SAN DIEGO (AP) — A San Diego street gang operated a vast prostitution ring that spanned 46 cities in 23 states, promising luxury lifestyles to girls and women. Federal prosecutors said that instead they were branded with tattoos and bar codes and treated like slaves.
"The kind of sex trafficking described in this indictment is nothing less than modern-day slavery," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy on Wednesday as she announced the indictment on racketeering conspiracy charges of 24 people, all San Diego residents ages 22 to 36. "Unfortunately, more gangs are expanding from traditional pursuits like drug dealing into this lucrative business."
Seventeen of those indicted were arrested in California, Arizona and New Jersey on Wednesday in raids by police and FBI agents, prosecutors said. Four other defendants were already in custody and three remained at-large.
The indictment alleges that women and girls were recruited from city streets or social media to join the sex-trafficking ring, then had to deliver their earnings to pimps in exchange for protection, food, housing, clothing and cars.
The U.S. attorney's office said authorities have offered assistance to 60 female victims, including 11 children.
The network was run by a gang known as BMS, which traces its origins to San Diego's increasingly gentrified North Park neighborhood in the early 1990s, and whose members have nicknames like "Pimpsy" ''Stick Up" and "Li'l Play Doh," prosecutors said.
Members would post photos and videos on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter advertising a high life of jewelry, champagne and parties. But gang members would use threats or actual violence to force them into prostitution, and often tattooed gang monikers, pimps' names and bar codes on them.
Authorities also seized luxury cars, dozens of Air Jordan shoes and pimp paraphernalia like diamond-studded canes, hats and chalices, much of which prosecutors said they would seek to have forfeited.
Many defendants, facing racketeering conspiracy charges traditionally used for organized-crime syndicates, were scheduled to make initial court appearances Thursday in San Diego.
Fourteen of those arrested could get life in prison if convicted. A similar prosecution of a gang-run prostitution ring in nearby Oceanside in 2011 led to the indictment of 39 people 34 of whom have since pleaded guilty.