In 2007, one in three runaway youth surveyed had been sexually exploited, according to SANDAG. One in five runaway youth surveyed were approached to engage in acts of prostitution, according to SANDAG.
Guillen noted that these numbers only include reported cases.
“How big is this problem? I think the numbers don’t lie,” he said.
The victims are typically recruited at 12-14 years old, Guillen said. They are inner-city youth and suburban youth. They are often runaway youth and victims of child abuse and domestic violence, he said.
There are two types of pimps that recruit child victims, Guillen said. “Finesse pimps” use violence, as well as romance, seduction and gifts to lure victims, he explained. “Guerilla pimps” use extreme violence.
“Many of these kids are romanced, they are deceived, they are psychologically manipulated, they are brainwashed—for lack of a better term—into thinking that they are really in love with this so-called ‘pimp’ or trafficker,” Guillen said.
Child victims are recruited at shopping malls, schools, bus and trolley stops, theaters, parties, beaches, parks and the Internet.
In one case, Guillen explained, two teens were recruited at Carlsbad Premium Outlets. While shopping, the teens met a group of men who invited them to a party. At the party, the girls were gang raped, beaten and forced into prostitution, Guillen said. Their “services” were soon offered on Craigslist.
Sometimes, the pimp’s “top girl” recruits victims, Guillen said.
In another case, a 20-year-old top girl recruited a 14-year-old at Fashion Valley. The two made casual conversation, and the recruiter was able to get the victim’s phone number. She later called and invited her to a party. At the party, the young girl was gang raped, beaten and forced into prostitution, Guillen said. Her services were also offered on Craigslist.
“That’s how fast it can happen,” Guillen said. “That’s how easy it can happen.”
In another case, a 12-year-old San Diego girl was recruited from her home while playing a video game. A 15-year-old recruiter chatted with her through the video game. She was later raped and beaten at a party in Imperial Beach, which the recruiter invited her to.
“In a matter of hours, the pimps put this young girl to work,” he said. “This is how fast this can happen.”
Guillen encouraged attendees to look for signs of exploitation, which he said includes: money or gang signs on school materials or clothing; language like “sugar daddy,” “the game,” “ho-ing,” “pimping,” “blade” or "track;" sexually transmitted disease; pregnancy; chronically runs away from home and is secretive about who they are with; physical bruises or signs of torture; branding or tattoos; sudden/serious behavioral changes; controlling “boyfriend;” frequently truant/stays out late and not able to explain why; excessive phone use or inappropriate use of social networking websites.
“If there’s two or three of these signs, I would really, really be suspicious,” Guillen said. “This is going on all over our schools and everywhere.”
Guillen said he often gives presentations to the community to help prevent human trafficking.
To further inform people about human trafficking, the ACTION Network is currently creating a 30-minute documentary film called “Indoctrination.” Audience members watched roughly 13 minutes of the film during the presentation.
“We use the word ‘indoctrination’ because it’s a very powerful term that describes how children are lured, groomed, prepared and brainwashed to engage in this kind of activity,” Guillen said.
Nikki Jo Junker was one of the women interviewed in the film. As a teenager, Junker became a victim of sex trafficking and trafficked until she was 19 years old. She escaped after she woke up in a pool of blood. She had been hit on her head with a candle by one of her pimp’s other girls, she said.
“I realized that if I didn’t leave, I was going to end up dead,” Junker said in the film. “I guess maybe that was the one thing I needed to wake me up from the dream.”
With her mother’s support, Junker successfully graduated from San Diego State, and she is now the co-founder and executive director of With More Than Purpose, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting against human trafficking.
Other victims are never able to escape, however, Guillen said.
“Our hope is that we’re sending a strong and powerful message nationwide and state to state that we the people will not tolerate this crime, and it will not go unpunished,” he said. “That’s the only way I think that we can prevent this from happening.”