By BRANDON LOWREY – email@example.com North County Times – The Californian | Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 7:26 pm
A suspect in a human trafficking ring is led into the Escondido Police Department after being arrested April 18 as part of a sting. (Photo by Howard Lipin – San Diego Union-Tribune) .
..Last month’s bust of a major human-trafficking ring in Oceanside reflects a shift in the way more prostitutes are working and the way police are combating the crime, North County authorities say.
While there are still plenty of male and female prostitutes who are in business by themselves, police said they are seeing more gangs getting into the prostitution business.
To combat the trend, local and federal officials have focused more on rescuing the prostitutes and arresting their managers.
A single pimp could recruit and control several prostitutes, authorities said.
And while a conviction may get a prostitute off of the streets only for a few months at most, pimping is a more serious crime —- a felony punishable by years in prison.
Authorities pointed to the major bust last month as an example of the shift in operations.
A federal indictment of 38 people revealed a nationwide human-trafficking and prostitution ring run by three Oceanside Crips gangs.
Of those indicted, 29 were alleged to be members of the gangs overseeing the ring.
Authorities said they rescued about 30 girls younger than 18 who were being used as prostitutes. Several more adult prostitutes worked in the ring.
The bust revealed that the picture of prostitution, in many cases, is no longer a woman in a short skirt trolling predictable street corners, or the man in his car negotiating at curbside.
The new street corners are classified-ad websites filled with sexual photos and code words. Negotiations take place via emails and phone calls.
Police must patrol the Internet instead of the streets and contend with wary targets who move from motel to motel with laptop computers and disposable cell phones.
The new digital landscape has rendered some earlier approaches —- publicly shaming prostitutes and johns, taking their vehicles and scaring them with widely publicized undercover stings —- less effective or even obsolete.
That’s not to say authorities aren’t arresting prostitutes or johns. But if police can get to the powerful few in charge, the results can be far more devastating to the prostitution ring.
‘We don’t want you here’
In 2003, the Oceanside Police Department’s then-Chief Michael Poehlman tried to buy classified ads in local newspapers listing all of the names of the prostitutes and johns.
The North County Times refused to publish the list; then-Publisher Dick High called the ads tacky and said they would open the door to negative advertising.
Poehlman justified the lists, saying the department was “looking at every avenue we can so these people don’t come here to do business.”
He told the North County Times he wanted to send the message that “We don’t want you here.”
The department instead ended up posting the names of convicted prostitutes and johns on its own website, a practice that continued for years.
In 2005, Oceanside police began taking possession of —- and auctioning —- the vehicles that johns used to pick up prostitutes under a controversial nuisance-abatement ordinance.
Both practices appear to have been suspended.
The last list posted on the Oceanside Police Department’s website was dated November 2009, and it has been years since the agency has taken a john’s car, Lt. Leonard Mata said.
An undercover Oceanside vice detective, who spoke to the North County Times on condition of anonymity before last week’s indictment, said going after prostitutes isn’t as effective as going after a pimp.
He said Oceanside’s Coast Highway has long been famous nationwide as a haven for prostitution in the shadow of a large Marine base.
The new approach, however, has put a significant dent in that unwelcome reputation, he said.
‘A lot of programming’
Part of that new approach is saving prostitutes who are themselves victims.
Escondido police Lt. Craig Carter said his department and others have invested more resources in intervention and have worked with the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative, which rescues child prostitutes.
“They didn’t wake up one day and determine they want to be in that lifestyle,” Carter said.
Many are minors from broken homes who are drawn to prostitution with promises of cash, love, drugs —- or under the threat of violence.
Carter said pimps “programmed” the girls —- essentially brainwashing them to the point where some girls weren’t just selling themselves for money, but out of loyalty to their pimps.
“With the pimps, there’s a dependency that they work with these girls, who sometimes have low self-esteem and don’t have a good family life,” he said. “(The pimps) become that family.”
In the Oceanside gang enterprise, which Escondido police helped investigate, girls were treated as property, to be traded or gifted at the pimp’s will.
Pimps enforced a set of rules they called “The Game.” Some, called “gorilla pimps,” used beatings to enforce the rules while others, “finesse pimps,” used manipulation.
The girls and women were forbidden to speak with or even look at pimps other than their own.
Pimps used trusted, senior prostitutes they called “bottoms” to recruit and manage the newer prostitutes.
It’s difficult to intervene in many cases, as the underage victims remain loyal or frightened, Carter said.
He said it’s still important to arrest prostitutes, but authorities use the opportunity to try to pull them out of their dangerous lifestyle and collect evidence against their pimps.
“If you take out one of the top guys, you can hopefully affect several girls,” Carter said.
Success, however, tends to be rare.
“They’ve been in this usually for some time,” he said of the girls. “There’s a lot of programming.”
Call staff writer Brandon Lowrey at 760-740-3517.