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Gangs and Sex Trafficking in San Diego

Date Published
August 31, 2016

This study focused narrowly on one of the most understudied aspects of human trafficking in the U.S.: the role of street gangs as facilitators of sex trafficking. Researchers gathered and analyzed data from hundreds of current and former gang members, schools, law enforcement agencies and victim service providers. This three-year project had three primary goals:

  • Determine the role of street gangs in facilitating sex trafficking in San Diego County
  • Determine the scope of sex trafficking victimization in San Diego County
  • Estimate the regional commercial sex economy in San Diego County

The study findings include:

  • Gang involvement: The study found that at least 110 gangs are involved in the exploitation of individuals for commercial sex in San Diego. Gang members made up an estimated 85 percent of pimps/sex-trafficking facilitators in the area.
  • Victimization: The study estimated that San Diego County has between 8,830 and 11,773 victims/survivors of sex trafficking every year, of whom 1,766 came into contact with law enforcement.
  • Regional commercial sex economy: Researchers estimated that sex trafficking produces an estimated $810 million annually in San Diego, making it San Diego’s second-largest underground economy after drug trafficking ($4.76 billion annually).
  • Clients: Based on interviews conducted with sex traffickers in prison, the researchers found that demand was widespread and that clients of commercial sex came from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The average age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation was 15 years old. The researchers found that significant recruitment occurred on high school and middle school campuses.
  • Recruitment:

The study is a large-scale model of collaborative research and serves as a national model for designing future research on human trafficking in other communities for academic purposes and for use in developing evidence-based policy and practical responses. A number of other policy and practice implications were also identified in three areas:

  • Capacity Building: Specific actions can be taken to engage in capacity-building efforts and to strengthen institutions on the ground, including bolstering the training of officials and frontline practitioners to enhance their engagement with communities.
  • Service Delivery: Recommendations involve specific actions to improve service delivery to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and to deter those who would exploit.
  • New Programming: Specific enhancements within security and criminal justice sectors and for disengagement and reintegration programs should be introduced and recommended.

This study was designed to address seven shortcomings in human or sex trafficking research:

  • Inability to produce credible prevalence estimates of sex trafficking
  • Conflation of commercial sexual exploitation with sex trafficking
  • Lack of primary data on sex trafficking (studies rely instead on secondary sources)
  • Inability to identify networks of sex traffickers
  • Understudied extent of gang involvement in sex trafficking
  • Overreliance on qualitative methods
  • Small sample sizes

Researchers used a mixed-methods design to collect and synthesize data (qualitative and quantitative) from five major sources: (1) a survivor services dataset from a diversion program for individuals committing a first prostitution offense, (2) a survivor services dataset from surveys conducted by eight service providers, (3) law enforcement incident reporting (combined police arrest records and sheriff booking datasets), (4) school focus groups, and (5) in-depth interviews with individuals involved in or knowledgeable about sex trafficking. From these five datasets, the authors report quantitative and qualitative findings that shed light on the scale and complex challenges associated with commercial sexual exploitation of people, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and commercial sexual activity broadly defined. Researchers gathered and analyzed data from 1,205 individuals, making it one of the largest, most comprehensive human trafficking case studies in the United States to date.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2012-R2-CX-0028 awarded by NIJ to the University of San Diego. This article is based on the grant report The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County (pdf, 172 pages) by Ami Carpenter and Jamie Gates.

Date Published: August 31, 2016