September 21, 2001

North County Combats The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

By Yvette tenBerge

This is part one of a two-part story on the commercial sexual exploitation of children here in San Diego County. This article outlines the results of a recently released, three-year study that shocked the social service and law enforcement community. It also provides an introduction to the work that is being done on behalf of these victimized children, some of whom are trafficked into the North County region from other countries. Next week's story will focus on the outreach being done in and around downtown San Diego.

The world of the commercial sexual exploitation of children has begun to permeate our homes. News programs and talk shows have introduced viewers to the silhouettes of child prostitutes, or to the digitally scrambled faces of pimps whose voices provide hard-to-swallow details. Most recently, newspaper photos have documented the arrest of a conservatively dressed, Florida couple that was charged with running a multi-million dollar child pornography Internet business.

Unspeakable things are happening to kids, but what many people refuse to accept is that the children to whom they are happening are our own. The truth that no one wants to face is that, throughout the United States, as well as right here in San Diego, adults are sexually exploiting children for financial or other economic reasons.

Thanks to a group of dedicated researchers, social service organizations, law enforcement officials and lawyers throughout North America and Mexico, however, this widespread and complex phenomenon is finally being dealt with head-on.

Sheriff Rick Castro sifts through anonymous letters that inform him about houses of prostitution in Vista.

Although various social service organizations in San Diego County have been helping or have been attempting to help exploited children for years, the recently released results of a three-year study entitled, "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico" shocked even these seasoned advocates. The scope of the problem and San Diego's inability to effectively deal with the epidemic confirmed their worst nightmares.

Dr. Richard J. Estes, a world-renowned University of Pennsylvania professor of social work, addressed hundreds of San Diegans at an August 29 conference. He identified 17 groups of children in the U.S., alone, who are at "substantial risk" of being sexually exploited. He went on to confirm that the sexual exploitation of children is "not limited to particular racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups," to report that perpetrators of sex crimes against children come from all parts of society and then to identify an 11-point agenda focused on "eliminating the further commercial sexual exploitation of America's youth."

San Diego was one of the 17 U.S. cities in which this study was conducted. It was chosen, in part, because of the high number of tourists, conventioneers and military personnel who travel to and from the city. This transitory population makes up a large percentage of the "customers" who solicit children. Another factor was San Diego's proximity to the U.S./Mexico border, a heavily traveled avenue for international traffickers who smuggle women and children.

"San Diego's heavy military presence, the combination of high tourism and trucker traffic and its proximity to the border makes it especially vulnerable to the problem of commercially sexually exploited children. Also, the rapidly increasing cost of living in combination with nearly frozen wages for people at the lower end of the income range squeezes many people very hard," says Dr. Estes. "Some of these adults and children are squeezed to the point of engaging in commercial sex."

As for the children who are most at risk of being sexually exploited, Dr. Estes names runaways, throwaways (children who are no longer welcome in their own homes) and homeless kids who use "survival sex" to "acquire food, shelter, clothing and other things needed to survive on America's streets." In the U.S., alone, the number of cases involving commercially sexually exploited children is estimated to be between 244,000 and 325,000.

Commercially Sexually

Exploited Children in North County

Ask social service workers in North County about this topic and they will point you in the direction of Marisa Ugarte, a woman who has worked with women and children involved with prostitution for over 15 years. For the past two years, she has served as Program Manager for Runaway Homeless Youth Services at the Escondido Youth Encounter (EYE) Counseling and Crisis Services, Inc.

Although her job with the EYE has her tending to cases day and night, Ms. Ugarte has led a campaign over the past year and a half that has united service organizations and promoted an interest in understanding the scope of the sexual exploitation of children. Her work has linked organizations and agencies that specialize in offering specific resources to children, as well as provided law enforcement with much needed information.

Her eyes are worn after a meeting with one of her newest cases. She admits that, in the past year, she has personally counseled over 125 families. "Obviously, 100 percent of the families that I have encountered who have runaway or homeless youth suffer from family dysfunction of all kinds. There is sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems and more. I have counseled an eight-year old runaway and a nine-year old," says Ms. Ugarte.

