an intricate dance takes place weekend nights on the streets of East Salinas. As the bars and clubs close and people seep onto the streets, the women come out of the shadows and into plain view. Whether black, white or Latina—the cops say most are black or Latina—their dress is similar: skirts or booty shorts, skintight shirts, high heels and thick makeup.
Outside an East Salinas bar in the dark hours of a recent Sunday morning, men sporting cowboy hats and big-buckle belts follow the women, first with their eyes and then with their feet, to street corners and alleyways. Other women flock to a nearby parking lot, where they lean over driver’s side windows to chat with potential clients. When a deal is struck, they get in on the passenger’s side and ride away.
One of these cars winds up at a Kern Street motel just blocks away, where the woman pauses briefly to make a phone call, then disappears into a room.
Summer in Monterey County means migrant workers swell the population, and when they’re not working, they have time and a little money to spend. But it also means big events—and big events mean big spenders. While they’re in town to drop dollars on bucking broncos at the California Rodeo, motorcycle races at the MotoGP or classic car shows at the Concours d’ Elegance, some visitors also set aside a chunk of change for flesh, from high-end female escorts to street-level sex workers.
Police, residents and shelter workers all confirm a thriving sex industry in the county. What’s less well known is how many of these women, both U.S.- and foreign-born, are trafficked by handlers or pimps within California, or across international lines, to work in prostitution against their will. While numerous service providers and law enforcement officers interviewed for this story said they don’t perceive sex trafficking to be a significant issue in this region, Katherine Thoeni, a longtime program manager at Shelter Outreach Plus in Salinas, has just two words for them: “They’re wrong.”
Thoeni and others working in shelters and on the streets say they serve a growing population of women who, because of fear, language barriers and the public’s lack of awareness, are nearly invisible and impossible to reach. But increased education by a wide range of people, from concerned citizens to federal programs, is bringing a greater understanding of the industry, its workers and their plight, into the public light.
Maria, as she asks to be called, is part a circuit of women who follow seasonal ag workers and the big-money special events to Monterey County—some by choice, and others by force.
Maria used to do “walking,” (as she calls it) in Salinas, back in her teenage years. Now 20, she lives in Fresno but comes to the county twice a month, charging $180 an hour to clients she meets on the adult entertainment site myredbook.com.
“I see doctors, I see lawyers, I see some man who’s always on TV in Monterey Bay,” Maria says during an interview in her Marina motel room. “I like working over here; the clientele’s better, and they pay more.” She says she tends to avoid the summer events—“the hotel prices go up the ass”—but she can make good money on the off-season draws.
“The AT&T golf thingy last winter, that was really good for business,” she says, referring to the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. “But lots of girls come out here, period. Lots of people visit here from out of town all year.”
A private security guard at the Motel 6 on Salinas’ Kern Street says he doesn't see a lot of action on weeknights; weekends, when the clubs are open late, are when he watches the girls walk by.
"I'd say about 90 percent of them are African American," he says. "Five percent are white, and the other 5 percent are Hispanic."
He rarely sees the same girls twice, he says, "probably because they're always on the move. They move on to another area, either somewhere in town or somewhere else."
At 11pm on June 24, it’s easy to spot another telltale sign of prostitution: four or five men, driving cars with no passengers, circling the motel parking lot like sharks. They slow to a crawl as they approach the building’s south side, their windows open, watching the second story and the stairwells.
After a while, a black woman, wearing a short red dress with plunging neckline, emerges from a second-story room and walks halfway down the stairs. She holds her cell phone to her ear and speaks softly into it. At the same time, a car turns around and pulls into a parking space. A man gets out and follows the woman upstairs to her room. About 15 minutes later, the door opens and he leaves.
Down the hall, another door opens and an overweight white woman wanders out to smoke a cigarette. As she taps its ashes off the balcony, I move from my position behind some bushes and walk upstairs to approach her. After some small talk, I awkwardly ask her, “Are you working?”
“I ain’t no hooker, girl!” she says indignantly. She motions to her oversized hoodie and flip-flops. “Would I be dressed like this if I was?”
“What about you?” I ask her companion, a busty, barely clad young black woman.
“She’s in the business, yeah,” the white woman says. “She’s my lil’ bitch.”
