Gangs in the U.S. have generally been known for drug trafficking, the exchange of weapons, and violent crimes that result in shootings and deaths. However, according to the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, they have shifted from activities which are more dangerous and risky to less visible ones such as human trafficking, alien smuggling, and prostitution. At the time of the report, 35 states and U.S. territories have reported gangs in their jurisdictions who are complicit in these activities. These crimes involve a lower risk of detection and are also more profitable because humans are considered a more expensive commodity. After all, the criminal exchange of humans has become the second most profitable industry globally after the drug trade. If the traffickers are out of sight, the trafficked are the ones who will get into trouble with the police because they are positioned vulnerably on the front lines.
Some gangs have combined the trafficking of drugs and humans, where girls and women will transport drugs and at the same time, engage in commercial sex. Gangs in the U.S. are both locally based but also have transnational ties, enabling the movement of trafficked victims across state and international lines. Gang members act as pimps who first lure young girls into their care, then will control them through physical and psychological abuse. Gang-related human trafficking, many cases of which are sex trafficking, is evidence of the escalating prevalence of the domestic sex trade in both U.S. cities and suburbs.
Gang members have used social networking websites to recruit girls. They prey on girls by complimenting them on their looks, asking to get to know them better, and extending offers for opportunities to make monetary profit with their good looks. If these girls, who are mostly young teenagers, agree to meet their solicitors, they will be asked to provide a cell phone number where they can be contacted for an in-person meeting. The girls are quickly taught the ropes of commercial sex, sometimes by older girls who have had more experience in this work.
Sometimes, girls are recruited through “skip parties”, where young girls succumb to the enticing option of going to a party instead of sitting in a classroom during school hours. The masterminds behind these parties, knowing that girls like to travel in groups, conveniently encourage them to invite friends to the skip parties. Girls are then passed on from member to member, until she is “seasoned” for the streets and deemed ready to work.
The FBI has identified Asian gangs, Somali gangs, Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, MS-13, Sureños, Vice Lords, and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs to have engaged in human trafficking. 27-year old Justin Strom, leader of the Underground Gangster Crips in Fairfax, Virginia was convicted in September of this year for recruiting high school girls online, then trafficking them for commercial sex. MS-13, the first gang that the U.S. has named as a transnational criminal organization in October, has been notoriously known for its violent crimes, numerous murders, beatings, and infamous attacks with machetes. The presence of MS-13 is most heavily felt in LA County and the Washington, DC area. One of its mottos is “Mata, roba, viola, controla”, which translates to “Kill, steal, rape, control”. To ensure payment from the girls’ customers and that the girls were not hurt, MS-13 members would carry weapons while accompanying the girls to work.
Young boys are no exception to being victims of trafficking. They are considered low cost, low risk, and expendable to gang members who traffic them for labor purposes. While girls are more likely to be subject to sex trafficking, boys at age 7 are recruited to transport drugs, steer customers toward designated drug exchange locations, and as lookouts when law enforcement investigates suspicious drug-related activities. These boys are offered protection, food, and shelter when they cooperate, but are deprived of them when they do not. They will be socialized to gang norms, desensitized to violence, may grow up to belong to the gangs themselves, and will likely be incarcerated.
The nation’s first ever state-based wiretap investigation targeting human trafficking involved a case in Chicago that lasted one and a half years in 2011. Operation “Little Girl Lost” resulted in charging nine individuals with ties to street gangs who trafficking children and young women, some as young as twelve years old. The nine were charged with Involuntary Sexual Servitude of a Minor and Trafficking in Persons for Forced labor, punishable up to 30 years. Throughout the investigation, police found dozens of young women and girls who had suffered extensive emotional and physical abuse and were then provided social services that could give them safety from their traffickers. IOFA played an important role in this case as a partner with the State Attorney’s efforts to refer victims to recovery and after-care services, and at present continues to be an important presence in the city as a co-collaborator on the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force.
With the involvement of gangs, human trafficking is becoming an increasingly organized and networked crime. Although some tactics that gang members use to coerce girls into working for sex are similar to non-gang affiliated traffickers, it behoove anyone whose work involves interventions to reduce and prevent gang violence to address human trafficking. Three San Diego professors have received a $399,999 federal grant to explore the intersection of gang activity and human trafficking in their region. Although this issue is relatively new in comparison to other gang-related activity, it will continue to be a fast-growing business if there is not a concerted effort to target these specific victims. We cannot let the drugs, weapons, and shootings overshadow human trafficking, for this is a vile human rights violation.
Cook County State Attorney’s Office. (2011). State’s Attorney Announces Charges In Joint Undercover Human Trafficking Investigation: Operation “Little Girl Lost” Targets Chicago Street Gang Members.
Lederer, L. (2011). Sold for Sex: The Link Between Street Gangs and Human Trafficking.The Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Teen Prostitution: Gang Used Social Media Sites to Identify Potential Victims.
IOFA Asian American Trafficking Outreach Project program development intern