She states that the most shocking changes in a child's life come in and around the time they hit sixth grade. "Once a child hits the age of 12, what used to be considered child abuse, is now considered a sex crime. It is looked at differently, and the laws begin to change as the way of looking at a child changes. Many times I see this attitude: `Oh, this 12 year-old looks 20,' but she is still a child and needs to be treated as such," says Ms. Ugarte, whose frustration with society's lack of understanding toward the plight of the victimized children with whom she works is obvious.

At this stage of early adolescence, children must face peer pressure and bullying, and parental support lessens. Many of these children become "latch key" kids who eventually seek out ways in which to fill the "gap of loneliness" and to feel protected. Combine this with an already dysfunctional family suffering from involvement with drugs, alcohol or domestic violence and you have a ripe situation for a runaway child.

Part of Ms. Ugarte's job involves matching families with these runaway teens, many of whom have been forced into prostitution by pimps or traffickers or have engaged in "survival sex" while on the streets. "The worst part of this all is that nobody wants a teen. For one year, I tried to recruit families to offer a bed to one of my children for a few weeks. I offered to pay them. I went to churches, service organizations, alternative services and foster care. Nobody offered to help, not one person. They are afraid of these kids," says Ms. Ugarte, shaking her head and clasping her hands together tightly. "Instead of realizing that they are our future, they give up on them and think of them as a disgrace."

Female sex workers line up along this dirt road in North County on Sundays. Their "nests" line the valley below.

Ms. Ugarte works with children between the ages of eight and 17. Her caseload is 80 percent female and 20 percent male. Of these children, 60 percent are Latinas. "Ask me who wants to take in an undocumented, victimized child. Nobody. We have teen shelters, but none of their criteria fits the needs of the children we are talking about. I am not just talking about prostituted children, I am talking about trafficked and undocumented kids. There is a whole process that needs to happen now," says Ms. Ugarte. "We have to treat these kids as victims instead of criminals, establish them as certified crime victims so that we can get counseling and other appropriate services for them, work on their immigration status so they can be housed and deal with their self-esteem and psychological issues, because you bet they are going to have them."

Sex Workers in the Migrant Labor Camps

Liz Pleitez Christie has worked for Planned Parenthood for two years and currently serves as a Coordinator for the Promotores Pro Salud program. Her job has her on the front line, often supplying reproductive and health education to many of the girls and women who are trafficked into this country from Mexico. They serve as sex workers in migrant labor camps or in make-shift brothels throughout North County.

Although she has only worked with this population since her time at Planned Parenthood, she recalls seeing the prostitution of young Mexican women in Escondido more than 20 years ago. "My dad was a doctor here in Escondido. I can remember going to his office to help him. A man would come in and bring two or three girls in with him. Each week he would bring in different girls to be checked," says Ms. Christie, who admits that it was Ms. Ugarte's plea for help that got her going into the hidden sex camps in the first place. "Marisa asked me to go into these camps, to be her eyes and see if this really was a problem. Part of her dream is to have a shelter where these girls can get their specific needs met."

Ms. Christie and Manuel García, a male co-worker whose name has been changed
to protect his privacy, make sure to be present at the camps at least every other weekend. These camps are set up each Sunday, and their location often varies. Women and girls are brought in to "service" the hundreds of males who gather, most of whom are migrant workers.

Many of these camps can be found just dozens of feet away from well-trafficked streets, hidden amongst bushes and tall reeds. As Ms. Christie describes it, the girls and women that they have met range in age from 14 to over 30 years old. On average, 25 to 30 women work on a given day. They stand within a few feet from each other wearing revealing clothing, and as many as 200 men will attend. Once there, Ms. Christie does her best to be approachable and supply the women and men with contraceptives, reproductive literature in Spanish and to answer any questions. (SEE SIDEBAR: "In The Reeds" for first-hand description of camps.)

She admits that she is often unable to sleep at night because she is worrying about these women. "These women all look the same. If you go by a high school or a grocery store, you can see what they look like. There is no way that you can tell that they are a sex worker unless they are in the camps working. They look just like you or me or anyone else," says Ms. Christie, who explains that she is often unable to have in-depth conversations with the women because they are busy. "Some of the older women are pretty knowledgeable, but the younger ones look scared to death. You can tell that they do not know what is going on."

