51%: San Diego has become an ideal place for human traffickers

Are you the typical American who naively feels safe in your own backyard? We’re not. We don’t live in fear of boogie-monsters behind doors, but we grew up with the understanding that sometimes monstrous things happen to good people.

As our San Diego police chief, Lisa’s dad brought home lessons of respect for a tenuous world. As a career soldier, Tryce’s dad worked in intelligence and taught lessons of reverence for organized dangers that can infiltrate peace as we know it. We both grew up knowing the breadth of human experiences sometimes includes danger, sometimes it’s organized crime and other times it’s random. We aren’t your average Americans who feel danger is a nebulous concept somewhere ‘out there.’ We know it can be local.

It surprises us how many San Diegans are astounded to learn that human trafficking occurs in San Diego. The common comment we hear is folks say they’ve heard of it elsewhere, but didn’t expect it “in our own backyard.”

San Diego is an ideal place for traffickers because it’s a large metropolitan city with paying customers and a lot of runaways. On any given night, there are about 2,500 reported runaway children in San Diego and all of them are vulnerable to being kidnapped and coerced into forced prostitution.

Sex trafficking is the nonconsensual use of innocent people for prostitution which solely profits the criminals who control them. The most commonly trafficked victims are girls. None of the profits made off these girls benefit the trafficked victim who is commonly controlled by confinement, starvation, violence, intimidation and forced drug use.

In January of 2009, two men and one woman, in their early 20s, pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Engage in Sex Trafficking of Children and Coercion and Enticement of a Juvenile into Prostitution. They worked as a team and kept 100% of the income from the forced prostitution of several juveniles through out much of 2007 in the City of San Diego.

Sometimes surprisingly, the most unexpected individuals are the ones to coerce children into forced prostitution. The coercive captors may be peers and seemingly trustworthy. They often offer help at the beginning and quickly resort to fear tactics to control the trafficked victim once they are unable to escape.

More by Tryce and Lisa: Bringing to light the reality of human trafficking | Searching for the true miracles of the Haiti earthquake | Let’s think outside of the box

KGTV Anchorwoman Kimberly Hunt works on and off camera to combat our local issues with sex trafficking. In an undercover investigation in May of 2009, Hunt discovered 1,000 internet ad postings for sex with young girls in one night, in the Mission Valley area alone. Many were from ads on Craigslist; most of the girls were housed in hotels along Interstate 8.

Many of the girls caught in these dangerous situations are runaways who find themselves unable to run away from their pimps and captors. Others are girls and boys considered missing by authorities, these are children who had no intention of leaving home and have been kidnapped and trafficked against their will.

Several prostitution rings have a circuit they travel, by which the victims are forcibly transported and made to service paying customers in San Diego, then Los Angeles, then Las Vegas and Phoenix. By continually moving they can evade authorities by dodging attention from locals who could report their suspicious activities

San Diego is a border town to a country that’s long been a source of human trafficking for forced hard labor and involuntary prostitution. Not only does the United Nations list Mexico as having the highest rate of illegally exporting exploited children to North America, but the FBI has identified San Diego as a key target for the importation of trafficked children and has labeled San Diego as a “High Intensity Child Prostitution Area.”

California is additionally attractive to human traffickers because of its large economy that includes heavy labor industries like agriculture, tourism that requires hotel/motel workers and restaurant help as well as clothing factories that illegally hold immigrants for work against their will. Not every immigrant worker in these areas is working voluntarily; many do not get the profits from their work.

The San Diego-Tijuana border is one of the busiest international borders on the globe and Mexico is notoriously lacking in security for its travelers. This lack of security creates an easy gateway for traffickers to bring captive humans into the U.S. Not only are Mexican nationals trafficked into the U.S., but traffickers use our Mexican-California border to bring in victims transported from as far away as Asia and Europe.

As recently as January 2010, federal investigators brought to justice a major sex trafficking ring from Mexico right here in San Diego. Women were trafficked in from Mexico, and held captive and kept weak with very little food, no money and no legal documents. Every day they were forced to service multiple men in an outdoor brothel, under the cover of foliage in a Carlsbad canyon behind high-end homes and open businesses. Their activities were caught on tape, with enough evidence to take the ring leader to jail.

We feel one of the problems that holds us back is a lack of reporting on the issue. While we’ve had some success in intercepting human traffickers in San Diego and have learned much about identifying potential victims, it’s no wonder we haven’t progressed farther in solving our local trafficking issues. If local publications and news channels don’t report on the prevalence of human trafficking, sex trafficking and forced labor in our County, it will lead San Diegans to believe human trafficking is a thing outside our borders. In truth, it’s a pervasive problem that surrounds us. Sometimes, we just don’t see it.

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