By Matt Zapotosky,
She was a month shy of her 17th birthday when the gang’s leader approached her outside a Tennessee hotel, engaging her in playful banter. But soon “Chyna,” as she would come to be known, was traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard with the gangster and his friends, having sex with strangers for cash.
At a trial in federal district court in Alexandria this month, prosecutors said Chyna was one of at least four teenagers sold as sex workers by the “Cold-blooded Cartel,” a Georgia-based gang that found Northern Virginia to be an especially lucrative territory to prostitute children. Their case, prosecutors say, is indicative of a disturbing phenomenon in the Washington area. More and more gangs are prostituting teens, finding it a bigger moneymaker than drugs or weapons.
“The profit margin, the income stream that comes from selling the bodies of children . . . is enormous,” said then-U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride in an interview before he left the post this month. “Sort of like capitalization welcomes all comers to the marketplace, criminal activity is the same way.”
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have recently handled several cases involving gang members and juvenile prostitutes. A leader of the Cold-blooded Cartel was sentenced to 25 years in prison in June, before the trial this month of two others involved in his prostitution ring. A member of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, also known as MS-13, was charged last month and accused of helping others in what prosecutors called an “underground prostitution business” involving four female runaways.
The office has prosecuted 27 defendants in gang-related trafficking cases since 2011 and at least 28 juvenile victims have been identified, authorities said.
“This is an emerging trend, and the gangs, we think, have made a horribly wrong business calculation that they can make a lot of money and get away with it,” MacBride said.
Prosecutors say that members of the Cold-blooded Cartel plied the girls with marijuana and ecstasy to make them more receptive. The gang exerted control through a combination of violence — at least one member carried a gun — and affectionate overtures. Two of the girls had tattoos of a gang leader’s nickname, “Boo.”
Prosecutors and advocacy groups say that MS-13 seems to have pioneered juvenile sex trafficking as gang business — even stepping away from traditional violence and turning to prostitution. MacBride said the endeavor is especially profitable because girls, unlike drugs, can be sold more than once, and the costs to recruit and prostitute them are minimal.
The concern, though, is that other gangs have started to follow MS-13’s lead, and they have started using more sophisticated online recruitment through social networking sites. Last year, a man affiliated with the Underground Gangster Crips was sentenced to 40 years in prison for running what prosecutors described as one of the largest underage prostitution rings in the Washington area’s history. And that apparently did not deter the Cold-blooded Cartel.
By prosecutors’ account, the group prostituted women and high school girls in at least seven states, including M