The scantily dressed woman says she’s just in town for the weekend, like lots of the girls who work here.
“Where are you headed next?” I ask. She won’t say.
A week later, I recount the incident to Jim Smith, the education and program manager with Central Coast HIV/AIDS Services, at his Salinas office.
“You come across a lot of women who don’t admit to sex work,” he says.
Same goes for the johns, says Det. Carlos Rios with the Salinas Police Department’s narcotics and vice unit. “The times I’ve contacted prostitutes or prospective johns, it’s always, ‘I’m waiting for a friend,’” Rios says. “What can you do with that? You have suspicion, but no proof.”
The unit has conducted four stings in the past two years; but these are lengthy and pricey operations. Most of the time, it’s catch as catch can where sex workers and their clientele are concerned.
As with any long-running operation, prostitution is becoming more sophisticated and harder to track. Much of the on-street business is moving inside, Smith says: “Women have it set up now so that their pimps get them a hotel room, they have men come into that room, and when one person leaves, she freshens up, just looks out the blinds of her window and the next guy comes in. She never leaves the room.”
There’s also a booming business online, where sites like backpage.com and myredbook.com have quickly stepped in to fill the void left by the shutdown of Craigslist’s adult section last year. Perusing the Monterey Bay listings turns up graphic ads for scores of women serving Salinas, Seaside, Marina and even supposedly sleepy Pacific Grove.
Maria’s been a myRedbook.COM regular for nearly two years now, and says she has two lucrative markets: San Jose and Monterey County.
“I come visit over here every couple weeks, ’cause I like the business over here,” Maria says, referring to the Monterey Peninsula. “There are men I’d never see in Salinas. Nobody from Monterey goes over there because they’re too scared.”
Short, curvy and fresh-faced, Maria could pass for a college co-ed. She’s been in the sex industry since she was 14, she says, when a man in her hometown of Fresno talked her into working for him.
“I was way younger and really dumb,” Maria says.
Though she’s left her Fresno boss, pimping remains part of Maria’s reality. “I’d say 99 percent of the girls on Redbook do have a pimp,” she says. “The other 1 percent who are independent are mothers and older ladies. They say it’s like peanut butter without the jelly, a girl without a pimp. It’s just how it is.”
Maria hesitates when asked if she has a pimp now.
“It was like that in the beginning,” she says of the man she’s been with for three years. “But our relationship’s on another level now. I have one kid by him, and we love each other. Right now, it’s just me, no other girls.”
Maria seems unfazed by her work.
“A lot of girls do drugs or drink,” she says. “I don’t know why it’s so damaging to some girls, ’cause it’s just sex. It doesn’t bother me.” She’s also says she’s been lucky: never had any threatening clients or abusive pimps; never been arrested.
It’s hard to believe her.
“Human trafficking is a hidden crime, and accurate statistics on the nature, prevalence and geography of human trafficking are hard to calculate.” So says the final report of the California Alliance to Stop Trafficking and Slavery Task Force, a group assembled by the state Attorney General’s office as part of California’s 2005 anti-trafficking legislation to investigate sex trafficking and forced labor.
Because so much of the sex trafficking business occurs in the shadows and remains undocumented by law enforcement and social service providers, reliable state and national numbers are hard to come by.
These are some of the numbers on the books at the U.S. State Department: 14,000-17,500 foreign nationals trafficked into the U.S. every year. Roughly 244,000 American children and youth are at risk of sexual exploitation. Californians have placed almost 3,300 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center since December 2007. Five different California human trafficking task forces have identified 559 victims between 2005 and 2007 alone.
The data are just as hard to track in Monterey County. “I don't think I can even give an estimate of the number of sex workers we see,” says Nina Alcaraz, interim executive director of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center. “We don’t do a lot of specific outreach for sex trafficking victims.”
But although sex trafficking may be well hidden, it’s an issue everywhere, says Lt. John Vanek, the head of the San Jose Human Trafficking Task Force, one of 42 such multi-agency task forces nationwide. Vanek’s jurisdiction includes Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. “We don’t have a high enough number of cases [in Monterey County] that we really have to have this conversation on the same scale as in the Bay Area.”
