Gangs and Sex Trafficking in San Diego. Groundbreaking Study by Kroc School Faculty, Dr. Ami Carpenter

Gangs and Sex Trafficking in San Diego. Groundbreaking Study by Kroc School Faculty, Dr. Ami Carpenter

Five years ago, with several thousand dollars in seed funding from the School of Peace Studies, I began studying the connection of San Diego street gangs to underground economies. The research fit more broadly with my interests in community resilience to violence, the shifting identities of young people involved in armed groups, and how those groups are linked to black markets. One of my graduate students, Stacey Cooper, worked on the study with me. Her interest, and considerable talent, was using GIS to map various crimes by gang territory. That research led to an article in the Journal of Gang Research, and to an interesting side finding: we identified 10 gangs and criminal networks involved in sex trafficking.

Today, after receiving close to half a million in funding from the National Institute of Justice, we know that the actual (minimum) number of gangs involved in sex trafficking is 11 times larger – 110 to be precise. We can also estimate for the first time, the minimum number of Commercially Sexually Exploited People (CSEP) in San Diego County per year. Currently that range is between 8830 and 11,773 per year, with an average age of entry between 14 to 15 years old. Instead of one graduate student researcher, this study involved 10 undergraduate and graduate students. A special shout-out goes to Lars Almquist for his mad project management and interviewing skills, and a seemingly endless supply of patience.

“Gangs and Sex Trafficking in San Diego”[1] is a groundbreaking in several ways. First, it focused narrowly on one of the most understudied aspects of human trafficking in the United States: the relationship of street gangs as facilitators of sex trafficking. My research team and I gathered and analyzed data from hundreds of current and former gang members, schools, law enforcement agencies, and victim service providers. Our goal was to integrate the different kind of data gathered by each organization to come up with credible estimates of the scale and nature of sex trafficking in San Diego County. The puzzle pieces were there, they just needed to be put together.

The study was basically designed to address shortcomings in other human trafficking studies: inability to produce credible estimates, lack of primary data on sex traffickers, over-reliance on qualitative methods, and small sample sizes. In all, data was collected from 1205 individuals, making this one of the largest, most comprehensive human trafficking case studies in the United States to date: 156 gang affiliated persons, 702 first-time prostitution offenders, 189 survivors from eight victim services programs, and 140 County School administrators and staff.

This also made it one of the most complicated, fraught, complex, and adaptive research projects I have ever worked on! Working with different kinds of data required me and my research team to embrace several enormous learning curves, from using touchy encrypted cloud technology, to conducting very sensitive interviews with very interesting people.

We learned to translate each other's unique languages so that we could understand each other. The brilliant Dr. Topher McDougal speaks in equations and log frames, whereas I speak in concentric circles. My wonderful research partner Dr. Jamie Gates speaks through the lens of social movements; and Dr. Dana Nurge through the lens of criminology.
And through it all, talented university administrators at Sponsored Programs, Finance, and the Provost’s Office accepted and expected surprises and changes, and we all got better at rolling with the punches.

I say “it was worth it” to keep our promise to San Diego County: that we would produce empirically derived estimates of the problem. Here are some more of our major findings.

• Sex trafficking is San Diego’s 2nd largest underground economy after drug trafficking. The underground sex economy represents an estimated $810 million in annual revenue for facilitators of sex trafficking
• We estimate that 8,830-11,773 people are sex trafficking victims/survivors per year in San Diego County, but far fewer (1,766) come into contact with law enforcement
• 85% of pimps/sex trafficking facilitators interviewed were gang involved
• Pimps/sex trafficking facilitators are not primarily African American. Our sample of traffickers in prison contained roughly an equal number of white, black and Hispanic facilitators. In fact, the ratio of white to minority facilitators may be higher than is reported here given that our data does not account for the over-representation of Blacks and Hispanics in California jails and prisons.
• Nor does the relatively even split between Black, Hispanic and White facilitators represent a complete picture - in the past 10 years, Somali gangs and Iraqi Chaldean groups have been indicted on sex trafficking charges, and Asian American and Native American gangs were under-represented in our dataset. It is likely that our data underreports the nuances of facilitator ethnic/racial background.
• 15 years old is the average age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC)
• Sex trafficking facilitators control 4.5 victim/survivors on average
• 42% of first-time prostitution arrests are in fact cases involving sex trafficking
• Domestic trafficking accounts for the majority of CSEP
• Transborder criminal networks are involved in trafficking minors and adults between Mexico and the United States. 20% of trafficking victims referred to service providers come from Mexico and 10 other countries
• Female recruiters and pimp/sex trafficking facilitators are perceived to be a significant and growing feature of the underground sex economy
• Significant CSEC recruitment is happening on high school and middle school campuses

Some of these findings were pretty surprising to me, and to the amazing team of researchers who worked with me. The question we are now left with is – what can we do with this information? Fortunately, people at all levels and many different professions on both sides of the border are taking up that question right now. If you want to join the abolitionist movement, you can take immediate action by learning more. Go to Abolish Human, a website dedicated to informing students and the general public about the realities of modern-day slavery.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), has been a leader in the United States in funding and commissioning research on trafficking issues. This project was supported by Award No. 2012-R2-CX-0028, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this study are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice. In addition, members of the San Diego County Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council supported the study.

[1] The grant’s full name is “Measuring the Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in the San Diego-Tijuana Border Region”

Find the executive summary and full presentation of the Human-Trafficking Study press release here.


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