SAN DIEGO (CN) — A who’s who of state and local lawmakers in San Diego Tuesday said young military men and schools should be key players in combating sex trafficking in California, to help eradicate this form of modern-day slavery.
Congressman Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, hosted Attorney General Xavier Becerra and acting San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan and other law enforcement leaders to discuss California’s ranking as the state with the most sex trafficking.
Eight thousand to 11,000 victims are trafficked in San Diego County every year, an $810 million business, according to a 2016 study from professors at the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.
“I don’t think the community understands how prevalent it is in California and San Diego,” Vargas said in an interview.
Gangs have moved from selling drugs to selling people. Many of the victims are U.S. citizens and are trafficked locally, Vargas said, trying to dispel the myth that most sex trafficking victims are undocumented immigrants.
Public awareness of the gravity of the issue is vital to getting more funding to support victims and enacting federal legislation, Vargas said.
The professors’ January 2016 study, “The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County,” funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, and delivered to the Justice Department, though done independently.
Becerra said in an interview that prosecutors must struggle to overcome internet privacy laws that make extremely difficult to prosecute “johns” and the websites used by sex traffickers and their customers.
“When I voted for the Telecommunication Act of 1996 I was not voting to allow sex traffickers to use the internet to pimp,” Becerra said.
His office has litigated against websites such as Backpage.com and the gangs that use them to traffic children and young women, but charges have been dropped due to internet privacy laws. Becerra said the “sick part about this is the targets for trafficking are getting younger and younger and younger.” Many cases involve girls who are 12 or 13 years old.
Maggy Krell, supervising deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, said prosecutors are going after the people who make the most money off sex trafficking, including hotels and motels.
Legislation, including California Assembly Bill 1227, is important, Krell said. It requires middle schools and high schools to teach students about human trafficking and requires training for teachers to learn how to recognize when a student is being trafficked. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law last week.
“Since schools are where recruitment happens, it needs to be where prevention begins,” Acting District Attorney Stephan said.
Victim advocate Marisa Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, provides support services to human trafficking victims on both sides of the border. Her group has helped more than 800 victims of the sex trade. She said law enforcement and victim advocates need to “look for a new, innovative way” to fight the grisly business.
Ugarte said the top “buyers” in San Diego are young men military service, which is why she’s gone to military bases to train them to go from “buyers to protectors.”
More than 15,000 servicemen and –women rotate through San Diego each year, and more than 240,000 veterans live in the city, according to publicly available information.
The key, Ugarte said, is to reduce demand. Her group and others are training the next generation to prevent it.
“It starts with gender equality and respect for women – things we’re not seeing right now,” Ugarte said.
“That’s where you begin to address the demand.”