Two dozen suspected gang members from San Diego were indicted Wednesday for their alleged involvement in a cross-country sex trafficking ring that officials said included "branding" prostitutes with tattoos.
According to U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, the suspected sex trafficking operation spanned 46 cities across 23 states and involved underage girls and women.
The defendants recruited girls from El Cajon Boulevard and social media sites by showing them glamorous rap videos on YouTube and promising them a lavish life, as depicted in those videos.
Once they became prostitutes, the suspects allegedly branded the women by tattooing them with gang signs, bar codes or a pimp’s name, officials said. The suspects would then trade and gift these women among themselves.
Officials from the FBI, Homeland Security and the District Attorney's office revealed sordid details of the sex trafficking ring at a press conference Wednesday in San Diego following a warrant sweeps operation tied to busting the ring wide open.
On Wednesday, 17 arrests were made across San Diego, Arizona and New Jersey as part of a year-long investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies.
The alleged street gang members were also arrested for murder, kidnapping, robbery and drug-related crimes.
According to the federal grand jury indictment, an organization known as “BMS” – made up of several street gangs hailing from San Diego’s North Park community – lured underage girls and women to work as prostitutes, promising them a glamorous life if they joined the ring.
In some instances, the gang members allegedly forced many of their victims into prostitution through threats of violence, according to the indictment.
There were approximately 60 victims from San Diego and officials said at least 11 of those victims were underage.
“Some of the underage girls were kids who lived at home with their parents or guardians. They are kids who went to school, socialized with their friends and over the internet just like regular teens,” Duffy explained.
The indictment alleges that the local suspects involved in this sex trafficking ring ranged in age from 22 to 36 years old.
According to court documents, some of the defendants attended parties in San Diego or around the country known as “Players’ Balls,” invitation-only gathering for pimps. One defendant – 33-year-old Robert Banks – even received an award at one of these parties.
A photo posted to social media from one of these gatherings in Las Vegas showed Banks posing with a “pimp cup” and “pimp stick,” flanked by a woman on each arm. Court documents said one of these women in the photo is a known prostitute.
According to court documents, it’s common for pimps to carry highly-adorned chalices known as “pimp cups” as a symbol of their status. Some pimps also have dental “grills” – dental add-ons made of gold that can be worth thousands of dollars.
In the indictment, the government is seeking to forfeit these items from the defendants, as well as other items allegedly purchased with proceeds from the sex trafficking ring.
Officials said that during Wednesday’s search warrants, detectives seized two firearms, 20 to 30 marijuana plants, six luxury cars, flat-screen televisions, thousands of dollars in cash, pimp cups, pimp sticks and more than 50 pairs of Air Jordan shoes.
If convicted on the racketeering conspiracy charges, the suspects in this case could face up to 20 years in jail and a fine of $250,000.
The defendants will make their first appearance in federal court Thursday.
Officials said the female victims of the sex trafficking ring are being offered resources to help them start a new life.