INLETS 2014: Gang-Controlled Sex Trafficking Rings on the Rise
By Leischen Stelter, American Military University
During the 4th Annual Mid-Atlantic INLETS: Violent Crimes & Terrorism Trends seminar, Special Agent Jeff Johannes, a member of the Child Exploitation Task Force with the FBI Washington, D.C. Field Office, presented on the emerging involvement of gangs in sex trafficking.
The increase in sex trafficking is due largely to its profitability and, unlike narcotics or firearms, requires little to no financial investment by a gang. It is also a renewable resource, with women being sold over and over again. Sex trafficking also relies on fewer people than drug rings and is less risky; if a girl gets caught and imprisoned, she is easily replaced with another.
Johannes discussed the importance of law enforcement understanding the nuances of gang-controlled sex trafficking.
Profile of Victims
Women who are recruited into sex trafficking rings tend to be vulnerable individuals. Often times they are runaways, lack interpersonal relationships, and do not have a strong support structure. Some have mental health concerns, low self-esteem, or substance abuse problems. Many of these women want to feel like they belong to a family, which is a connection a gang can often provide.
Gang Recruiting Strategies
Many gangs rely on traditional recruiting methods to identify potential victims. Victims are recruited on the street, in schools and in neighborhoods. Some gangs use social media to gather intelligence about potential targets from a distance and to contact many people at once, in hopes of getting responses from just a few. Once recruited, a gang will groom women by providing them with whatever it is that they need. For example, for a runaway girl, a gang would provide housing and food as well as the false sense of stability as a member of the gang “family.” Gang leaders often give these women drugs and alcohol as well.
Warning Signs of Potential Victim
Johannes discussed several indicators of victims such as:
- Withdrawing from family activities
- Changing friends and/or spending time with undesirable people
- Having unknown money and/or possessions
- Running away from home
- Placing of gang graffiti on folders, desks, walls, and/or buildings
- Obsessions with gangs
- Purchasing or expressing a desire to buy or wear clothing of all one color or style
- Unexplained injuries
- Changing appearance with haircuts, eyebrow markings, and/or tattoos
- Using hand signs
- Developing a negative attitude towards family, school, and/or authorities
- Staying out later than usual
- Carrying weapons
- Substance abuse or additional mental health concerns
Proactive Police Work
If police identify women who are victims of gang-controlled trafficking, Johannes emphasized the importance of building a rapport with them and being careful not to degrade or belittle them. In order to prosecute such cases, police will often need the victim to testify in court, which can be a frightening prospect. Police also need to be aware that these women have likely been given anti-law enforcement messages, making them afraid and wary of officers.
Police must take a victim-centered approach and provide these victims with everything from basic safety to legal resources and emotional/social resources. Police also need to address the “family” issue and help victims to understand that gangs are not looking out for them or protecting them. Johannes recommended bringing in former victims to share their perspectives and prove to these women that there is a better life ahead for them.
To collect intelligence on suspected gang sex-trafficking rings, Johannes advised working closely with local service providers. He recommended avoiding sting operations and instead relying more on informants and physical and electronic surveillance methods. Johannes emphasized that local, state, and federal agencies must work closely together.