Last year, the Central Coast Coalition to Stop Enslavement, a group of social service providers and citizen advocates, disbanded, in part because the shelter for female trafficking victims established in 2008 by a pair of nuns in Watsonville wasn’t getting any referrals. This led former coalition coordinator Sister Jean Schafer to migrate south to San Diego, where she works in a shelter for trafficking victims that has the resources—grant funding, plenty of multilingual interpreters—the Central Coast region lacked.
“I sort of threw in the towel,” Schafer says. “After paying rent for two years, I knew that it wasn’t working.” 1
Part of the reason, she says, was a lack of interest and awareness on the part of local law enforcement
“Police weren’t convinced at the time that trafficking was an issue,” Schafer says.
That’s not surprising to Vanek, whose own task force was created just five years ago, and who only started doing “train-the-trainer” trafficking education workshops in Monterey County in 2009.
Vanek says he doesn’t have a point person in the Monterey County Sheriff’s office, and there aren’t many police vice units or shelter workers actively engaged in helping victims of trafficking.
Nevertheless, Rios says he knows prostitution when he sees it.
The Salinas P.D.’S statistics division doesn’t keep figures on prostitution-related arrests. But you don’t need a spreadsheet to tell you Marina Beach is sandy.
“It is prevalent in a few areas,” Rios admits. “We see mostly black girls, many of them from out of town—Fresno, Richmond, Oakland—who come down to work for the weekends, usually out of motels.”
Transience is commonplace, for practical and psychological reasons. “Women get moved not only to keep them unfamiliar with their territory, but to keep them emotionally imbalanced,” Vanek says.
This shift from on the street to out of sight has made it that much harder to keep track of prostitution’s prevalence in any measurable way beyond chance sightings and stories from outreach workers. That doesn’t mean you can’t find working women if you know what to look for, Smith says, especially during the summer event season.
“Even at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, you can find high-price escorts,” Smith says, referencing the world-renowned car show that’s taken place on the Peninsula every August since 1950. “You go to any bar or auction during that event, and you’ll see ’em.”
Women who command up to $500 per hour, however, are the exception rather than the rule. More common are the Salinas street-walkers and women countywide who advertise less expensive services online, who charge less than half that.
One woman who was walking through Chinatown in Salinas to visit a syringe exchange and collect an armload of free condoms told me she charges $40 for a half hour.
“I do it for my man, to support his habit,” she says. That habit is heroin.
But it’s worth it, she says: “My man don’t hit me, don’t steal my things. He’s good to me.” Indeed, her-beautiful-though-weathered face and sinewy arms show no signs of bruising, and she says she’s not being forced to work. She knows that’s rare.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “And it ain’t always been so easy.”
Smith and Alcaraz say it’s not their place as service providers to ask women why they’re seeking testing or treatment.
“We never ask straight out whether or not women are involved with prostitution,” Alcaraz says. “It’s not our business. Our business is whether or not they’ve been sexually assaulted.”
Adds Smith: “I’m here to serve their needs. If in the counseling session they want to open up to us, we allow them to, but I don’t try to prod anything out of them.”
He’s forged relationships with pimps over the years and convinced them to send their women in for testing and contraception, but that takes time.
“Building the trust with a pimp to get him to know that I wasn’t going to step on his turf took about a year and a half, consistently giving him condoms without questions, reaching out to him,” Smith says.
As for getting a pimp to talk shop with a reporter, “I could ask him, and he would laugh at me,” Smith says. “That would undo years of work I’ve done, and put all the women he works with at risk.”
This is a microcosm of the challenges involved in trying to piece together the puzzle of prostitution. Once you find the people who know the industry’s key players and are willing to talk themselves, they quickly tell you that talking to anyone about selling sex is damn near impossible, because of a pervasive culture of fear: of arrest, of retribution, and, particularly in the Salinas Valley, of deportation.
The SAlinas P.D.’s Rios says he knows of cases where somebody will offer to take a prostitute across the border in exchange for cash. “But they’ll only bring her so far, and then tell her she has to come up with an additional amount of money or he’ll kill her,” he says. “So he’ll either try and call her family to get it, or he’ll use her to make that money.”
Sometimes, the transporter, called a coyote or pisa (which translates loosely from Spanish as “border brother”), is actually a pimp, and trafficks women on what Thoeni calls the “ag circuit”: a seasonal loop that follows agricultural workers from Salinas to Oxnard to Yuma, Ariz., and back again.
