Human Trafficking and San Diego Gangs

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Image from “Study of Human Trafficking” -Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, University of San Diego.

By: Dana M. Grimes, Esq.

When actresses like Jane Fonda and Julia Roberts portray prostitutes in the movies, it gives a distorted picture of this world. Some people are making money in the prostitution industry, but it is almost never the prostitutes themselves. According to the United Nations, human trafficking is now the third most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, after weapons and narcotics. The state law definition of human trafficking includes “any person who deprives or violates the personal liberty of another with the intent to effect or maintain a felony violation of pimping statutes. (Pen. Code § 236.1(a)). Much of the money that the prostitutes get goes to gangs, and San Diego gangs are very involved with human trafficking and prostitution.

Annual profits from human trafficking are reckoned to be in the tens of billions of dollars. The term “prostitution” can encompass a wide variety of conduct, from the literal enslavement of children to the hiring of high-end call girls. The stories of prostitutes are likely to be tales of desperation, drug addiction, and violence.

Street Walkers and Street Gangs

Prostitution is now the second largest source of income for San Diego street gangs – second only to drug dealing.  (“Report Links Street Gangs to Child Prostitution,” KPBS November 9, 2010.)  In early November, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told the San Diego Board of Supervisors that the number of prostitution cases the DA’s office handles has more than doubled annually since 2004.

San Diego Sheriff Task Force figures identified 164 known pimps the past three years (44% of them gang members) and FBI data ranks San Diego as the nation’s eighth-worst city for such activity. (“Area Gangs’ Latest Enterprise: Sexual Slavery” – San Diego Union-Tribune, November 12, 2010.)

Soliciting prostitution and prostitution are misdemeanors defined in California Penal Code § 647(a) and (b), respectively. The conditions of informal probation involve an AIDS education court, HIV testing, about $500 in fines and “Street Conditions,” including stay away orders from certain high-traffic prostitution areas. Future offenses carry mandatory jail terms of a month or two. Pimping, on the other hand, is a mandatory state prison offense even when no violence is involved. (Pen. Code § 266h – three, four or six years in prison.) Street pimps (including the increasing number of gang member pimps) are usually violent. When pimps involve underage girls in prostitution, or force women into prostitution, in addition to pimping, they end up violating a variety of laws. These can include kidnapping and rape. Very long prison sentences for those convicted. In March of 2016, a RICO prosecution in federal court in San Diego resulted in the conviction of four members of the West Coast Crips. The trial evidence showed conduct including the use of a 15 year-old girl and other females as prostitutes, fatally shooting a young hispanic man because the Crips believed that he may have been part of a hispanic gang, five other murders, and robberies. These defendants will be in prison for a long time, but there are tens of thousands of other gang active members in the cities of this country.

The Prostitute: Victim or Criminal?

Prostitution is often thought of as a victimless crime, taking place between two consenting adults. While it arguably might be victimless if it were legal and managed, it is not victimless in its current illegal form. Prostitutes are often beaten by pimps, and they are sometimes beaten by clients. They often are recruited as young girls and then are trapped in this lifestyle through physical and mental abuse.

They are the favorite target of serial murderers like the Grim Sleeper of Los Angeles (11 victims). To the extent that prostitutes make money, most of it goes to their pimps and to drugs, and when they are arrested, they invariably qualify for the public defender.

The Internet: More Traffic Than El Cajon Boulevard

The Craigslist website recently shut down its adult services section, where many prostitutes advertised. That section is still available in Tijuana, and San Diego pimps use it to sell their prostitutes. The Internet will continue to be a popular way for providers of prostitution and their consumers to get together. Internet ads for prostitutes invariably contain lies. Some hookers say they are college students. The internet add never mentions that whenever a customer meets a prostitute, there is usually a pimp or group of pimps and gangsters just around the corner.

Vice officers are working on the supply side of this capitalistic venture by calling the websites that appear to be providing prostitution. They are also working on the demand side, by setting up their own websites to trap computer using “Johns.”

The standard first offense for Johns is a solicitation of prostitution charge, but in some cases where a John completes a Prostitution Impact Panel (PIP), AIDS testing and other conditions, a more favorable resolution, including a plea to a penal code section without the word “prostitution” in it, may be attainable.

Turning a Misdemeanor Vice Case into a State Prison Strike

When a call girl shows up at the hotel room or home of the John, she is invariably accompanied by a man (who we will politely call a bodyguard), who usually stays just out of sight, and is often armed. Sometimes the John gets robbed by the bodyguard, but usually the bodyguard stands by to respond quickly to a variety of disputes that frequently arise, when the John learns to his surprise and dismay that he is going to have to pay a lot more than the price he was quoted on the phone.

In one of these cases our client was a wealthy businessman from out of town who tried to grab his money back from the woman when she asked for substantially more. She quickly got her bodyguard on the phone, and since this was a major hotel, the bodyguard called 9-1-1. The police responded to the aid of the entrepreneurial woman faster than they respond to most Amber alerts. The wealthy businessman told the police his side of the story, but was booked on assault, as well as robbery (for using force to get his money back). Fortunately, prosecution was declined.

