Spotting a Victim: An In-Depth Look Into San Diego's Human Trafficking Industry

Sex trafficking in San Diego is $810 million industry, study finds

She’s looking down, avoiding eye contact and defers to an older man to see how to respond. He’s not dressed for the weather and not in possession of his own travel documents. She’s having trouble at home and finds herself alone at a trolley stop.

These are all red flags of a sex or labor trafficking situation that you can help identify and report, Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

Sex trafficking in San Diego County is a $810 million industry largely run by local gangs, according to a recent report by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University. The report details how as many as 11,700 girls, who are on average 15-16 years old, fall victim to the lifestyle every year.

According to local law enforcement officials, if you incorporate labor trafficking to these figures, the numbers would surely skyrocket, although a comprehensive local study on labor trafficking has yet to be published.

Sometimes trafficking is associated with chains and a locked room, but Stephan said it’s more out in the open than many may think. According to a 2012 SDSU study, labor trafficking is most prevalent in San Diego’s construction, restaurant and hospitality sectors.

“A good 71% of victims of labor trafficking come to this country on legal visas,” she said.

The problem is so rampant, the District Attorney’s office is working with the county’s hotel/motel industry to train employees how to identify and report trafficking activity. Several airlines are also training employees.

NBC 7 reached out to every airline at Lindbergh Field. The companies that responded to say they’ve implemented training to specifically combat trafficking include British Airways, Southwest, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. Many of them partner with the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign.

“With labor, we’re looking for people who are not in control of their identification. They’re not in control of visas and their ID cards. Someone else is speaking for them, “ Stephan said.

She said many labor victims don’t know they’re victims. They’re told they owe debt and have to work to pay it off.

“If a trafficker says you have to pay a debt, in the U.S., that's peonage [debt slavery]. That’s illegal,” she clarified. “You can’t be forced to pay a debt through labor.”

According to the recent USD trafficking report, local gangs are seeing sex slavery as a bigger money maker than drugs. The study estimates pimps make nearly $600,000 a year.

Stephan said common areas for sex trafficking recruitment include malls, high schools, trolley and bus stops. Local experts said this is happening all throughout the county and pimps especially target at-risk children and runaways.

To spot a potential victim, Stephan said you should look to see “if she’s looking down and not making eye contact, and if there’s an older male with her and you say ‘Hello,’ and she doesn’t respond. Tattooing or branding. Anything with a money symbol."

Tiffany Mester was trafficked for two years in San Diego.

“Even when I got out of the lifestyle, I wasn’t fully ready to admit I was a victim until about a year later,” she said.

Mester and Stephan are working to convey, when it comes to trafficking in San Diego, perception is usually not reality. You don’t always see chains and shackles. Often, the chains are psychological.

If you see a potential trafficking situation and you believe it’s an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911 or local security, according to Stephan. If you have more of a suspicion, you can call the Polaris Project at 1-888-373-7888 to reach experts. Law enforcement will be able to survey, and if warranted, take action. 

If you are a victim of trafficking, you can call that number or text LOST or INFO to the number 233733 or BeFree. You will reach a specialist who will assist you in planning your escape and/or connect you to services in the your area.

Stephan said 60% of cases are solved because a community member reported something.

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