At the close Tuesday of a two-day conference on the international trafficking of women and children, experts spoke of the challenges faced in trying to combat commercial sexual exploitation.
According to a 1997 estimate by the State Department, each year some 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States for sexual exploitation. San Diego County and other regions near the Mexican border are major points for such activity, said Deputy Rick Castro of the county Sheriff's Department.
Castro was part of a law enforcement team that, in December, burst open a criminal ring smuggling young Mexican girls into northern San Diego County and forcing them to work as prostitutes, serving hundreds of men who were being shuttled to a remote camp on a given day.
More than 40 people were arrested, and 16 young women and teens who had been held as sex slaves were rescued. But as the investigation developed, prosecutors were stymied as victims refused to speak out against their abductors.
"Because of the high intimidation factor, we were unable to get the evidence we needed to charge these individuals," he said.
The case is typical of the frustrations authorities face in trying to persuade victims of sex trafficking to prosecute smugglers and pimps, he said.
The case in Oceanside came to light after a 15-year-old girl fled to a private home and sought help. The girl, identified only by her first name, Reina, was recruited from a central Mexican village with promises of a good job. But then her captors took her infant son away from her and threatened to harm him unless she prostituted herself.
Castro said it's a tactic commonly used by smugglers and pimps, who prey on girls desperate to help support their families.
"They tell their parents, 'Oh, I'm going to work in a factory, or cleaning houses, or in a restaurant and I'll be able to send you money.' They're very proud of it," Castro said.
Once involved in the sex trade, the girls don't attempt to escape for fear of being beaten, having their relatives beaten — or even just having their situation exposed, he said.
Understanding such challenges is important to anyone working with victims of sexual exploitation.
Kelly Hill, a former broadcast journalist who was involved in prostitution for several years, is the founder of a Honolulu-based group which helps people find their way out of sexual exploitation.
Hill had participants at the conference pair off and then describe their first sexual experience. The awkwardness some felt during the exercise, she noted, is a small piece of what sexual exploitation victims feel in talking to authorities.
"You're asking them to share about really bad things that have been done to them," Hill said. "You're a stranger and you want to know about all the very private, personal things that have happened to them. ... Can you understand a little bit about how they might feel?"
Hill, who recently moved to Los Angeles to expand her group, Sisters Offering Support, said it is crucial that anyone questioning sex trade victims express genuine concern for them and avoid making judgments.
Sex trade victims, she said, may not admit to being prostituted, but the right questions — such as about their well-being — could lead them to open up.
Castro said many law enforcement officers may not realize they are questioning a sexual exploitation victim, perhaps because a girl is complaining about domestic violence by a boyfriend who actually is a pimp.