Mr. García concurs with Ms. Christie's assessment and offers some observations of his own. Like Ms. Christie, he provides those present at the camp with contraceptives, literature, advice and education, but he focuses on outreach primarily to the male customers. "The youngest of the girls could be 12 or 13, but I will have to say 14 to be on the safe side. The younger the girl is, the fewer clients she has. The older, heavy-set women tend to have more clients. I have found that the younger girls do not want our information, but the older ones always take it. I theorize that the younger ones have pimps and the older women tend to run themselves or they may be madams," says Mr. García. "It's obvious that the younger ones are controlled and scared to death to be there. They do not want contact with anybody."

The role of Law Enforcement

Rick Castro is a Deputy Sheriff for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in Vista and has been working on prostitution in the area for the past five years. He confirms the sentiments of most of those who were present at Dr. Estes' August 29 presentation. "The conference was an eye-opener as to the magnitude and the secretiveness of this kind of activity. Generally, even law enforcement did not hear about cases such as these except that they were possibly taking place in foreign countries," says Mr. Castro.

He recalls the days when he first started at the Vista Sheriff's Department. Because of his Spanish-language skills, he was able to make contacts in the community that those who came before him were unable to make. "The community was and still is predominantly made up of Hispanic, Spanish speakers. The deputies before me were not able to really work prostitution here. Due to the language barrier, Spanish speakers feel more comfortable speaking to a Spanish speaking deputy. Back in 1996, investigating these kinds of crimes was a lot easier. Nobody else was investigating them, so everything was out in the open," says Mr. Castro, who admits that he used to be able to see the extent of prostitution in the area just by driving around the streets. Now, he and other officers must dig deep to find the men and women who run these prostitution rings.

Mr. Castro pulls open a desk drawer and thumbs through a large stack of anonymously sent letters. He randomly picks one of them and pulls out a hand-drawn map, complete with arrows that point to houses of prostitution in the area. "This is how easy it was back then. As time went on, the girls and pimps would call up the station to find out which days Deputy Castro worked. On those days, they would work in these houses. They have become more covert, so it is much harder for us to get information. Now, instead of having a large number of males loitering around, the pimps
and traffickers actually bring them in by car. They have separate staging areas and drive the Johns in."

Mr. Castro and his department closed down 25 houses of prostitution in Vista between 1996 and 1999. Of the roughly 250 men and women that he has arrested and subsequently deported back to Mexico, he estimates that between 10 and 15 of these were young girls who were trafficked into this country to serve as prostitutes.

He describes a scenario that he has come to know well. "These predators know what to look for. They seek out these young women. They are smooth talking and promise them a better life in the United States. Maybe they tell them that they will be taking care of kids or cleaning nice houses. Low and behold, these women are smuggled across the border," says Mr. Castro. "Once they arrive in the States, they are taken to work in these houses of prostitution."

Like every other person who works with the issue of commercially sexually exploited children, he is haunted by certain images. At times it is the coffin-size quarters in which some of these women are forced to work, the face of the madam who sells her own daughters or the eyes of the young girls who yearn to tell the truth about their situations but keep silent out of fear.

Mr. Castro admits that one of the toughest parts of his job has been actually getting these young women to trust him enough to come forward. Without their testimony, he has no choice but to send them back to Mexico. "You can tell that these women and girls want to talk to you, but they are scared. They are afraid that there will be traumatic repercussions if they tell us anything," says Mr. Castro, who describes some of these trafficked females as having the "body of a young girl" and "hard, worn faces." "In most of these cases, I already knew ahead of time who the people running the houses were, I just needed witnesses to corroborate this. Without these women's help, I could not charge the individuals running these houses with pimping and pandering."

Like Ms. Ugarte and Ms. Christie, Mr. Castro feels positive about the collaborative effort that is currently under way in North County. "One of the biggest problems we used to face when investigating these crimes was that we did not truly know the kinds of resources that were available to help these girls. It was so new to us. Many of these girls also did not want to cooperate with us, mostly out of fear and because they had no idea what their avenues of escape were. My knowledge used to be very limited. I did not know what shelters would take these girls, or what counseling and referral services could provide these them with a fresh start," says Mr. Castro. "Now I know better, and I am in a better position to help these girls if they want it."

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