The MS-13 gang got its start among immigrants from El Salvador in the 1980s. Since then, the gang has built operations in 42 states, mostly out West and in the Northeastern United States, where members typically deal in drugs and weapons.
But in Fairfax County, Va., one of the wealthiest places in the country, authorities have brought five cases in the past year that focus on gang members who have pushed women, sometimes very young women, into prostitution.
"We all know that human trafficking is an issue around the world," says Neil MacBride, the top federal prosecutor in the area. "We hear about child brothels in Thailand and brick kilns in India, but it's something that's in our own backyard, and in the last year we've seen street gangs starting to move into sex trafficking."
In Virginia, at least, the consequences can be severe. Over the past few weeks, one member of MS-13 nicknamed "Sniper" got sent to prison for the rest of his life. Another will spend 24 years behind bars for compelling two teenage girls to sell themselves for money.
Usually, investigators say, gang members charge between $30 and $50 a visit, and the girls are forced into prostitution 10 to 15 times a day.
It's easy money for MS-13 — thousands of dollars in a weekend, with virtually no costs. Except for alcohol and drugs to try to keep the girls off-kilter.
Often, the activity takes place at construction sites, in the parking lots of convenience stores and gas stations.
"Yeah, this last case we worked, the victim was 12 years old," says John Torres, who leads the Homeland Security Investigations unit at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Washington.
He says the girl, a runaway, approached MS-13 gang members at a Halloween party. She was looking for a place to stay. Within hours, she was forced to work as a prostitute.
"You have a gang that's taking advantage of people that are in a desperate situation, usually runaways or someone that's looking for help from the gang," Torres says.
Joshua Skule, who oversees the violent crime branch of the criminal division at the FBI's field office in Washington, lists some reasons for street gangs' move into sex trafficking.
"It is not like moving, or as risky as moving narcotics. It is not as risky as extorting business owners," he says. "And these victims really have no way out."
Skule says they're like modern indentured servants. The 12-year-old girl involved in one of the recent sex trafficking cases is safe now, authorities say. But she'll be dealing with the physical and emotional scars for many years.
"When someone leaves, there's a lot of shame and guilt associated with the time they were there," says Victoria Hougham, a social worker who helps victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
"They may have physical injuries which can impact, especially for young women, their sexual and reproductive health."
Hougham works with Polaris Project, a nonprofit that runs a 24-hour hot line that helps connect victims of human trafficking with police or social services. She says survivors of that kind of abuse do best when they reconnect with their families and get support from law enforcement.
Prosecutors in Virginia say they expect to bring more sex trafficking cases against gang members over the next several months.
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