In a UN Refugee Agency report of unaccompanied Mexican and Central American youth seeking asylum in the United States, 48% were seeking protection from organized crime, including gangs. Of the 12-17 year old boys avoiding gang harm, 37% cited “violent forced conscription” as their fear.
When asked why children were being targeted by gangs, an author of the report, Leslie Valez, said, “We liken the situation very much to the situation of the recruitment of child soldiers on other continents. Children are particularly vulnerable, they are susceptible to harm, they are easily terrorized, and the very fact that they are children is the single factor in the harm that they are experiencing. They are specifically targeted to be recruited.”
The recruitment of child soldiers is a form of human trafficking. According to the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, “Child soldiering can be a manifestation of human trafficking where it involves the unlawful recruitment or use of children–through force, fraud, or coercion–as combatants or for labor or sexual exploitation by armed forces.”
850,000-1,000,000 gang members are in the United States. At least 35% of them are minors, and the most common age of recruitment is13 years old. So how many of them are human trafficking victims, recruited and required to commit criminal acts through force, fraud, or coercion?
Gangs sex trafficking girls and women for financial gain has been well documented.Yet is the trafficking of youth into US gangs US under-estimated or under-reported?
One 16-year-old gang-affiliated youth in California described being trapped in the gang life: “I don’t know how I can get out.” He was recruited at 14 and has been threatened and beaten by his gang leader when he avoided gang activity that would generate income for the leader. On another occasion, he was told by his gang leader to beat and rob a man. When he hesitated, he was ordered to do so at gunpoint.
This teen described his dilemma: “these gang-bangers will kill you if you leave; my partners will become my enemies.” One recruitment incentive to become part of this gang was for protection in his neighborhood, but he says he is now in even greater danger. “I’d have to go far away to get out, but I don’t have anywhere to go,” he concluded.
His circumstances and experiences are remarkably similar to those of minor girls recruited into sex trafficking. His father was an alcoholic who beat his mother and him. This father also banished him from the home for weeks at a time—at other times, he ran away to avoid violence and harm. Eventually, the father abandoned the family, exacerbating their poverty.
Most of the girls recruited into commercial sexual exploitation in the US were also abused and lived in homes with addiction, violence, and/or poverty. Abandonment, being kicked out of home, running away, and being recruited and then commercially exploited by older men when they were just 13 or 14 years old are all prevalent scenarios among sex trafficked minors.
Foster youth, especially girls, are at elevated risk to be recruited into commercial sexual exploitation. Foster youth, especially boys, are also at elevated risk to be recruited into gangs.
In the fight against human trafficking, an essential element is raising awareness about its existence and manifestations. Another step is to correct misconceptions about victimization. For example, two longstanding myths addressed by Alameda County District Attorney’s Human Exploitation Trafficking and Exploitation (H.E.A.T.) Watch Program are: “Human sex trafficking only takes place in other countries” and “Children willingly sell themselves for sex.”
To correct those myths, the program explains: “The sex trafficking of minors is an epidemic in the United States. Most victims of sex trafficking are from local communities and are school aged” and “Children that engage in commercial sex are being exploited. The average age of entry into the ‘life’ is between 12-14 years old.”
Does it not stand to reason that the trafficking of boys into gangs through force, fraud, or coercion occurs throughout the United States? With 13 years old as the common age of entry into “gang life,” is it not likely that many of those children are trafficking victims?
Countless boys and girls in the US have been trapped in sex trafficking because their victimization does not match many peoples’ perception of what slavery is. Or because of the false notion that “those kinds of things don’t happen here.”
How many boys are trapped as modern day slaves in gangs because their victimization is not properly identified, either?