Sex trafficking functions as a multibillion-dollar industry with 1 million teens in the U.S. involved in prostitution each year.
San Diego County acts as an international gateway for domestic sex trafficking where victims as young as 12 years old are recruited by pimps and/or gang members at schools, shopping malls and on public transportation for prostitution, according to law enforcement officials.
Susan Munsey is the director and founder of Generate Hope, a nonprofit organization in Bonita that provides victims a way out of the sex trafficking life.
"This is a population that's fallen through the cracks and it’s a shame," Munsey said.
Munsey knows firsthand the effects of trafficking. She ran away from home at 16 and became a prostitute for four months.
"It's a lucrative business," she said. "You can sell a girl over and over and over again but you can only sell guns or drugs once."
While it used to be that streetwalking was more common, today the crime has switched to online.
Munsey said that at least 80 percent of trafficking occurs via the Internet, where victims are recruited into prostitution with false promises of financial security through ads listed in adult sections.
The San Diego Police Department uses a vice unit where officers work undercover via the Internet to target or locate juvenile girls and rescue them, but Chula Vista Police Lt. Eric Thunberg said it’s difficult because most victims were taught by their pimps that police are the enemy.
Backpage.com includes a section called “adult” with categories such as “escort,” where it offers minors money for sexual means.
Craigslist, which banned sexually related advertising in the United States last September, was linked to numerous sex crimes generated by the site.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Wendy Patrick said that selling sex online is one of the ways modern pimps operate.
"We do see this as a significant issue in the San Diego community," Patrick said. "Community awareness is key in learning more about how to protect themselves and their children."
In addition, the average age of girls trafficked are first victimized between the ages of 12 and 14, while 75 percent of girls in prostitution networks are controlled by a sex trafficker or pimp.
At Eastlake High School earlier this month, the Chula Vista Police Department, Sweetwater Union High School District, the network Against Child Trafficking and the prostitution of Teens in Our Neighborhoods (ACTION), held a forum to bring awareness to teens and parents about the dangers of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Thunberg said signs that a child may be involved in sexual exploitation include new nails, clothes, hair extensions, pre-paid cell phones and credit cards.
Twenty thousand youth are trafficked in the U.S. each year, according to the Covenant House for homeless youth. Socioeconomic factors such as homelessness, runaways, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse, directly contribute to prostitution, according to experts.
In addition, due to a lack of options, runaways and homeless youth turn to prostitution as a survival technique to have food, clothing and shelter.
In September, a prostitution sting by the Chula Vista Police Department netted seven arrests a motel along the Broadway corridor, including four misdemeanors for solicitation of prostitution and three for felony violations of conspiracy to commit prostitution.
"We see a lot of depression," Munsey said. "Every girl has post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Their self esteem is low."
"About 50 percent of young women involved are gang-related cases," Munsey said.
There are different techniques used by two kinds of pimps. One is the finesse or “gentlemen’s” pimp, who uses mental manipulation and sweet-talking girls to make them believe they are in love with him to engage them in multiple sex acts with men.
The other type is a gorilla pimp, who uses fear and/or violence to coerce the victim into doing what he wants. Munsey said a girl must typically perform approximately $1,000 in sex acts per day.
"Sometimes girls use drugs to get through the night," she said."There’s a lot of addiction involved as far as what I’ve seen with marijuana, alcohol, ecstasy and cocaine."
Few gangs and individual members are caught and prosecuted because most victims do not come forward for fear their pimps will retaliate against them or their families.
Munsey said that victims can create a bond with their pimp over time they spent together, which can become Stockholm Syndrome — a psychological phenomenon where hostages or victims express empathy and positive feelings towards their captors, mistaking a lack of abuse from them as an act of kindness.
Linda Rankin is the campus development director at Eastlake Community Church, which first got involved in bringing awareness to the issue of sex exploitation and trafficking in 2009.
“In our own community we’ve heard stories of girls gone missing from their high schools, ruled off as a runaways, but we’re not sure what really happens to them," she said.
"…In the Suburbia-type life, we don’t like to think about this kind of stuff happening but it does. "We need to know how to address this as a community and stop it from happening. We cannot deny the reality of it."