How does a bright, attractive 16-year-old girl from a middle-class family in Virginia end up on the streets, addicted to drugs and selling her body for money? The answer lies in the savvy recruitment methods of some of the largest and most violent organized gangs in the United States, MS-13 and the Crips.
ABC7's Pamela Brown has been researching and investigating this growing trend for more than ten months, finding that teen girls are now considered valuable targets for gangs and the sex trafficking industry.
WJLA.com: The young woman you interviewed for your story was just 16 when she was recruited by the Crips. Tell us how it happened?
Pamela: The young woman I interviewed was a straight-A student from an upper-middle class family from Fairfax, Va. One day in the summer of 2009, she was standing at the Springfield Metro station bus stop and was approached by a Crips gang member. She says he was very charming and made it seem so "normal" to make money by having sex. Ultimately, he was preying on her vulnerabilities as a young girl who had low self- esteem and was still unsure of herself.
The recruiting often happens at public places, like Metro stations, but it can also happen through social media sites. We interviewed one of the convicted gang members over the phone from federal prison and he says the Internet was the most common way gang members would lure in girls, often through alias accounts.
WJLA.com: What surprised you most while covering this story?
Pamela: How widespread it is among victims from all different backgrounds, especially in Northern Virginia. Many of the gang sex trafficking victims are from well-to-do families from wealthy suburbs. So often parents have no idea this is going on because it's just not on their radar screen. The victim I interviewed says she hid it so well from her parents that they just thought she was going out and making new friends.
WJLA.com: You've spent more than 10 months investigating this issue. Why are you so passionate about telling this young woman's story?
Pamela: This woman's story shows that no one is protected from this crime. She was a typical teenage girl dealing with typical teenage girl problems. One chance encounter changed her life forever. It can happen to anyone and it happens all around us. Everyone needs to be aware that this crime is taking place. The girl I interviewed said people would walk right by her all the time and not suspect anything. She says she wanted to scream to people, "I'm 16, how can you not see me doing this, why are you not stopping this?"
WJLA.com: The second part of your series is about another gang, MS-13 and a surprising shift in how members now make their money.
Pamela: Gangs like MS-13 are moving away from drugs and into child sex trafficking. They see juvenile prostitution as a low-risk, high-payoff enterprise where they can make hundreds and even thousands of dollars, night after night, week after week. Federal authorities (the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations) are working hand-in-glove with local police every day to find these gang traffickers and put them behind bars. One MS-13 member was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking a 12-year-old girl.