(KGTV) -- Local law enforcement arrested and cited more people for crimes related to prostitution and solicitation last year than in 2017.
10News discovered a more than 30 percent increase in total arrests and citations from the year before.
The increase comes the same year Backpage, a popular hub for solicitation and one of the biggest classified ad websites in the world, was seized by the government.
"We would sell our self basically to make money,” said trafficking victim Kayla.
At 13 years old, Kayla’s life revolved around short skirts, high heels and nights in the back of cars and motels. There were men she was forced to call "Daddy."
"If I don't have $1,500 a night, I will get abused. I will get slapped. I will get punched in my face,” Kayla said. “I had several black eyes, and I will still get told to go to work,” she said.
She asked 10News to use "Kayla" instead of her real name to protect her identity.
Kayla's story didn't start on the streets, but that is where she ended up.
Kayla said she was 7-years-old when her mom died. She stayed with family members until she ended up in the system at 13-years-old, she said.
"Dirty things happen to you in the system, in foster care, even in a group home,” she said. “I was molested; I was raped.”
Lost and confused, Kayla said she thought she found help in a friend, who appeared to be in a similar situation.
What she didn't know was that the more experienced teen was a recruiter, leading Kayla straight into sex trafficking.
"She dressed me up in a mini skirt, some high heel shoes, threw a wig on my head, and she told me that this is daddy, this is not my boyfriend,” Kayla said.
For the next decade, Kayla worked the streets across California, including El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego.
She said she moved from pimp to pimp and in and out of jail cells. She was afraid if she tried to leave the life, her pimp would kill her.
"They were putting food in my mouth they were putting a roof over my head, so I felt that I had to do what he told me to do,” she said.
Unfortunately, Kayla's story is not uncommon
"The vast majority of women who are quote-unquote in prostitution are victims of human trafficking,” said Grace Williams, founder of Children of the Immaculate Heart. “A variety of circumstances often lead them to that place. The most common cause, risk factor, for girls in the L.A. courts that have been trafficked is child neglect.”
Williams said that statistics show that trafficking is the second largest illegal industry in the world and it’s the fastest growing.
“In San Diego, 16 is the average age, which definitely means there’s kids younger than 16, so it’s really people who are not psychologically mature enough being taken advantage of,” she explained.
Williams said there has been a shift in awareness and in law enforcement she’s seen increasing momentum in cracking down on human trafficking.
“There’s a lot of legal changes happening, which means there’s more possibilities of cracking down, harsher sentences for traffickers and things like that,” Williams said.
10News asked Kayla if there’s anything she would tell her younger self.
“Run as fast as you can,” she said.
Increase in Law Enforcement Activity
“You do it, we’re going to find you. It may take us a while, but we will find you, and someone will pay a price to let others know don’t try this.” - California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
Team 10 discovered an increase in the number of combined prostitution and solicitation citations and arrests made by the San Diego Police Department.
In 2018, those numbers were up more than 30 percent.
According to numbers analyzed by 10News, police activity hot spots were in the areas of Hotel Circle South, El Cajon Boulevard, and Main Street near National City.
The increase comes the same year one of the largest Internet classified ad sites, Backpage, was shut down by law enforcement.
A spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department said they have seen an increase in street prostitution since Backpage was seized.
Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin asked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra if he sees a correlation between Backpage shutting down and people being exploited on the streets.
“It’s too early to say, but taking down the largest purveyor of sex on the internet had to have some impact. But as I said, someone is always looking for ways to make a buck off of someone else’s misery,” Becerra said. "It would not surprise me that this is just the natural phenomenon that we see. Until we get a grip on the fact that most of these young people -- and they are mostly young girls -- are from our homes, we’re going to continue to see this grow.”
Becerra called human trafficking "modern-day slavery."
The community can tackle the problem most effectively by keeping our children safer, he said.
“We’ve already taken down several sex rings; these are young kids who’ve already had their lives taken away, had their youth taken away. It’s hard to recover,” he said.
Becerra explained that recent changes to the laws allow prosecutors to go after pimps criminally.
In 2018, the California Department of Justice busted an international sex trafficking ring. Agents said the woman who was arrested is accused of trafficking young Asian females, including one from Hong Kong.
In 2017, Becerra filed 54 charges related to sex trafficking against multiple people. According to the complaint, one of the charged men is suspected of luring victims from the Central Valley and then trafficking them throughout the state. The victims, including eight minors, were sold for commercial sex throughout the Central Valley, Bay Area and Los Angeles. The charges in the case include sex trafficking, pimping, pandering, grand theft, and identity theft.
“You do it, we’re going to find you,” Becerra said. “It may take us a while, but we will find you, and someone will pay a price to let others know don’t try this.”
10News asked Becerra how officials can combat human trafficking.
“You combat it by going after the source, the pimps, and these days it’s not just pimps on the street it’s pimps over the internet,” he said. Becerra said while his office takes legal action, the first step to ending the cycle starts at home making sure young people don’t get involved.
San Diego Police
The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) would not do an interview with 10News about the increase they’ve seen in street prostitution. A spokesperson said the Vice unit relies on working in an undercover or incognito capacity, and an interview on this topic may jeopardize the unit's ability to effectively investigate local establishments engaged in this behavior.
An SDPD spokesperson said the department conducts operations where officers arrest both the people offering sex and those trying to solicit sex from others but did not know whether or not one of the other is responsible for the increase in citations.
The spokesperson said arrests generated by the Vice unit result from preplanned operations, but that does not preclude patrol from making arrests in the field when they develop probable cause.
When asked if the increase in street prostitution is more or less dangerous, the lieutenant in charge of the Vice unit told 10News that based on her experience, “anyone engaging in any kind of prostitution is risking their own personal safety.”
If you are a victim of human trafficking or know someone who is, there is help available. You can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733 for help through a 24-hour confidential help line.