A former teenage victim of sex trafficking is putting her voice and support behind a new campaign to prevent others from sharing her traumatic childhood.
Tiffany Mester grew up in a broken home, frequently the target of physical and sexual abuse. She lived with people who never taught her her value as a person, so when a “Rico Suave” type man came into her life and treated her well, she fell for him.
But the man turned out to be a pimp, cultivating a relationship with Mester so he could later force her into sex trafficking, she said. Over almost two years, she saw the wonderful life she imagined with the man turn into a nightmare.
"I've had guns to my head, knives to my throat. I've jumped out of moving cars,” said Mester. “And so the glamorous lifestyle that was fed to me when he was cultivating me wasn't in reality what was happening.”
During that time, she filtered in and out of juvenile hall, all the while believing one day she and her man would retire and be together.
However, just a few days after she was released from her final juvenile hall stay when she was 16 years old, her pimp was arrested.
She said that’s when she believes God started to severe the ties between her and the toxic man.
“I slowly started to rehabilitate and learn my value and learn my identity,” said Mester.
The former sex trafficking victim enrolled in school, began to work full time and became an advocate for fellow women forced into the same situation.
Still, Mester said she had to deal with a lingering stigma that sex traffickers are no different than prostitutes – an assumption against which she has fought hard.
Through her advocate efforts, she allied herself with the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, which has seen the number of prosecuted sex trafficking cases triple in the last four years. In the first half of 2014, the DA’s office filed 23 human trafficking-related cases, it says.
On Thursday, DA Bonnie Dumanis joined Mester to unveil a new public awareness campaign to reach out to victims and encourage residents to report sex trafficking.
“San Diego is a hot spot. Human traffickers in California made more than $9 billion. It's the second-largest growing illicit industry in the country,” said Dumanis.
Clear Channel has donated nine billboards across the county to display the anti-human trafficking messages for 30 days, and space on bus shelters has been set aside for ads reaching out to runaway girls.
A new website called ProtectSanDiegoKids.org also holds information about how to prevent trafficking, how to spot it and how to report it.
They hope 3.5 million people will see the billboard campaign over the next month and turn the words into action.
If you know someone who needs help escaping human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” to 233733.
“If there’s a young girl out there, I would say that your value’s worth more than that, your sex is worth more than that, and there’s so many people out there that are willing to love you without requiring you to give them something in return,” said Mester.