Washington DC - This city is ringed by America's wealthiest suburbs, where mansions rest on green lawns and glitzy malls line roads crowded with luxury cars. But an ugly form of criminal activity has developed beneath the veneer: Gangs are prostituting underage girls for cash.
Authorities in greater Washington have prosecuted more than two dozen child prostitution cases in recent years, many of them run by gangs. "This is an emerging trend, and the gangs, we think, have made a horribly wrong business calculation that they can make a lot of money and get away with it," US Attorney Neil MacBride said in a September article in the Washington Post.
One gang, calling itself the Cold-Blooded Cartel, charged $200 for an hour of sex with girls as young as 16, court records say.
Members of another gang, named MS-13, have been convicted of prostituting even younger girls. Prosecutors say the pimps gave their victims drugs and alcohol to keep them submissive. When that failed, gang members would sometimes take turns watching each other rape the girls "to punish [them] for disobedience," according to court records.
You can recruit an entire juvenile prostitution organisation from the comfort of your home on your computer.
Most of the victims are local. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but they are all "young, insecure girls who are looking for some type of sense of belonging somewhere", said FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Johannes, who has worked several cases in the Virginia suburbs south of Washington.
Relatively little is known about the overall nature or extent of juvenile prostitution in the United States, but the DC-area trend appears to be driven by two major causes.
Shifts in the underground economy have criminal gangs looking for new sources of revenue. At the same time, the internet has made it easier to recruit customers and victims.
"You can recruit an entire juvenile prostitution organisation from the comfort of your home on your computer," Johannes told Al Jazeera. "It can be considered a 'reusable resource,' as opposed to say if you're going to deal marijuana or cocaine; you use it up, you have to find another source or supply."
'Bottom of the barrel'
Gang activity in America surged as crack arrived in cities. In the 1980s, criminal groups went to war to control the lucrative crack trade, helping Washington earn its reputation as America's murder capital. But child prostitution was all but unheard of as a gang activity.
The crack economy declined in the 1990s. Faced with declining economic returns and stiff jail sentences, criminal gangs started looking for other sources of revenue. Juvenile prostitution eventually became one of them.
"Why sell cocaine if prices are super high and you get 10 to 30 years? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why you switch gears," Michael, a former drug dealer who did not want to be identified by his real name, told Al Jazeera.
Like many African-American men from poor neighbourhoods, Michael spent years selling drugs on DC's streets. He now walks with a slight limp, a result of having been shot several times.
Though he has given up the criminal life, Michael still mediates gang disputes through a community organisation. Today he lives in a leafy suburb, where he wears black slippers around the house and keeps a tall hookah pipe fired and ready at his side. Michael said gang involvement in juvenile prostitution is still relatively rare, but he has definitely noticed the trend. "Prostitution is at the bottom of the barrel of the hustling game," he said.
FBI agent Johannes suggested the worrying trend might be an unwanted outcome of aggressive police action, which has forced northern Virginia gangs to change the way they operate.
"They've been driven underground to the extent where they're looking for a new source of income," he said. "You still have your traditional drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, bribery, intimidation, but they've also started prostituting young girls out."
He said there are several investigations ongoing.
It is not surprising that gangs would turn to prostitution to make money. Greater Washington is one of America's most lucrative prostitution centres, with its strong economy centred on tourism and the government.
Websites like backpage.com are always full of ads from out-of-state sex workers seeking their fortune in the area. "Natalie", whose phone number has a Nevada area code, is one of them. Like many prostitutes, she works out of hotels in rich Virginia suburbs and finds her clients online. She provided a brief overview of Washington prostitution.
Wearing heart-shaped earrings and an orange sweater with black zig-zags on it, Natalie told Al Jazeera that Washington is "kind of famous" among prostitutes.
"For years there has been chatter among girls about DC. People have money here. It's full of politicians and the tech guys," she told Al Jazeera. "Ninety percent of the people I see are software people or government workers. The tech and software guys are kind of just nerds and lonely."
Natalie said she lives in California and has visited the Washington area "four or five" times since May. "So far, it's been wonderful. It has been very busy, steady." Her smartphone lit up with calls frequently as the interview went on. "I have a huge repeat clientele, enough regulars to keep me afloat out here. I do well," she said.
Natalie is not the only one in greater Washington earning money from prostitution. The Cold-Blooded Cartel (CBC) was founded in the southern state of Georgia. It set up operations in the Virginia suburb of Herndon when one of its prostitutes told the pimps it was the most lucrative place she ever worked. Each girl earned about $500 a day, court documents say.
|Prostitution gangs invoke famous names to sell their victims "a sense of family, and a sense of belonging" [GALLO/GETTY]
Though the gangs sometimes operate across different states, they are rarely part of sophisticated criminal networks. The CBC and other prostituting rings have claimed affiliation with famous street gangs like the Bloods and Crips. But Professor Cheryl Maxson, one of the United States' foremost experts on the topic, said these are localised gangs, not the large, centralised "super-gangs" of popular lore.
"It's a myth that continues to perpetuate itself. Instead of thinking of it as a 'super gang', think of it as a loose identity," she told Al Jazeera. "MS-13 is kind of this broader identity, and it's true of Crips and Bloods as well. If I'm a member of an East Coast Crips set, I'm just as likely to fight with other Crips as I am Bloods."
Johannes made similar observations, saying prostitution gangs invoke famous names to sell their victims "a sense of family, and a sense of belonging."
That has appeal for young people everywhere. Michael said criminal gangs feed on the "hopelessness" of inner-city youths trapped in poor neighbourhoods.
"I have friends, they feel they have no other option. They're ready to steal, kill - whatever it takes to pay the next rent," he said. "They sell [drugs] because that's their only option because of mistakes they made when they were kids or teenagers, with convictions or whatever."
"When your options run low, we become what we're not."