In another case, the woman arrived at the home of the John, and as soon as he gave her the money, she stepped outside and passed it to the bodyguard, then left with him. The John had a good job and no criminal record. He was so upset at the turn of events that he chased them, and fired five shots from a 9mm into their car as they sped away. Miraculously, the bullets did not hit anyone, but it was still a prison case.

The So-Called High End

Governor Elliot Spitzer’s identity as client number 9 of the Emperor’s Club might have remained a secret had he not paid by wire transfer. His bank filed a suspicious transaction report which led to the investigation. Unfortunately, stories like the Emperor’s Club make prostitution seem more glamorous and profitable than it really is, in the same way that casting Julia Roberts in the role of a hooker paints an unrealistic portrait of the industry. The cost for the services of Ashley Dupree was reportedly $1,000 per hour or more. Yet when Ms. Dupree needed a criminal lawyer, she qualified for a public defender, just like the average street walker.

There have been cases in Southern California where the madams made a lot of money, such as Heidi Fleiss and Karen Wilkening (San Diego’s “Rolodex Madam” who was busted in 1987, fled the country and lived as a fugitive in Manila for two years before she was extradited in 1989 and subsequently sentenced to prison). For the vast majority of women who are actually doing the work, this is a bad business.

Harsher Penalties

Throughout the centuries, different civilizations have taken widely varying views on prostitution.  In 1161, England regulated prostitution. Henry II allowed the regulation of London’s Bankside “stew-houses” (brothels) which included rules that prohibited forced prostitution, allowed for weekly searches by Constables or bailiffs, and mandated closing on holidays. (Hilary Evans Harlots, Whores & Hookers: A History of Prostitution (1979).)  By contrast, in 1586, Pope Sixtus V declared that the death penalty would be imposed on prostitution and “sins against nature.” Nils Johan Ringdal, Love For Sale: A World History of Prostitution (2004).

To combat the growth of child prostitution in San Diego County, both federal and state law enforcement agencies have officers assigned to human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation crimes. The prostitution of girls under the age of 16 is on the rise because of the Internet and the growing involvement of street gangs with pimping, according to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office and the San Diego and National City Police Departments. (“SD Supervisors To Explore Stronger Penalties for Human Trafficking” KPBS by City News Service, November 9, 2010).

It is called the world’s oldest profession for a reason, and it is not going to stop. (The Sumerian word for female prostitute occurs in the earliest lists of professions dating back to circa 2400 B.C.)


Proponents of legalizing prostitution contend it would reduce crime, improve public health, increase tax revenue, and get prostitutes off the streets where drug addiction is rampant. Jesse Ventura told Playboy magazine in November 1999, “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because its run illegally by dirt bags who are criminals.” Although not particularly artfully phrased, his point raises a serious issue. Since it cannot be eliminated, we should probably give thought to studying the long standing systems of Nevada and Amsterdam, to see if more public good would come from regulating prostitution within the State of California. If street gangs and other pimps had a lobby, they would fight against legalization and regulation of prostitution. They like the status quo.

While there are certainly very strong moral, ethical and religious arguments against prostitution, the moral distinction between prostitution and other vices presents a rational conundrum: why should it be illegal to charge for what can be freely dispensed? Perhaps the criminalization itself is what creates conditions that lead to the current state of rampant exploitation of the women involved. Perhaps the moral solution is to protect the exploited women instead of waging a battle against their industry that cannot be won. In the 11 counties of Nevada where the legal rights of prostitutes are enforced, the experience of women in the industry is indisputably much better. It is also a matter of prioritizing limited resources. If prostitutes were afforded the same labor rights as other workers, and prostitution was not ruled by gangs and other criminals, it would allow us to divert resources to better address the serious problems of forced prostitution and juvenile prostitution.

Barbara Meil Hobson has said, “Prostitution will always lead into a moral quagmire in democratic societies with capitalist economies; it invades the terrain of intimate sexual relations yet beckons for regulation. A society’s response to prostitution goes to the core of how it chooses between the rights of some persons and the protection of others.” While decriminalization would not solve every injustice that exists in the prostitution underworld, it would cast light upon an industry that will otherwise continue to operate in the shadows indefinitely.

 An increasingly common tactic of street gangs is robbery of the male customers of prostitutes.   The customer will find an online ad for a young woman. The hooker meets the customer at the customer’s home or at a motel. Minutes later, gang members with guns burst into the room to rob the customer.


Senate Bill 1322 went into effect in January, 2017. It prevents law enforcement from arresting sex workers who are under the age of 18 for engaging in prostitution, soliciting prosecution, or loitering with the intent to do so. Most of these underage prostitutes are controlled by pimps, and being a pimp (or a client) for an underage prostitute is still a very serious crime. The problem is, it is very difficult to develop sufficient evidence to prosecute pimps. Critics of SB 1322 overstate their case when they say that it legalizes child prostitution in California. However, SB 1322 helps the pimps by making it harder for police or juvenile courts or probation officers to get the minors away from the pimps.