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So Young: Oakland's 'Romeo' Pimps Lure Teen Girls

Just across the Estuary, increasing numbers of underage prostitute are on the streets and controlled by pimps. Second in a series; watch for more stories this week.

The Oakland Police Department is trying to reduce the number of teenage girls who are on the street and controlled by pimps. This is the second in a series on underage prostitution; watch for more stories this week. You can read the first article here.

Bay City News — Nearly all of the women and girls working Oakland's streets and motels are controlled by pimps, who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year with a five-girl "stable," or group of prostitutes under their control, says Sgt. Holly Joshi, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department who spent three years with the department's vice and child exploitation unit.

Although there are cases of "guerilla pimps" who kidnap girls and hold them against their will, most common are "Romeo pimps" who go through a calculated process that fosters an entrenched combination of fear and trauma bonding, said Barbara Loza-Muriera, facilitator of the Alameda County's Sexually Exploited Minors Network.

She said the pimps use five steps to ensnare the girls: recruitment, seduction, isolation, coercion and violence. They go after girls who aren't just running from something but who are looking for it and they capitalize on the adage that negative attention is still attention.

"Kids love it when somebody older shows interest," Loza-Muriera said.

One recruitment tactic is to go to a mall and compliment girls who walk by, Joshi said. The ones who are dismissive — or just say "thank you" and go on their way — are not the ones the pimps want, she said.

The girls who light up at the compliment or stop to chat are the ones the pimp will offer to buy a meal for or otherwise try to get to know, she said.

Loza-Muriera said she often asks people to think about their worst day — a day when they're feeling sad or ugly. Add to that being a foster child and having nobody pay attention to you, she says.

Then someone tells you, full of sincerity and warmth, "You are so amazing," or, "You are so beautiful."

"You can see how that compliment would be like water to a plant," she said.

The child starts thinking constantly about the pimp, who at this point is still just an increasingly attentive friend. He collects information about her, learning about her hopes, dreams and fears. Later when he wants something from her, he will promise to send her to visit her grandmother in Texas or he will threaten to attack her little sister in Richmond.

The pimp then begins to isolate the girl, to occupy as much of her world as he can, Loza-Muriera said. Eventually he begins asking her to turn tricks, maybe saying at first that it will just be a few times so they can get a house together.

He will introduce her to violence to show her how powerful he is, implicitly saying that he can both protect her and use his influence against her. He will have her hold his gun or witness a gang rape.

Eventually the girls are both terrified of and attached to their pimps, Joshi said. They think they're in real, romantic relationships with them, even though they know the pimps have the same relationship with many other girls.

"They're the most manipulative criminals I've ever come in contact with," said Joshi, whose police work has involved serving on Drug Enforcement Agency task forces that dealt with Latino drug-dealing gangs. "They're the most hardcore, manipulative, callous criminals."

The pimps usually have their girls start working the Track in Oakland near 15th Avenue or 16th Avenue, where there are fewer cars, hotels, police and potential clients, Joshi said. 

There, the pimps can observe the girls and get them more used to the work before they take them to busier areas where the street numbers hit the 40s and 50s. Many of the more experienced teens work there; those girls might be 15 or 16 rather than 13 or 14, Joshi said.

From about 60th Avenue out to San Leandro, the Track becomes more destitute. Many of the women working there are junkies doing sex favors for $5 to $20 — about one-tenth of what most girls charge per trick — to feed their addictions.

The addicts are generally the only prostitutes in Oakland who aren't working for pimps, Joshi said. The others last maybe two or three days before they're recruited. Female undercover officers who work prostitution stings are usually approached by at least one pimp every night.

It can be difficult at first to identify girls working as prostitutes because it's their behavior on the street, as opposed to their appearance, that sets them apart, Joshi said.

Girls working as prostitutes sit at bus stops even after all the lines have passed at least once. They try to make eye contact with drivers as they walk, or they gesture at passing cars instead of focusing on getting from point A to B. 

Unless they know what to look for, "People probably drive past girls they think are going to school but are being exploited," Joshi said. 

This is the second in a series on underage prostitution in Oakland that is appearing on Alameda Patch this week. Read the first article here. Next: Oakland and Atlanta are considered two of the nation's biggest trouble spots for the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

Copyright © 2011 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

Judy Judy August 18, 2011 at 12:31 AM
Right around the corner. I forget that Alameda isn't really a bubble, I just pretend it is. Thanks Patch.

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