San Diego Sex Trafficking an $810M Underground Industry: Study

The average victim is 15 years old when entering the sex industry in San Diego

In an underground industry largely run by gangs, more than 8,000 underage victims a year fall prey to sex traffickers in San Diego County, drawing in an estimated $810 million in annual revenue for pimps and what researchers call sex trafficking facilitators.

These are the findings of preliminary research released Monday by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Researchers found that 85 percent of pimps and sex trafficking facilitators were involved with a gang, some of those gangs with close ties to Mexican cartels, said Dr. Ami Carpenter, the lead researcher on the ““Measuring the Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego.”

“Facilitators make about $536,000 per year. That’s about $45,000 per month,” said Carpenter. “And I want to stress that this is a conservative estimate.”

The data collected by the researchers showed significant recruiting of minors happening on school campuses across San Diego County.

“This is a countywide phenomenon not restricted to the underserved parts of the county,” said Dr. Jamie Gates, another researcher. “The schools where we found evidence of sex trafficking were in the North County, Central and in the South Bay.”

County leaders like Supervisor Dianne Jacob, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Sheriff Bill Gore gathered to applaud the research efforts on sex trafficking. Supervisor Jacob described learning about the problem five years ago after a warrant sweep in Spring Valley.

“I was horrified. Absolutely horrified,” Jacob said, “and just sick to my stomach seeing what was going on in our community, but yet little known. People didn’t know about it.”

Jacob said it is “time for Sacramento to step up,” describing two proposed bills that failed to become law. One would establish a 1,000-foot “pimp-free” zone around schools and parks, and the other would add pimping, pandering and human trafficking to a list of crimes associated with street gangs.

“It’s an eye opener. Very disturbing,” Jacob said. “The ugly truth is that San Diego has a thriving, underground sex economy.”

Dumanis echoed Jacob’s call for tougher laws and penalties for sex traffickers.

“We need the public’s support to send a message to Sacramento that these are exactly the type of people we do want locked up and locked up for a long time, and it’s the nonviolent ones we can let out of prison to make room for them,” Dumanis said.

The DA also floated the idea of more consequences for clients of commercial sex, asking the audience what they thought about publishing the names of those caught buying sex.

Key findings from the study included:

  • Between 8,830 – 11,773 sex trafficking victims and survivors are estimated per year in San Diego County.
  • 15 years old is the average age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation
  • At least 110 gangs are involved in commercial exploitation of people in San Diego County.
  • 85 percent of pimps/sex trafficking facilitators interviewed were gang involved.
  • Traffickers in prison contained roughly an equal number of white, black and Hispanic facilitators.
  • Transborder criminal networks are involved in trafficking minors and adults between Mexico and the United States.

The study was funded by the Department of Justice.

Carpenter said her group plans to publish even more findings about the extent of interactions between Mexican cartels and San Diego gangs as it relates to the sex trade industry.

“I don’t think this is an issue San Diego can tackle alone,” Carpenter said.

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