“Oftentimes what you’ll see during the agricultural season [spring through early fall] is a group of women whose handlers install them into one or two motel rooms someplace,” Thoeni says. “Then they’ll take them out in vans, wait out on the edge of the field, and roll customers in and roll them out, and then they’ll disappear.”
Smith says these are the hardest people to reach, both because of the language barrier and their fear of the police and federal immigration officials. Not only are they in a line of work illegal in California, their very presence in the U.S. is illegal.
Several years ago, members of Smith’s outreach team were able to earn the trust of one woman living with her coworkers in a Greenfield motel. She told them how the motel owner threatened her and the other women with eviction if they didn’t start paying higher rent; how their pimps told them they’d make more money if they let men have sex without condoms; how they were afraid to leave the motel because they could be beaten or even killed by their pimps or deported by law enforcement.
A nurse who’s worked at multiple hospitals in Monterey County says she’s seen victims of trafficking but feels powerless to help.
“It can be difficult to bring to a male doctor’s attention that the injuries a woman sustained are not from falling down the stairs,” says the nurse, who asked for anonymity because discussing patients violates federal privacy guidelines.
“In one case, I called adult protective services and tried to confront the male physician, but [the woman] spoke no English or Spanish, just Triqui,” she says, referring to a Oaxacan language spoken by some agricultural workers in the Salinas Valley. “She was panicked, so she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and started on meds.”
After working with an interpreter, the nurse discovered that the woman was living in a large building surrounded by guards and barbed wire fencing, and was taken out to the fields several times a day. Upon further questioning, the woman repeatedly uttered something sounding like “Nocaline.”
“I was racking my brain, trying to think what this could mean,” the nurse recalls. “Finally, I said, ‘North Carolina?’ And she nodded and said, ‘Nocaline! Nocaline!’”
From what the nurse gathered, the woman had been trafficked into North Carolina from Oaxaca, and then to California. When the nurse’s shift ended, she left notes with the doctor. When she returned to work a few days later, the woman was gone.
“They can’t articulate their situation, they don’t know if the system will protect them, and the doctor won’t buy the trafficking argument,” the nurse says. She adds that many of her colleagues have encountered similar cases, and struggle to convince the doctors who see patients for 15 minutes that they, who encounter the same patients several times over their eight-hour shift, have additional knowledge and observations that could prove useful in the patient’s diagnosis and treatment.
“They say, ‘Well, do you have proof?’” the nurse says. “And I say, ‘Well, do two and two make four?’”
In Greenfield, Smith and his Central Coast HIV/AIDS Services outreach team got one woman to act as a liaison with her fellow sex workers, passing along referrals to health care providers for exams and tips on how to sneak on a condom so a john won’t notice.
“It’s a lot of underground guerrilla work with this population,” Thoeni says. “And it can take a long time to build inroads.”
Vanek’s task force hasn’t made any trafficking arrests since its inception in 2006, the year after California enacted a law making human trafficking a felony.
The state’s law is one of the most comprehensive in the nation, addressing intra-state trafficking and assisting victims through social service agencies.
Part of the reason for the near-zero arrest count, according to Vanek, is the fact that many times traffickers are arrested for trafficking-related activities, not the trafficking itself. There have three convictions on human trafficking in Northern California since the law was enacted—two on federal charges and one on state charges—as a result of investigations by partner police departments.
The San Jose Police task force and the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking also have trained more than 11,000 health care workers, local law enforcement officers and community members to help them identify potential victims of trafficking.
His task force designed a multi-language poster with information on trafficking, including national hotline numbers and local emergency shelters, and placed them in hospital restrooms across Santa Clara County.
“It’s the one place where people won’t be followed or watched by their interpreter or captor,” Vanek says.
That’s an important step toward connecting women with the services they need not just to heal their bodies and minds, but to be treated like human beings again. “These are just people trying to survive like everybody else,” Thoeni says.
Maria stopped working for a time and stayed in Fresno with her pimp/boyfriend and their daughter, now 2. But she returned to myredbook when times got tight.
“We needed the money; we need to get stuff done,” she says. “I’ve had normal jobs, but when you can make faster money, nothing’s gonna compare to this.”