Days after federal authorities busted a "possible human trafficking" ring at a Saudi diplomatic compound in Virginia, state lawmakers and law enforcement officials warned that the Old Dominion is becoming a sanctuary for sex traffickers.
Nearly 80 Northern Virginia establishments have been identified as operating illicit sex rings that enslave mostly young American girls, forcing them to engage in sexual acts for money, Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) and state law enforcement officials told a crowd of some 50 concerned residents during a town hall forum Friday morning in McLean, Va.
Onlookers appeared shocked to learn most of those who are forced into the sex business are 12- to 14-year-old local girls who come mostly from well-to-do families.
"A lot of people think, ‘Well you’re in Fairfax county, [and] there’s a lot of money there, a lot of influential people. We’re in D.C.’s backyard, so human trafficking can’t exist there.’ Well it is," said Detective Bill Woolf, a Fairfax county police officer who works on the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.
There have been 21 individual sex trafficking cases encompassing 38 defendants and at least 37 juvenile victims in just the past year, Woolf said.
The forum, held at the McLean Community Center, came just two days after federal authorities launched a probe into "a possible case of modern slavery" at a highly secured diplomatic compound owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Two women were reportedly rescued from the compound by federal authorities. One of the alleged victims "tried to flee by squeezing through a gap in the front gate as it was closing," according to NBC News.
Asked by the Washington Free Beacon about the case, Woolf declined to comment on "an active investigation" and directed a reporter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is helming the investigation.
Two DHS agents "did remove two Filipino potential victims of human trafficking and the investigation has just begun," Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Brandon Montgomery told the Free Beacon Friday afternoon.
Federal authorities are "interviewing the victims and will collaborate their stories as we begin the investigation," Montgomery said. "The victims are provided assistance through [non-profits] that we work with to provide them the care and assistance they might need."
The department takes a "victim-centered approach in these types of cases and upon getting reasonable information or confirmation we would remove the individuals and begin a full investigation, not let them linger in potential abuse," Montgomery said in an email.
"As this is an active investigation, I cannot provide details of the case, however in general, many victims have valid passports and/or visas that are taken from them; they work exhaustive hours and sometimes don’t get paid what was promised or nothing at all," Montgomery said.
Saudi Arabia has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a "tier three" country with regard to human trafficking, Rep. Wolf told the Free Beacon in an interview. This means it ranks among the worst offenders with regards to combatting sex slavery.
Virginia Republican state lawmaker Barbara Comstock said it is shocking to learn young girls are being enslaved "in our own backyard."
"We didn’t realize how closely this would be in our own backyard here in McLean," Comstock told attendees at Friday’s town hall forum. "But obviously we’ve known for years human trafficking and sex trafficking have been a problem in our community."
"People come in through our airports, they’re trafficked in our hotels. Young girls are solicited in malls and dragged into this heinous crime," Comstock said. "These girls have been drugged, brought into human trafficking, and abused in just horrible ways."
Virginia is bad on sex trafficking, according to Virginia Republican state lawmaker Tim Hugo.
"Virginia has some of the weakest laws on trafficking," Hugo said, noting state legislators are just beginning to combat the issue by passing new measures. "It’s something people really didn’t think about over the years."
At least 100,000 American children are exploited "through pornography and prostitution every year," Wolf said. "Sex trafficking wasn’t just occurring in far away places but right here in Virginia."
Several Northern-Virginia-based sex rings have been broken up in just the past year, Wolf said.
"I’ve seen credible reports of nearly 80 establishments, notably massage parlors, throughout our region, not statewide," he said. "Some are in busy office parks while some are in major thoroughfares, we walk and drive by them every day."
"In March of 2012, federal prosecutors charged five local men with trafficking teenage girls into prostitution," Wolf said, explaining most were coerced by local gangs, such as the Crips, which has a strong presence in Northern Virginia.
Gang members affiliated with the Crips approached some 800 young girls along D.C. metro lines, as well as on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. There are an estimated 80-100 gangs active in the Northern Virginia area, according to a 2009 report.
"These are our neighbors, our students, their friends who are at risk," Wolf warned. "I don’t see this as a problem going away anytime soon."
Sex trafficking is attractive to gangs and other criminal groups because it is a high profit operation, according to Detective Woolf.
With just a stable of two women, criminals can make around $1,000 per night, or $180,000 a year, making sex crimes much more attractive than drug dealing, Woolf said.
"There’s a lot of money to be had in sex trafficking and a lot of demand out there," he said.
Teenage girls can be forced to see 10 to 20 men a night, "and sometimes these girls are as young as 12 or 13-years-old," Woolf said.
"They could be anyone. They could be your neighbors. They could be at your church," he said. "A lot of our victims come from middle to upper-class neighborhoods."
Most young girls willingly engage in this activity after being brainwashed by abusive men, Woolf said.
"They’re not grabbing them and forcing them into the back of a truck," he explained. "They’re at our bus stops, metro stops."