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Oakland police detain young girls during a prostitution sting on April 4, 2008, in Oakland, Calif. The police have begun to build a referral data base so the girls can receive help and services. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND — When selling crack cocaine became a tougher way to make money at the beginning of the decade because of increased police pressure, many drug dealers turned to pimping instead.

By selling young girls for sex, street hustlers were less likely to get caught. They didn't have to carry the commodity in their pocket or stash it in their homes, as they usually did with crack cocaine. They could use cell phones and laptop connections to the Internet to conduct business with customers while simply posing as boyfriends walking down the street with their girls.

"After 2000, you could convict most of these guys on drug dealing," said Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, who prosecutes human exploitation and trafficking cases. And jurors, tired of the crack cocaine deals wreaking havoc on city streets, were willing to impose stiff prison sentences.

"So the drug dealers began looking for opportunities that were more lucrative and less risky," Bock said. A 2003 report on youth prostitution in Alameda County found that the economic incentive to pimps was strong.

Pimps can earn as much as $500 a day from each girl, according to the report prepared by the Sexually Exploited Minors Network, a consortium of about a dozen law enforcement and social service agencies.

"There is increased economic incentive promoting young men to become involved in pimping," the report said.


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"The lure of what is perceived as easy money is supported by easy access to a never ending supply of runaway, AWOL and throwaway youth — youth who are highly vulnerable, who have no way to meet their basic needs of food, shelter and human connection and who are invisible to society at large."

In one case in which a suburban Contra Costa County girl was trafficked through several states by an Oakland pimp, law enforcement officials found he had become wealthy from his trade.

The court and plaintiff were able to get the convicted pimp to hand over

$40,000 — the value of his Lexus — as restitution. It was then donated by the girl's family to MISSSEY Inc., the Oakland nonprofit organization that helped find the girl and counsel her.

The pimps do not let the girls keep the money they've made.

"The girls don't see a dime of it — not a dime," Bock said. "They might see a hamburger, they might see new clothes, but they don't see a dime of the money."

But not all pimps are former drug dealers or seasoned businessmen.

A former prostitute who worked Oakland's streets until about a year ago said she's known pimps as young as 14 and some who are in their 40s. Some deal drugs while they are pimping and some do not, said the woman, 20, who said she worked the streets for about six years, starting when she was 13.

Law enforcement and other experts said two types of pimps dominate the trade.

The "tennis shoe" pimp typically walks around on foot with the young prostitute. She often considers him a boyfriend.

He may be as young as 16, 17 or 18 and may be a relative or a high school mate of the young prostitute. These younger pimps are attracted to the business by money or by the glorification of pimping in music and fashion, social service and law enforcement officials say.

"It's coming from music, parts of hip hop, you got to have this and you got to have that and you've got to be pimping," said Brian Bob, an outreach coordinator with the Covenant House youth shelter, which serves homeless youths, many of whom are prostitutes. "The images they see, today's clothing, it is geared toward sexualizing them."

The second type is what officials call the "guerrilla" pimp: the pimp who literally kidnaps girls from the streets — often from the soft-sell trade of the tennis shoe pimps. Police estimate about 20 percent of the pimps operating in Oakland are guerrilla pimps.

More startling still is a third breed of pimps officials are now seeing emerge who are family members or close associates of an exploited youth. 

"Now pimps are coming from all sort of angles, (such as when) a mother puts her child on the street to feed the family or feed the mother's drug addiction," said Bob of Covenant House. "Or they could be kids in high school."

Apprehending pimps can sometimes be difficult because many hide behind technology, or avoid being seen with the girls as they're trolling for tricks. But the pimps are always watching, experts said.

On a ride down International Boulevard with Covenant House outreach workers, the counselors showed how pimps watch their girls from a block or so away.

"The pimp is among those guys over there," outreach worker Victoria Harris said, pointing to a group of young men in a parking lot. "They hang out at the burrito stands."

Oakland police Officer Jim Saleda, who works in the special victims investigative unit, said technologically savvy pimps use community Web sites, such as Craigslist's erotic services section, to code messages and orchestrate their stable of prostitutes.

Every pimp has a laptop now, experts in child prostitution say.

"(Prostitutes) walk the streets taking calls from Craigslist, and pimps are checking up on them," Saleda said.

Pimps also buy pre-paid cell phones — which they sometimes call "ho lines" or "throwaway phones" — for their prostitutes, because they are not tied to any service contracts.

"This makes it harder for us to figure out who owns the phone," Saleda said.

Social networking sites such as Live Links and MySpace also have made for popular recruiting grounds.

Social workers and former prostitutes say the pimps dominate and control the girls, using threats, violence and manipulation to keep them by their sides.

Young prostitutes — many of them runaways from troubled homes — almost always have "an affinity" for their pimps, social workers said.

Two men charged with pimping and trafficking in two separate court hearings at Alameda County Superior Court each had drug possession convictions in their records, according to authorities.

One alleged pimp, Marcus Ivin, who was interviewed outside the courtroom after his hearing in which he was charged with soliciting with the intention of trafficking, pleaded not guilty.

He also said he didn't know why they were coming after him for pimping when his past record was drug arrests.