Last month, in a widely reported case, a San Francisco couple was accused of murdering a man who they believed was pimping their 17-year-old daughter.
Calvin Sneed, a 22-year-old Crips gang member, was shot June 4 as he was reportedly on his way to a rendezvous with the girl, whose name has been withheld. The couple, Barry Gilton, 38, and Lupe Mercado, 37, have pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, and the incident sparked a furious local debate over so-called "vigilante justice."
While the details of the case are still in dispute, the alleged involvement of the girl, a frequent runaway, with one of California's most vicious gangs underscores what authorities and child advocates say is the increased exploitation of young women by U.S. organized crime groups.
In some ways, according to experts, the trend reflects the success of law enforcement in cracking down on gang-related narcotics and gun activities.
According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Gang Threat Assessment report, police pressure has forced gangs to move into supposedly less risky areas, such as juvenile prostitution.
The report notes that gang membership is up 40 percent from 2009, with the number of gang members reaching 1.4 million. This figure includes participation in prison, motorcycle and street gangs, but the authorities note that the sex trafficking of street gangs in particular has allowed them to move beyond inner cities into suburban and rural areas.
Girls, Gangs and Prostitution
The list of groups involved in prostitution read like a who's who of organized gang activity in the U.S.: the Bloods, Crips, Folk, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, Mara Salvatrucha, Starz Up, Sur-13, Hells Angels. .
In San Diego, for example, prostitution was the second most profitable gang activity after drug dealing, according to a Jan. 2012 National Gang Intelligence Center Report.
The gangs waste little time in finding suitable prospects.
According to a 2009 report by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), the majority of homeless, runaway, abused and at-risk children are approached by drug dealers and pimps within 48 hours of landing on the streets. The same report states that of the 1.5 million runaways in America, approximately a third have resorted to prostitution.
Many runaways are attracted by the offer to become part of a gang for protection reasons—but then quickly find themselves the sexual 'property" of gang members.
In addition to the recruitment of runaways solely for prostitution, co-ed street gangs will prostitute their own female members to make a profit.
Young at-risk females who join gangs are particularly vulnerable to this. As many as 25 per cent of the estimated 60,000 to 80,000 female street gang members in predominately male gangs across the U.S., are forced into sex, including prostitution, according to retired San Diego Deputy District Attorney Keith Burt.
Burt, who hosted a special webinar on the issue last month called "The Sexual Exploitation of Girls in Gangs," claims street gangs will find girls anywhere, including schools, detention centers, malls, and on Facebook, to further their prostitution enterprise because it is a less risky way of earning money than drug-dealing.
"You can sell cocaine and it's gone, but you can sell a girl over and over and over again," says Burt.
He adds that girls who join co-ed street gangs are unwittingly trapped by the appeal of being part of outlaw groups as they serve as a surrogate family, but once a young girl becomes a pimp's connection to profit, "she's no longer her (own person)…she's his."
Self-Esteem and Protection
Street gangs have the ability to offer many vulnerable children the self-esteem, sense of importance and protection that comes with belonging to an organized group, says Ellen Sanchez, Executive Director of Girls in Gangs in Los Angeles.
"If we look further back into why the girl decided to join a gang, we see that almost every (one)has been abused sexually," she says. "[They] are victims of prior sexual abuse, a combination of poverty and violence at home, as well as powerlessness and fear."
According to Sanchez, gangs view women as sex objects, and even if the girl isn't prostituted, but participates in less overt crimes such as drug smuggling or providing an alibi, they are still solicited for sex by their fellow gang members.
Moreover, she says, the constant threat of sexual exploitation from male gang members, combined with female gang members lack of self-esteem, contributes to the growing number of girls in gangs who participate in juvenile prostitution and child sex trafficking.
The FBI has often led law enforcement strategies to deal with the issue.
On June 22, the FBI launched its sixth attempt at breaking up the gang sex rings—-part of the FBI's National Innocence Lost Initiative, which started in 2003 in response to concerns about child prostitution and sex trafficking.
