Oakland (CNN) – I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for nearly 5 years. As a reporter, I’d like to think I’m pretty well informed about what is happening in my community. But I had no idea what was happening on International Boulevard in Oakland, California.
It’s a major thoroughfare, but locals know it as the “track.” As we discovered while working with police and prosecutors, it is ground zero for child prostitution.
Go to the “track” at any time of the day or night and you will find numerous girls working the streets. And these girls are noticeably underage. According to police, many of them are recruited as young as 12 years old.
Undercover officers conduct weekly prostitution stings to get as many of them off the streets as possible. A couple weeks ago, we were invited to come along to watch how it happens.
Over the course of two nights, we saw the girls get detained and brought to a holding facility behind a mall where they are not treated as criminals, but as victims.
“To look at them as prostitutes is a complete misnomer because they’re sexually exploited children. They’re victims of child abuse and it’s slavery,” said Sharmin Bock, who heads up the human exploitation and trafficking unit for the Alameda District Attorney’s office.
As we learned, it’s clear there is one thing driving this whole enterprise: money. A pimp with 4 girls who each bring in $500 a day is taking in more than $600,000 a year. That’s all cash, tax free. Human trafficking has become so profitable that drug dealers are increasingly turning to pimping.
Experts say the girls aren’t allowed to keep any of the money.
“I have to say traffickers are by far the most manipulative of all the people I have prosecuted in my 21 years,” said Bock.
Most of the girls are runaways, with nowhere to turn and little self esteem. It’s likened to Stockholm syndrome, where victims bond with their captors. For all their labor, Bock says, they may wind up with a meal from a fast food restaurant.
The “track” basically has a whole infrastructure set up for prostitution. Cheap motels dot the boulevard and there are lots of side streets for johns to sit in their cars and wait for the right girl to come along.
Officers try to target the youngest girls. (Getting the exact age of a girl can be tricky because many of them lie once they’re detained and they often don’t carry identification.)
For me, the most surprising thing about our ride along was the realization that this is actually happening in America. You often think of this kind of activity happening in some foreign land.
As Sharmin Bock told me, “This is something that occurs in America with American men exploiting American children and other Americans facilitating what it in essence is modern day slavery today.”