San Diego County, CA

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

San Diego County occupies the territory between the Mexican border and the Los Angeles Metro region and Los Angeles County.  It is one of the largest counties in the United States, geographically, and is among the most populous with approximately 3.3 million residents. Its location as a border  County  makes it a major point of transshipment for drug trafficking and large-scale gang activity, and many of those criminal networks have diversified into human trafficking over the last two decades.  In addition to transnational human trafficking, the county has  domestic prostitution and sex trafficking problems as would any other area in the United States.

In 2001, the FBI listed the San Diego area as among the top destinations for child sex trafficking in the United States. More than 15 years later, the problem has most likely intensified, although the lack of solid tracking data makes it uncertain whether variations in any particular measure of human trafficking reflects the magnitude of the activity, or changes in enforcement and reporting practices.  Either way, the problem is substantial.  Commercial sex is estimated to be the second-largest underground economy in the city of San Diego, after the sale of drugs. According to a recent study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University on the relationship between gangs and sex trafficking in San Diego, sex trafficking grosses an estimated $810 million dollars annually in San Diego.  There have been several high-profile sex-trafficking law-enforcement operations in recent years. In 2011, a group of gang members was busted in Oceanside for running a ring. Thirty female minors were involved. In 2014, 24 gang members from the local BMS gang based out of North Park were arrested for running a ring that spanned 46 cities in 23 states. Women in their ring were branded with tattoos, bar codes, or a pimp’s name.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2020, schools were forced to close in order to abide by quarantine safety restrictions. In consequence to limited public exposure and an increase in amount of time children were spending online, FBI researchers estimated there to be a significant rise in cases of online sexual exploitation of children across the county. Research confirming the FBI’s concerns was published in May of 2020, only two months after the FBI’s initial statement in the MIT Computational Law Report, The Impact of COVID-19 on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. As a result, San Diego County took immediate action in educating the community about the severity and prevalence of sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children in San Diego County and beyond. For example, an article released in June of 2020, disclosed that reports internet crime against juveniles in San Diego County, which mostly involve sharing illicit photos of minors, have tripled since the pandemic started, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. In additional the article, the podcast, Reports Of Child Exploitation, Trafficking Increase During Pandemic, was published to reinforce the severity of the issue and increase awareness in the local community. In the fall of 2020, San Diego County released an expansive 7-part documentary series about sex trafficking and the exploitation of children in San Diego County and beyond, STOLEN. The seven-episode documentary series was the product of a year-long investigation that includes exclusive interviews and, for the first time ever, substantial proof of the scope of the problem in San Diego County schools. And as a global pandemic shifts the education system into a virtual space, experts warn of exploiters targeting children online, now more than ever before. In early January of 2021, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office released a report warning parents and teachers about the rise in online sexual exploitation of children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, “DA Warns of Online Threats Amid COVID-19-Provides Resources for Survivors of Human Trafficking.”

Among the tactics used to address these problems are those that focus on consumer level demand for commercial sex.  For example, in January 2018, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force announced the results of a second annual multi-agency operation across California to stop the sexual exploitation of young women and girls. Operation Reclaim and Rebuild took place over a three-day period last week and focused on the demand side of human trafficking and prostitution.  In San Diego County, 29 sex buyers were arrested in this web-based operation.  Decoy ads for sex were posted online offering sex for money. When the men showed up at a hotel expecting to buy a person for their own sexual gratification, they were arrested and then and charged with agreeing to engage in an act of prostitution.  Their cars were towed and their phones were taken as evidence. The prior Operation Reclaim and Rebuild in San Diego in 2017 resulted in the arrest of 22 men who were charged with solicitation for prostitution.

“This operation is a wakeup call for men who buy sex, about the damage they are doing to our young women and children, and the cycle of abuse they are promoting,” District Attorney Summer Stephan said. “The men who were arrested are from all ages and backgrounds, demonstrating the need to raise awareness that when people pay for sex, the person on the other end of the transaction is often a victim who was forced into sex trafficking as a child.”

 Operation Reclaim and Rebuild had three goals: disrupting the demand for vulnerable victims by targeting their buyers; identifying, arresting and prosecuting their captors; and identifying and recovering victims of sexual slavery and human trafficking to provide them with services.

A San Diego District Attorney community outreach campaign, The Ugly Truth, highlighted common myths about sex trafficking, and included discussion of the prevalence of men who pay for sex.  According to the CEASE Network, during the three-month campaign, demand for sex decreased.

In April, 2021 a four day reverse sting throughout San Diego County yielded the arrest of 144 men on allegations of attempting to hire undercover officers posing as prostituted persons, which is a violation of Penal Code § 647(b)(2) – Solicitation of Prostitution. The operation targeted people searching for options on social media pages for the region. The sheriff’s department and police from Chula Vista, Escondido and San Diego collaborated on “Operation Century Week” in partnership with the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force (which includes the state Department of Justice, FBI and other agencies).  The San Diego County Sherriff’s Department and the Human Trafficking Task force provided a video detailing “Operation Century Week“, where officials from the stated:

“Sex buyers drive the demand for human trafficking, which results in an increase of offenders and victims and contributes to negative consequences victims of human trafficking endure.”

In May of 2021, The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Human Trafficking Task Force (SD HTTF) conducted a demand reduction operation in the City of Encinitas targeting sex buyers and traffickers. SD HTTF arrested a total of 23 adult males for being in violation of Penal Code § 647(b)(2) – “Solicitation of Prostitution.”

Key Partners

  • San Diego County Sheriff’s Office
  • Chula Vista Police Department
  • Escondido Police Department
  • San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force
    • FBI
    • Naval Criminal Investigative Service
    • U.S. Attorney’s Office
    • U.S. Marshalls Service
    • ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego
    • California Department of Justice
    • California Department of Corrections
    • California Highway Patrol
    • San Diego County District Attorney’s Office
    • San Diego Police Department
    • San Diego Sheriff’s Department
    • San Diego Probation Department
    • San Diego City Attorney’s Office
    • National City Police Department
    • Escondido Police Department
    • Chula Vista Police Department
    • Oceanside Police Department
    • Carlsbad Police Department
  • CEASE Network
  • Demand Abolition

Key Sources

Web-Based Reverse Stings, Auto Seizure, Public Education:

Background on Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in the Area:

State California
Type County
Population 3286000
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