2,200 Children Rescued
The three-day "Operation Cross Country VI" involved more than 2,500 officers in 57 cities, and resulted in the arrest of 104 pimps and the rescue of 79 girls. Since the program launch, over 2,200 children have been rescued and over 1,000 convictions obtained.
But advocates say that represents only the tip of the iceberg.
Tina Frundt, a former victim of domestic sex trafficking and the founder of Courtney's House, a rehabilitation drop-in center for child sex trafficking victims in the Washington D.C area, says the gangs have found ways to escape law enforcement scrutiny by trafficking girls who still live at home.
Gangs may find these new recruits at 'skip parties' hosted in an empty house or apartment where children are encouraged to skip school and bring a friend, says Frundt.
Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy are provided at the parties free of charge. As the party progresses, the girls are expected to have sex. If they decline, they may be raped by up to 15 guys, some of them juveniles themselves.
The events are usually recorded and used as blackmail to keep the child loyal to the gang.
"These pimps fool the parents and the world by allowing us to label the majority of these children as runaways," says Frundt, who adds that 43 percent of the children at Courtney's House are referred by parents.
Adding to parents' distress is the gangs' ability to build strong bonds with the girls they exploit, which leads desperate parents to take matters in their own hands—which is exactly what prosecutors say led Barry Gilton and Lupe Mercadoto murder of Calvin Sneed.
Breaking the Connection
Breaking the connection between young girls and the gangs who have been exploiting them is complicated by girls' often-delusional feelings of love and loyalty for gang members who have given them a sense of belonging for the first time.
Last March, a 17-year-old from a a wealthy suburb in Fairfax County, Virginia, boasted on Facebook that she was in a relationship with a gangster pimp from a Crips sect named Justin Strom---even though the 26-year-old Strom had been convicted of repeatedly forcing her to have sex with multiple men.
Suzanna Tiapula, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, says such feelings mirror the effects of intimate partner violence.
"The victims don't leave their abuser right away, and the (possibilities of) relapse are high as the children come in with a history of trauma," she says.
Many experts say that charging girls with prostitution and sending them to a juvenile center does little to help their situation in the long run. Often the girl will return as quickly as she can to the only life she feels comfortable in.
Diversion programs offer an alternative to first offenders, who are given several options to avoid a prostitution charge, including payment of a fine, counseling services and community service.
But child advocates say the model doesn't tackle the roots of the problem, which would mean dealing with the emotional and psychological needs of these juveniles.
"They must be treated as victims, and the current laws in place are not appropriate for victims," says Tiapula.
"We are in a period where we blame these victims (prostitutes), and they are not genuinely being treated as victims of child sex trafficking."
Advocates also say that there is no single solution. For some children the best option is to go back home; for others it could involve working with counselors at a drop-in rehab center. But once the child has been taken out of harm's way, "the real work starts," Kevin Perkins, executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, said in a recent interview with CNN.
"That's (when) we have to call upon the community, various social welfare agencies, (and) our own office of victim assistance to work with each child on an individual basis to see what their requirements are."
In certain states, "Safe Harbour" laws can provide comprehensive relief for victims. These laws are designed to protect the victim and deter them from being further victimized, and have been passed in New York and Connecticut.
Similar laws are being considered in California, Florida, Texas and Ohio.
The New York law empowers authorities to assess the current situation of these victims and give them the services needed to get them out of prostitution. Children who aren't legally old enough to consent to sex would not be thrown into the criminal justice system on prostitution charges.
Instead, they are offered long-term shelter, medical care and counseling on their journey to recovery.
"Rehabilitation is a long and difficult road for victims," says Sundy Goodnight, National Director of Stop Child Trafficking Now.
"Not only do trafficked victims experience psychological, physical and emotional trauma, but they are often exposed to all kinds of drugs in an effort to keep them subservient and calm. Even if the victim is rescued or escapes, they still have a drug addiction, or no life skills."
Despite the thousands of young girls who become victimized, their plight rarely gets national attention—unless a headline-making case like the murder of Calvin Sneed galvanizes the public.
"Sadly many American's have little to no knowledge that child sex trafficking is happening right in their own communities," says Goodnight. "A lack of awareness and education has kept this issue out of the general public's focus."
Attiyya Anthony is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.