Illegal drugs and guns aren’t making the same money for gangs they used to, says Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama. The real money is in people.
“We’ve even heard the gangsters say basically, it’s the girls that are moving the money, it’s the girls,” Balderrama said. “Not so much the guns, not so much the dope, but working some of these girls where they’re able to fund either gang war, bail suspects out of jail, basically it’s funding their enterprise.
In 2023, Balderrama decided to move the police department’s VICE unit — which oversees prostitution investigations — under MAGEC, the multi-agency gang enforcement unit. Balderrama made the move after seeing the direct correlation between human trafficking and gangs.
Sex trafficking has gone up and it can be seen in the number of arrests, Balderrama said.
In 2020, officers made 14 arrests, followed by 27 in 2021 and 35 in 2022. In the last four months, VICE has arrested 17 gang members in connection with the human trafficking of 12 juvenile victims.
Debra Rush, CEO and co-founder of the anti-human trafficking organization Breaking the Chains, said the prosecution of gangs and human trafficking has pushed pimps away from Fresno and out to coastal communities.
With the normalization of sex in social media, Rush said gangs can provide a perceived safe haven for girls seeking quick money.
Drugs, Guns Less Profitable; Money is in Sex Work
Oversaturation has caused a drop in drug prices, Balderrama said. In 2020, a pound of meth would sell for $2,000 to $3,700, according to the L.A. High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area list. In 2023, a pound went for $750 to $1,000.
Sixteen years ago, a pound of meth sold for $17,500 to $19,500.
Because people can be sold over and over, money can be generated more easily off human trafficking than drugs.
“Gangs operate like businesses, profit and loss, risk and benefit,” Rush said. “You can sell a bag of drugs one time, you can sell a person over and over and over and over again.”
Possession of drugs can also be more easily prosecuted.
Nowadays, sex work has become much more electronic, Balderrama said. For that, investigators have had to turn to electronic monitoring.
Adding VICE to MAGEC allows the two departments to share more information, said Taylor Long, public information officer for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office. That information-sharing should result in stronger cases for prosecution.
“Stronger cases should translate into heavier sentences and thereby reducing human trafficking and other gang-related criminal activity,” Long said.
Traffickers ‘Pushing Out’ to Other Areas
Fresno police have been aggressive in prosecuting human trafficking, Rush said. But that’s leading traffickers to reevaluate their business model, she said, based on discussions with victims who Breaking the Chains cares for.
Rush has been hearing about women being taken out to coastal communities such as Monterey and San Luis Obispo, away from Fresno where police have been actively tracking it.
“Because it’s kind of like cockroaches, I hate to say it, but it is right,” Rush said. “You can push them out of your house and push them into your neighbor’s home.”
Traffickers will go to any lengths to stay ahead of law enforcement, said Tony Cipolla, public information officer with San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
“Essentially, traffickers will go to an area for a short amount of time and move on,” said JT Camp, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office chief investigator and member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.
California highways create a sort-of figure 8, Camp said, connecting the Bay Area to Sacramento to the Central Valley and coast and on to L.A. and the Inland Empire.
San Luis Obispo’s geographical connection along Highway 101 between L.A. and the Bay Area make it attractive to traffickers. Easy access from Bakersfield and Fresno also makes the area a hot spot for the crime.
“The same reason that tourists enjoy the Central Coast is why traffickers like it — we have the beach, it is safe, and it is a good area to frequent,” Camp said.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff and District Attorney organized with counterparts from nearby Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, along with the FBI, California Highway Patrol, and California Department of Justice to form a coalition to combat trafficking on the coast.
With more disposable income from residents and tourists, traffickers can charge more and make more money.
“There is a demand in SLO County,” Camp said. “To state it plainly, that is why SLO County is so attractive. There is money to be made here.”
Social Media Normalizing Sex Work: Rush
Not all human trafficking begins involuntarily, says Rush. There has been an increase in young girls going out on their own to sell sex, she said. Rush attributes this to the sexualization brought on by social media, especially websites such as OnlyFans where girls can sell images or videos of themselves.
Twenty years ago, that kind of talk among children would be “unthinkable,” Rush said.
“The focus groups we have within schools, middle schools, high school-age kids, they are becoming very comfortable with platforms like OnlyFans and they’re becoming very comfortable, very normalized to the idea,” Rush said.
Rush said the phrase “sex work” has become more commonplace and almost glamorized. Kids are taking the next step by selling themselves. Gangs see kids as “low-hanging” fruit and offer them protection within the gang culture, which the youth often jump at.
Children getting into the world of sex work don’t understand the violence that often comes with that work. And when they try to leave, they find gangs or pimps won’t let them go.
“They don’t realize they’re about to step into quicksand, they’re not going to be able to come out,” Rush said. “And that quicksand is going to be the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment, the torment.”